Astonish Results e-Marketing
Agency of the Year candidates
Each month this year, an article at The Rough Notes Company Web site (www.roughnotes.com) 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 2013 print edition of Rough Notes magazine.
Riverside, City of Industry and Fillmore, California
Since 1958, Insurance Incorporated has grown from being a downtown-Los Angeles workers comp specialty agency to a multi-site operation with statewide reach. President Tim Dean, CISR, who joined in 1985 as a receptionist, and Vice President and Partner Nowel Milik, CISR, who signed on in the mid-1990s as a file clerk, bought the agency in the early 2000s.
The principals focused on marketing from the start. Before long, digital marketing entered the mix. "We knew if we weren't on the front end of marketing online . . . we would get left behind and revenue would go flat," Dean says. Employees were on board from the start. "They knew it's what we needed to do," he adds.
The agency uses a mix of social networking and e-mail marketing to boost visibility, drive traffic to its Web site, and expand its markets. Plus, each producer selected a niche and is working with marketing partner Astonish Results to identify and reach targeted prospects electronically. "Before digital marketing, leads would drip in," Dean explains. "Now producers say they can't handle any more."
The agency has enjoyed 10%-plus annual growth. "In a tough environment, with a soft market and hard economy, we're pretty happy about that," Milik notes. Dean adds, "Digital marketing has really changed our agency. Customers are comfortable online. We need to be, too. Agents who aren't doing digital marketing—those who are just relying on referrals or walk-in business—will be left behind."
The Welch Group
New Port Richey and Palm Coast, Florida
Ten years ago, The Welch Group didn't exist. Today's it's a multi-million-dollar agency with offices on both Florida coasts. Five years ago, agency Principal Matthew Welch and his wife, Jennifer, didn't even know how to send text messages. Today, the agency is growing, thanks to a focused digital marketing strategy it implemented with Astonish Results.
A few years ago, agency management realized they were at a crossroads. "Agents much older than we were losing business—they were bleeding—and had no plans to change," Welch says. "We realized the results of our traditional marketing wouldn't take us where we needed to be in 10 or 15 years."
So they went digital. "We went from not being able to text to having an online presence, engaging people using social media, maintaining multiple blogs, and creating videos for the agency, our commercial partners and the community," he explains.
Today, producers respond to leads immediately, incorporating personal video in their prospect e-mails. The agency also creates educational videos that appear, among other places, on a community Web site it runs.
Policy retention is up six points—10 points with one carrier. Agency sales increased 24% last year, topping its previous best year, and the agency now has clients in every county in the state.
"Employees realize the move has led to greater stability and a brighter future," Welch notes. Even carrier marketing reps are taking note. "They see our numbers and want to know what we're doing differently," he adds.
Barber Insurance Agency
Santa Rosa, California
For decades, Barber Insurance Agency enjoyed sales success and strong growth in its target markets. But, as the economy faltered a few years ago, the agency felt the pinch. "Sales were off and profit margins had diminished," explains Cheryl Fessenden, a partner at the family-run agency.
She tried some fixes but wasn't satisfied with the results. "I eventually realized I couldn't do it all on my own," Fessenden explains. "I needed a hub," which she found in digital marketing partner Astonish Results.
They built an interactive Web site to generate prospects, bolstered office operations, and then focused on cross-selling. Agency staff sold more than 100 new policies just to people who called in for routine transactions, like ZIP code changes or payments.
The agency tapped social media to engage community, and even created a stand-alone Facebook page for agency mascot "Sir Duke of Barber," a boxer that comes to the office every day. Using social media, the agency runs contests, promotes charities, shares information and, most important, boosts visibility and awareness.
Constant reinforcement is key. "In weekly employee meetings, we share success stories and focus on goals and accomplishments," Fessenden explains. "If we miss a meeting, numbers drop." Employees are engaged because they understand agency goals. "They're inspired," she adds.
"We've made amazing progress," Fessenden notes. "We have a growing, moving community of people. Revenue is up, and our people are making more money in their paychecks—every one of them. Best of all, we're having a good time."
W.J. Wheeler Insurance Agency
South Paris and Bethel, Maine
When Michael Newsom, CIC, took over as president of W.J. Wheeler Insurance Agency, which has been in his family since 1864, he realized the agency wasn't doing enough to stand out. "We needed to become a world class agency," he says, "so we looked at how we were doing things."
