Technology's next big wave
Insurance Website Builder designs sites that meet the needs of mobile and desktop users
By Nancy Doucette
As you look out over the technology horizon, not too far in the distance you can see there's a new wave of technology headed your way. It's mobile technology and the demand for mobile services is surging.
Surging? In the final quarter of 2010, consumer electronics makers shipped nearly 101 million smartphones—an 87% jump over the previous year, according to International Data Corporation, a provider of market intelligence for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets.
Combine that growth with developing trends in mobile Internet usage—the ability to access the Internet using a portable, handheld device—and agency owners should be planning for their next big Web site enhancement—mobile access. Global financial services firm Morgan Stanley predicts, "More users will likely connect to the Internet via mobile devices than desktop PCs within five years." (Google Morgan Stanley's "Mobile Internet Report" for an in-depth look at the growth of mobile.)
Another compelling observation in the Morgan Stanley report: Voice usage on smartphones is sharply lower than on mobile phones. Voice usage on cell phones averages 70%; it's 45% on an iPhone—the takeaway here being that smartphone users are more data-driven.
The blogosphere is buzzing about the mobile Internet as well. "When mobile Internet goes mainstream," comments one blogger, "it will also change the life of Web site builders. People will have to put more thought into what kind of mobile presence they want to build, as the number of mobile users increases."
Better to be proactive
Your clients aren't clamoring for mobile services, you say? It's probably best not to wait until they are. Be proactive. Provide it to them before they need it.
That's what Rick DiGiacomo, owner of Holman Insurance, did earlier this year and his timing couldn't have been better. By the time Hurricane Irene doused the Attleboro, Massachusetts region in which his agency is located, his agency Web site was mobile-enabled.
While DiGiacomo didn't initially envision that the mobile capability would play a part in his agency's disaster plan, the loss of an Internet connection for a week due to Irene made mobile access essential. "Before Hurricane Irene, I thought having a mobile Web site was a neat little toy," DiGiacomo observes. "But then again, we have never experienced a generalized power outage that lasted a week, with trees down all over the place and localized flooding. Now the mobile site is part of my disaster recovery plan.
"When people are without power, they don't have access to the Web," he points out. "But growing numbers of people have smartphones and car chargers so they're using mobile sites. That means their Internet access isn't disrupted."
He recalls that as Irene bore down on the region, he updated the agency's Web site with the phone numbers for all the carriers the agency represents in addition to contact information for disaster restoration services. The agency's voice mail message invited callers to visit the agency's Web site and also mentioned that the site was mobile capable. But when the power went off, so did the phone system. Living just down the street from the agency, DiGiacomo knew at once when his office had lost power.
"As soon as we lost power in our building, I diverted everything to my iPhone," he says. "I was getting calls left and right. I'd ask the caller if they had a smartphone and if they did I directed them to the mobile site where they could get the claims center contact numbers for the carriers. I had created a page called Hurricane Irene Claim Center. It had a list of all our carriers, the disaster restoration services, and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. If they didn't have a smartphone, I was using our mobile site to provide those numbers."
DiGiacomo goes on to explain that he had a generator on hand so the agency was "up and running in no time." But over the weekend during the critical first hours after Irene passed through, it was the mobile technology that kept DiGiacomo connected to his clients.
Mobile for all
The mobile site is one of several "new tech" features that are included with the Web site that Holman Insurance developed with the help of Insurance Website Builder, the online marketing solution from Insurance Technologies Corporation (ITC). ITC has made mobile Internet "mainstream" for all its customers, according to Laird Rixford, vice president of product development for the Texas-based vendor.
"Our system is entirely Web-based," Rixford says. "By having it on our servers, we can add new features—such as the mobile site—without having to access the agency server. We simply added it to our servers, and it became active for all our customers overnight."
That downplays the fact that building a mobile Web site entails almost as much effort as building a whole new Web site. "Instead of building one Web site, we're now building two," Rixford says. Additionally, he says, "Web site developers have to design their Web sites to match the mobile browsers as well as the tablet browsers and desktop browsers."
Mobile sites need to be touch-friendly, he emphasizes, in order for people to spend more time and view more pages. "Our technology understands what the capabilities are of the device that is visiting it," he says. "If a touch-friendly device visits, the mobile site will display. If our Web sites detect that the visitor is on a touch tablet, the site changes the dropdown menu to where you need to touch it to open it."
