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2nd Annual

Astonish Results e-Marketing Agency of the Year candidates

Each month this year, a story at The Rough Notes Company Web site ( has profiled an agency using the Astonish Results digital marketing system. Reviews of these agencies, known as the "e-Marketing Agencies of the Month," appear on the following pages. One of these firms will be named "Astonish Results e-Marketing Agency of the Year." That agency's profile will appear in the January 2012 print edition of Rough Notes magazine.


Partee Insurance Associates

Covina, CA

"Every few years, you have to reinvent yourself," says Wayne Partee, CIC, CWCA, president and CEO of Partee Insurance Associates. The agency's most recent reinvention, a move into digital marketing, occurred in partnership with Astonish Results.

As part of its digital marketing initiative, the agency uses the Internet to identify, contact, and solicit prospects and write business in new market niches. To expand its niche focus, employees are on the phone, getting e-mail addresses to support various marketing campaigns. "We're extending our reach into existing segments and capitalizing on digital marketing opportunities for others we'd like to build," Partee says.

In addition to e-mail-based niche marketing, the agency found digital success through search engine optimization (SEO) and other traffic-generating activities. "We are getting greater exposure on Google with pay-per-click and organically," Partee notes. "We've really seen an increase in online visibility. Best of all, we're getting more calls." Facebook, Twitter and agency blogs all feed the increase.

Besides increased niche business, the agency is also finding other new buyers. "People are finding us who otherwise never would have," he says. "I consider that to be a very good thing."

Partee says sales are up, and money the agency makes just from its new niche focus more than pays for its digital marketing initiatives. Opportunities for continued growth abound, he adds. "The more I get into it, and the more I learn about what electronic marketing and the Internet have to offer, the more excited I get."


Clinard Insurance Group

Winston-Salem, NC

Deep down, Clinard Insurance Group principal Wake Clinard is a marketing guy—one who happens to run a growing, successful insurance business. "Marketing is fun," he says. "We have a lot of flexibility to market products, especially as independent agents. It's still the Wild West out there." In 2007 the agency added e-marketing to its arsenal, collaborating with Astonish Results to broaden its reach among Internet insurance shoppers.

The agency's model is simple: "I make the phone ring, and our CSRs quote and close the sale," Clinard says. Digital tools used to generate calls include a highly successful monthly e-zine, an e-mail birthday card program featuring agency employees around a sign with a customizable client message, Facebook, keyword-rich blogging, and a robust Partners program for commercial clients.

To augment these techniques, the agency uses pay-per-click advertising to increase visibility. "What is really helpful with that is the ability to filter results," Clinard explains. "Our ads appear only to people searching in the locations we serve."

The agency recently ran an integrated campaign using a list it got from a state agency that oversees regulatory compliance. "As a result, we were able to write 65 bonds in about two months," Clinard notes.

"The digital marketplace is very much in its infancy right now," he says. "So we're always looking at what's working, studying it, and trying to understand it. It changes so fast that it's hard to do that, but it's important."


Tim Shaw Insurance Group

Fort Myers, FL

Since 1996, Tim Shaw Insurance Group has had a Web site. "When people called for a quote, we'd send them there to complete a form," says principal Tim Shaw, CIC. The agency's Web presence helped feed online organic search prominence. Search success continues. To enhance the agency's digital marketing efforts, in 2008 Shaw contracted with Astonish Results and, among other initiatives, started managing leads through its customer relationship management system.

The agency developed e-mail marketing campaigns based on several prospect and client statuses. It back-loaded quoted-but-not-sold prospects from the previous year, which "let us instantly hit 'ex-date' prospects each month," Shaw notes. The database keeps growing, and response rates improve each year. Non-buyers "get several contacts from us—probably more than they're getting from the agent they went with," Shaw adds.

