Let’s face facts. It’s unlikely that any individual independent agency will ever “beat” the direct writers. They have massive marketing budgets, a strong online presence, great name recognition, and enjoy a reputation for being low in cost.
Still, you can compete against direct writers on an account-by-account basis. Sometimes, you’ll write the business, other times you won’t. But if you don’t make a continuous effort, you’ll never win and that’s the death knoll for the independents in personal lines.
The path to successfully compete with the direct writers requires a basic understanding of their marketing prowess, including when to emulate it and when to differentiate from it. This watchful eye is important as the nation’s largest direct insurers know what garners attention for their brand of coverage. It’s what makes their names household words. No, it’s not just their massive marketing budgets; it’s also what they spend it on. How they invest their millions is seldom constant, as marketing by its nature is fluid; it changes with the times.
Today, the direct writers draw upon entertainment themes in their promotions, with a focus on silliness. It’s a smart move as humor is the great equalizer. The wealthy, middle class, and working class insurance buyers all love to laugh. It’s why GEICO employs squealing pigs, people living under rocks, the Gecko at conventions, and more. It’s why Allstate manipulates mayhem. And it’s why State Farm has its insureds singing the “good neighbor” jingle to instantly summon their agent.
The lesson to independents is to be creative and entertaining when marketing personal lines. Advertising that you sell “all forms of insurance” and displaying a list of policy types is no longer viable.
Creative promotional approaches for independents include imaginary resources such as amusing insurance advice columns, humorous coverage knowledge quizzes, transcripts of imaginary conversations, “fake” blogs, and more. Use multiple channels to promote your efforts, including both digital and traditional marketing. Activate these ideas, and others, to attract the attention of today’s entertainment driven insurance buyer.
Develop Your Web site
In addition to entertaining consumers through their advertising, direct writers utilize the Internet in all its iterations to develop a continuous flow of leads, to deliver quotes, to close sales, and to perform various service functions. This includes the posting of robust Web sites and the persistent use of social media. Independent agencies that don’t emulate affordable aspects of these proven practices are fated to be hurt by them. A contemporary, dynamic Web presence and the imaginative use of Facebook and Twitter are well within the budget of every survival-minded independent.
The place to start is at your agency Web site. It is the nucleus of your digital presence, so evaluate it objectively. Does it look outdated, contain obsolete graphics, text, and links? Is it enticingly promoted and interactive? Does it offer quotes and at least basic client service functions? Does it offer information packed landing pages with easy to type URLs for targeted prospects to instantly access? The wrong answers to these basic questions means that you need to upgrade your Web site and keep it current. There are tons of vendors out there who will do the job for you if you can’t do it in house.
The three social media biggies: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, along with traditional media (direct mail, inserts, print ads, etc.), can all drive people to your site, but it has to be worth the visit, or your promotional expenditures are for naught.
To drive Web visits, and to attract a following, your social media involvement requires a steady feed of interesting insurance-related content. For instance, to compete against the direct writers and their skilled marketing staff, you can’t just open a few free social media accounts and forget about them. Nor, can you just make random postings and retweet, or otherwise link to, the work of others. Instead, you must develop your own social messaging voice.
Some insurance agents worry about their postings being too commercial. Don’t be overly concerned. People who voluntarily connect to an insurance agency expect insurance-related information to be posted. So, freely develop multiple campaign themes and use the top social sites to promote them.
Twitter example: Plant doubt in the minds of your prospects by beginning each tweet with the phrase “When was the last time your family insurance agent…” Then complete it with a positive action that you do but they probably don’t.
Sample tweets: “When was the last time your family insurance agent contacted you? And bills don’t count. We stay in touch. [URL].” And “When was the last time your family insurance agent gave you any money-saving tips? We send them regularly. [URL].” Include the URL of a tie-in landing page on your site (with a fill-in Web form) to convert the person’s doubt into a viable lead.
Facebook example: Attach a series of mini-posters (converted into an online graphic file and placed in a photo album) to your wall, each with the headline… “Bet you thought this was covered…” For instance, display a dramatic image of a flooded home and note that it’s not covered under a common homeowners policy. Present a solution. In this case, it’s a separate flood policy.
Pricing is unmistakably important to all consumers. It’s why the direct writers focus their policy promotions on this central issue. They prominently display various three-figure dollar amounts as typical savings. You too can use price as a hook. Just don’t get lost in the “you can save up to $XXX” shuffle. Instead, dazzle your prospects with the variety of discounts that you offer. Most people don’t realize that they can reduce their premiums through certain actions and forbearances, other than the obvious ones (no accidents, tickets, homeowners claims, etc.). Hook shoppers by distributing lists of the discounts that you commonly provide (one list per policy type). Then invite buyers to check off each insurance discount they believe they’re due and to return the list to you. An interested and informed prospect is often more salable than someone who responds to a savings promotion that cites a specific dollar figure. It’s because if you can’t approximate that number for the person, the sale is tougher to close.
Personal lines discount checklists can be distributed in myriad ways, including as inserts, direct mail pieces, and online. You can easily create versions for auto, home, and watercraft policies.
Promotional ideas: Attract price conscious consumers by placing auto insurance checklist inserts into your local shopping news or penny saver. Insert homeowners checklists into homebuyers’ guides to attract future property owners before they close on a new house. Boating and marina newspapers are well suited for your watercraft checklists. Inserts are less expensive than direct mail and can be targeted to selected areas. Also, distribute the pages at auto, boat, and home shows, fairs, and craft events or just hand deliver them to parked cars, homes, and docks (local laws permitting). Also, mail teaser postcards to prospects to visit your Web site and download the desired discount checklist as a PDF or to complete it online. Socially speaking, tweet discount teasers via Twitter and attach images of the checklist, and links to it, on your Facebook wall.
Create your Future
Personal insurance marketing is in a state of transition. The production skill set of the 20th century is evolving to attract the post-baby boomer generations. Virtually all young insurance buyers use the Web to conduct research, yet many still buy from independents. So, make absolutely certain that your Web site is, and remains, contemporary in appearance and functionality. Use social media to promote and to dialogue with everyone, especially the Gen X and Gen Y buyers. Don’t try to be cool with them; just provide timely information and helpful answers. These basic online actions help keep you in tomorrow’s game. Still, don’t neglect today. There are some 77 million baby boomers still kicking (not to mention the tens of millions of folks aged 65 and older) most of who buy insurance. They too use the Web to research major purchases, but you can also reach them with traditional marketing methods as well, including systematic direct mail, inserts, and advertising. GEICO uses such offline marketing to reach beyond the young, and so should you.
Bottom line: Independent agents will continue selling personal lines as long as quality regional companies and national carriers remain dedicated to the channel. But to do so, they need their agents to continuously invest in new producers, new technologies — and most importantly to unceasingly employ creative ideas. Without such approaches to marketing, selling, and retaining policies, independent agents are doomed to live off declining renewal bases, sporadic referrals, and other incidental new sales. A long-term lack of creativity makes it extremely difficult to compete against imaginative direct writers for mainstream personal lines business and puts the entire independent agency distribution system into question.
Shulman, CPCU, is the publisher of Agency Ideas, a subscription-only sales and marketing newsletter. He writes a monthly column, “Growing Your Property Casualty Agency,” for Insurance Journal magazine. He is also the author of the many tools posted on the Agency Ideas Instant Download Store. Phone: 800-724-1435. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.agencyideas.com.
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