Rixford says ITC has been comparing customers' analytics from when they didn't have a mobile site to when they do. "Visitors viewed 64% more pages on a mobile version vs. the regular site when using a mobile device. Overall, they spent 34% more time on the mobile Web site.
"But here's the kicker," he continues. "We saw a 350% improvement in the bounce rate—when a person comes to your Web site on a mobile device, discovers it's not mobile optimized, and then immediately leaves.
"This underscores the fact that people are looking for mobile designed sites," he states.
Eye on the ball, ear to the track
As architect and designer for ITC's new technology, Rixford says he keeps an eye on the technology market and creates products that will help agencies run their businesses better. Additionally, he says, he studies the sites for GEICO, Progressive and State Farm. "They've spent millions of dollars developing their Web presence," he notes. "So if we can take some of the features that they have and bring them down market so they're available to all insurance agencies, we do."
The launching pad is Insurance Website Builder. ITC offers tiered plans and pricing (explained in detail at their Web site) making its Web site products accessible to agencies of all sizes. "Our plans are set up on a monthly basis," Rixford says, "so we have to earn an agency's business every month." He goes on to say that the monthly fee covers the domain name hosting, Web site hosting, e-mail hosting, and secure forms management on ITC's servers.
"Every Web site is custom designed," he says. "We help agents get started by offering our Screenshot Gallery at our Web site. Those templates are just starting points. Agencies can mix and match elements from the samples, include their own color schemes and logos, and place stock images where they like. We can have a new Web site up and running in seven business days…design and all."
Once the Web site is up and running, the agency can add its own content—a blog, for instance—and the site will automatically style the content based on the design that ITC has developed. "It's easier than WordPress," Rixford states. "You give your blog a title, you create the body, and then you click 'Post blog' and it's on your Web site. It also handles your feed, your tags, and the QR codes for the mobile device."
As Rick DiGiacomo mentioned earlier, he updated his agency's Web site as Hurricane Irene approached, providing a disaster preparedness checklist. "I like to do the updates when we have storms, when the office is going to be closed for a long weekend, or when something of note comes up."
Agents are focusing more on having their Web sites help them earn and retain more business, Rixford says. "They want their agencies to be more profitable. However, they don't have the time to do certain technology-related tasks. That's one reason why we recently launched our Facebook app," he notes.
When we spoke with DiGiacomo in mid-September, he said he'd been experimenting with the newly released Facebook app in his spare time. "It's smokin' hot," he reported.
"As most agents will tell you, they receive a significant amount of their business via referrals. Is there a better source of referrals on the planet than Facebook?" he asked.
DiGiacomo says one of his early Facebook efforts is going to be creation of an ad that targets people on their 23rd birthday. "In Massachusetts, we rate auto insurance based on years of driving experience," he explains. "After six years of driving experience, rates drop dramatically. So by the time someone is 23, chances are, they've had their license for six years. The ad will say something like: 'Give yourself a birthday present. Contact us to see how much you can save on your car insurance.'"
He says he will be able to target the friends of Holman Insurance "fans"—current customers who "like" the agency on Facebook—who are in that age group. "Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook's founder—understood that people like what their friends like," DiGiacomo says.
Rixford maintains that most agencies don't have the time to manage their Facebook presence themselves. To remedy that, he says ITC has tied in a Facebook app that pulls all the settings from the agency's Web site to create a mini Web site on Facebook for them. "So whenever the agency changes its Web site, that change will be noted on their mobile site and their Facebook site—all at once."
"People are able to stay in Facebook to get a quote," DiGiacomo points out. "All they have to do is click on 'Get a Quote,' and all our quote forms come up. Once people are in Facebook, they don't want to leave. With the app that ITC has developed, they don't have to."
Facebook's statistics indicate that out of the more than 800 million active Facebook users, there are more than 350 million users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices. Combine that with Rixford's prediction that by the end of 2011, 50% of people will have smartphones, and you've got yourself a technology wave. Better wax up your board and get ready to ride that wave.
For more information:
Insurance Website Builder from Insurance Technologies Corporation
Web site: www.insurancewebsitebuilder.com
Holman Insurance Agency, Inc.
Web site: www.holmaninsurance.com
Mobile Web site: www.holmaninsurance.com/m