Employee buy-in came when Shaw described the system as "an employee doing nothing but contacting customers continuously—and not missing any." To manage workloads, the agency still uses e-forms. With permission, employees send a link to a form that prospects can fill out. "I explain that this is the fastest way to do it," Shaw notes. People who are comfortable shopping online accept the request—and 99% complete the form. The agency recently expanded the process to commercial lines.

Digital efforts are working. "Profits are up this year," Shaw says. "Thanks to the steady stream of leads—and our ability to connect with prospects and customers regularly—my personal lines business has been up 10% or 15% every year, even through the foreclosure market."


Gannon Associates

Athens, PA

Local Gannon Associates offices in more than a dozen Pennsylvania and New York communities are supported by a service center that frees branch employees to sell more business. Through a relationship with Astonish Results, in 2009 the agency started e-marketing to build on the agency's "local presence, centralized service" strategy. "It feeds the pipeline of our local producers and supports their sales efforts," explains CEO Mark Gannon.

E-mail marketing is an important part of this support. The agency analyzed sales cycles for different business lines and reduced a 35-step sales process to a smaller number of manageable parts; Gannon now uses e-mail to help convert leads to appointments, communicate before and after sales calls, and deliver ongoing messaging.

Gannon Associates drives traffic to its interactive Web site through social media-including Facebook and YouTube—and a blog about insurance and community events. The agency knows what drives traffic, thanks to the expertise employees gained in search engine functionality and analytics with Google Analytics training. The agency shares this knowledge with commercial insureds through digital marketing seminars and one-on-one consultations.

E-marketing also supports an agency program for dairy cooperative members. The agency targets and interacts with co-op members in the way they prefer—electronically. Farmers have invested heavily in technology to support their own operations and, agency leaders have found, digital marketing fits quite well in this environment.

The efforts are paying off in more leads, higher close ratios, greater community engagement, stronger client relationships, better retention and more structure in the sales process.


Berrier Insurance Agency

Auburn, CA

"Technology and the Web are a trucker's lifeline to everybody," explains Lisa Sherer, owner and president of Berrier Insurance Agency, which serves trucking-related businesses. "When they pull off the road, they're getting on Facebook and tweeting about where they're going and what they're doing." This helps explain Berrier's success with the digital marketing strategy it implemented in conjunction with Astonish Results.

Running the e-marketing program requires significant time and effort. "You can't just expect to turn a switch and everything magically changes or improves," Sherer says. Before launch, the agency developed its digital marketing direction, firmed up its messages, and built the infrastructure for future growth and success.

Then it deployed the tools. Facebook, in particular, serves as a networking hub. "Truckers have a really tight-knit community on Facebook," Sherer explains. Berrier Insurance is an active part of that community through a business page, where it engages truckers on a range of topics, and through Sherer's personal/business page, which lets the agency connect as a "friend."

Producers engage on Facebook and in agency blogs. "It is important for them to get connected through social networking," Sherer says. "We have written some good accounts as a result of connections we've made on Facebook." In fact, the agency found its strongest digital marketing allies in its staff. "Our people understand what kind of agency we are," she explains. "They understand the world is changing and we need to be able to respond to a changing marketplace."


Gillman Insurance Group

Alpharetta, GA

Gillman Insurance Group's goal is to help clients reach theirs, says founder and president Ed Gillman, AAI. "We want to be viewed as problem solvers." The agency teamed with Astonish Results to share this message and philosophy broadly through digital marketing.

Employees value the move. "There's a new level of excitement and renewed energy," Gillman remarks. "People come to work realizing they can actually have a good time doing this. We can all make more money."

Social media and other online activities create buzz and increase agency search engine optimization rankings, which drives more leads. "Competitors are buying leads," Gillman says. "We don't need to do that." The agency closes at least two-thirds of qualified leads, sometimes more. "You need the right people in place to convert the leads to sales," he asserts. "If you don't, nothing else really matters." Prospects who don't buy right away are managed through a comprehensive e-mail marketing program.

First-half 2011 results put the agency 20% ahead of 2010. "It has given us terrific new business numbers to start this year," Gillman says. For the first three months of 2011, the agency wrote more than $400,000 in new business. "And that's big, considering we are a small commercial and personal lines shop," Gillman notes.

"What drove improved results was the culture change the new partnership brought about," he explains. "We make it clear that we are here as a sales organization."


Patrons Insurance Agency

Largo, FL

In 2008, Florida's construction downturn and hyper-competitive personal lines market took a toll on Patrons Insurance Agency. "We were stagnant," says Tim McGuire, who with his wife Dawn co-leads the agency. "We were actually going backwards."

Things changed after they tapped Astonish Results to implement a digital marketing program to support the agency's core principles. A new Facebook page, for instance, extends Patrons' community focus online. "We have strong roots in our communities," Dawn notes. "We interact with clients and others online just as we do in person."

A successful digital cross-selling campaign produced results, too. "It didn't make sense to buy leads if we had opportunities right in our own client base," Dawn explains. Other e-mail campaigns–including one about wind mitigation credits available to property owners who make certain structural changes—boosted calls and sales, too.

The agency's Partners page, which showcases commercial insureds to Web visitors, found success as it rode the recent Groupon wave. "It's become a real draw," Tim says.

The agency bolstered its sales focus by aligning employee skills and responsibilities. "When we unleashed our salespeople, good things really started to happen," Dawn says. Employees cite the agency's increased focus on sales among its greatest digital marketing successes.

Efforts are paying off. "We saw a 300% jump in new business the first year," Tim says. "This year was even better—302%. "Our close ratio is up," Dawn adds. "By focusing on accounts and not policies, retention is way up, too."


Charlotte Insurance

Charlotte, NC

In the 1980s, high-school classmates Sean Hertel and Marty Karriker created a business plan to start an independent agency. A quarter-century later, they own an agency that has enjoyed a solid Web presence for more than a decade. As successful as their initial online ventures were, the principals knew they needed a broader digital approach and a stronger sales culture. According to Karriker, president and CEO, the ability to drive frequent communication with customers and prospects is one reason the agency gravitated to Astonish Results.

Employees welcomed the change. "They realized that competition was changing," explains Hertel, agency co-founder and vice president. "They understood how partnering with Astonish would help us use the Internet and technology to have a huge presence in Charlotte."

To drive more traffic to a newly redesigned Web site, the agency implemented a comprehensive social media strategy. "When we do a blog, it hits Facebook and Twitter," Karriker says. The quantity and quality of Internet leads improved, and producers became passionate about responding quickly to new leads. Employee cross-selling success has boosted the average policy per client count from 1.5 to 2.5.

Hertel says relationships are still key. "Even though we might capture a lead using information technology, we keep our customers based on relationship. We are as happy to deal with someone via e-mail as we are having them walk in and sit down across the desk with us to talk about their insurance."


Downey Insurance Group

Marlboro, MA; Brattleboro, VT; and Keene, NH

Downey Insurance thrives in large part because of its open-arms approach to doing business. "If somebody needs insurance, no matter what the product is, we can help them," says owner Charlie Downey. "We're all about relationships—whether they are with current clients or future ones."

The agency tapped Astonish Results to help create a digital approach to take client focus to another level. "Digital marketing gives us a whole new tool set to work with as we build and strengthen relationships," Downey explains.

The agency built a presence on Facebook and gave staff members "corporate/personal" Facebook pages. "They're communicating with their friends and clients all in one place, and it directs people back to our corporate Facebook page," Downey notes. Twitter and blogging are also important elements in the agency's social media focus.

To engage employees, Downey Insurance holds contests and rewards employees for activities that drive growth. The result, Downey says, is that employees are building stronger relationships with clients, and in the process they're being compensated for it. The agency also integrated the Astonish system with its Vertafore management system.

Today, 11% of the agency's new business comes from social media marketing. "That's 11% we didn't have 18 months ago, and those are Internet buyers who would have gone somewhere else," Downey asserts. Client focus supported by electronic tools is also fueling growth, in the form of account rounding and referrals. "Sixty-two percent of our new business comes from current clients and referrals," he explains.


Insurance Company of Florida

Wesley Chapel, FL

Not long after its founding in 2008, Insurance Company of Florida realized it was missing opportunities to grow more quickly. "Everyone was focused on sales, but we weren't as efficient as we could be," says agency president Ryan Phillips.

The agency worked with Astonish Results to build out its digital marketing capabilities, bolster its sales culture and boost efficiency. Getting staff geared up for the transition was easy. "They knew where the business was moving; that more and more people were shopping online," says Charlie Hernandez, office manager.

While the agency engages customers and prospects using social media and social networking, Phillips says the combination of culture and clicks drives success. "E-mail and social media are great tools, but you don't rely on them," he notes.

The agency combines the efficiencies of technology with the opportunity to meet with producers face to face. "Too many people assume clients or insureds don't want to talk with someone because they're online," Phillips says. "That's absolutely wrong. The opposite is true. People may be looking online, but they're looking online for someone they can trust, someone they can relate to."

The changes are working. The agency experienced a 300% year-over-year increase in business and continues to grow, not only in personal lines but also in commercial, which is a relatively new market. According to Phillips, "If you maximize the tools and have a good agency culture, customers will find you and, more important, they'll want to stay with you."


Merrimack Valley Insurance Agency

Billerica, MA

After auto rating changes took effect in Massachusetts, Merrimack Valley Insurance—and every other independent agency in the Commonwealth—faced increased competition. With direct writers pointing buyers to the Web, "We needed to get more heavily involved in online marketing to level the playing field," explains Tony Lucacio, CIC, agency principal.

The agency tapped Astonish Results to help rework internal procedures, bolster sales training and monitoring, and launch an integrated digital marketing campaign. A new agency Web site engaged visitors with coverage and service information, along with contests, social media feeds and a strong call to action. "Our number one source of new business is the Internet," Lucacio says. "By being able to get more leads, we are keeping our pipeline full."

The agency also focuses on rounding existing accounts. After consecutive years of premium declines, the agency is growing. "This year, we will have an increase in written premiums of at least 10%," Lucacio says.

The digital marketing strategy has helped drive a focus shift within the agency. "It wasn't all that long ago that producers-particularly personal lines producers—were order takers," Lucacio comments. Today the agency benefits from a strong sales focus. "Since we started with Astonish, our close ratio is up 12 points," he notes. "In such a competitive environment, that's huge.

"The guy who bats first gets more chances to swing than the one who bats ninth," Lucacio says. "We're definitely getting more swings by being out front. And we're getting more hits, too!"


Mitchell & Mitchell Insurance Agency

Novato, CA

For fifty-some years, Mitchell & Mitchell wrote professional liability and related products for a few market segments. In 2009 the agency bought three agencies around the state to expand its markets. At the same time, it wanted to engage prospects who were online—and maybe searching for insurance—during non-business hours when the agency was closed. "We needed to get people to connect with us around the clock," says agency principal Gary Mitchell.

Enter Astonish Results. A Web site overhaul and search engine optimization led to more calls—some from professionals beyond the agency's Western states market area, which Mitchell views as a testament to the site's search-friendliness. "New business from people calling us out of the blue-people who aren't clients—is up 20 to 25%," he says.

The agency complemented traditional marketing with e-mail blasts, a new social media presence and more, working with Astonish to deliver focused sales training and monitoring for standard commercial and personal lines staff at all locations. These operations nearly doubled new business sales in a matter of months.

Taking a digital approach to marketing and building a strong sales culture has inspired the agency's principals to expand their horizons. "It's gotten us to think about things we'd not thought of before," says partner Paul Morris. "Before, we were very narrow in our scope. That's all changed." Adds Mitchell, "It's amazing how fast the technology evolves. As an industry, we need to change along with it."


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