The agency developed a teamwork culture and focused on growth. "We started doing a little on Constant Contact and Facebook," he says, "but I didn't like our scattershot approach." So he got help from Astonish Results. "They identified things we needed to be successful," he recalls, "like 'build a sales culture,' 'see opportunity everywhere,' 'build a community online and offline,' and 'engage with people.'"
The agency did it all. Out of the gate, Newsom started blogging five times a week. Before long, he hired a marketing specialist to handle blogs, social media, e-mail marketing, search engine optimization and more—all aimed at driving prospects to the agency's Web site.
The agency changed how it qualified and responded to leads. It bolstered relationships with commercial insureds—offering one-on-one marketing advice and featuring them on the agency Web site. It also started promoting local nonprofits on Facebook.
The work has paid off. "We've seen new business come in the door and we've retained more business," Newsom says. "Plus, we have a forum for engaging people and being part of their everyday lives. Best of all, we're realizing we can be a world class agency—and we're seeing evidence that we are one."
Hartselle and Madison, Alabama
In 1991, the family-run agency Jim Peck's grandfather bought from a bank 80 years ago merged with an agency owned by Jim's long-time friend, Art Glasgow. For two decades, they enjoyed consistent growth—through acquisition and by boots-on-the-ground hard work. The agency's strong sales culture and marketing expertise helped it prosper.
As customer shopping habits changed, though, traditional marketing and advertising produced less. To serve its broad customer base—from those without a computer to those what want to do everything online—the agency worked with Astonish Results to leverage technology and meet customers where they were.
They trained staff and implemented social media to drive prospects to an enhanced agency Web site. They bolstered organic online search, attracted prospects and sold more insurance. Staff saw the power of the Internet and became more comfortable dealing in a digital world.
Before long, the agency was seeing 8-10 more new business apps per month. "We started transforming from a great service agency that sold insurance into a great sales agency that provides great service," Glasgow notes. New business apps from digital marketing quadrupled to 8-10 a week.
In early 2012, new business premiums grew by 54% over the previous year, with the agency's largest digital marketing-sourced commercial account generating $55,000-plus in premium.
Even with digital, the agency never abandoned its roots. "Our clients include families that don't own computers, heads of computer services for major corporations, and everyone in between," says Glasgow, "and we're here to serve them all."
Preferred Insurance Center
"We're as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get in Ohio," says Dan Muhlenkamp, a partner at Preferred Insurance Center. He also calls his locale "God's country."
A self-taught tech guy, Muhlenkamp was comfortable using digital marketing to help drive growth. "I had a long way to go until retirement," he explains, "and things needed to change. I wanted our agency to be more than an also-ran."
He brought on Astonish Results to help move agency sales and marketing efforts forward. The agency ended up with a new Web site, better search engine results, a robust social media presence, new workflows and tools to convert leads to sales, a more disciplined e-mail marketing program, and a whole lot more.
He also got results. This year, new policies nearly doubled and cancellations dropped by 40%. "One of our agency goals is to grow rapidly enough to bring more people into what is an absolutely fantastic, upbeat place to work," Muhlenkamp explains. That happened, as the agency recently added two new employees—something it hasn't done in decades.
The agency even leveraged the Web to support the community. An agency promotion, Quotes4Causes.com, raises money for charitable organizations based on insurance quote requests, and a flock of 300 or so pink flamingos, promoted via Facebook, drives even more contributions.
Muhlenkamp is excited about the changes. "There's nothing like winning to generate great attitudes," he explains. "We're seeing a future that can be a lot of fun."
Lloyd Pro Group
Jim Lloyd, president of Lloyd Pro Group, knows the public is changing. "Modern consumers—and especially our younger clientele—are accustomed to shopping online and researching products and services on the Web before they buy," he says. This realization helped point him to digital marketing to help the agency grow.
Lloyd had implemented a number of e-marketing tactics on his own. "But I was going in 1,000 directions, doing 1,000 different things," he recalls, and none were producing acceptable results. He partnered with Astonish Results to help bring focus, and together they built a revamped Web site, strong Twitter and Facebook followings, a LinkedIn presence to help commercial producers, an agency blog and more.
The agency separated sales and service functions, to let employees focus on what they do best. It worked with Astonish to help staff members overcome obstacles that prevented them from meeting their goals. And then agency management tracked performance and monitored interactions to support better employee coaching and to recognize successes.
The work is paying off. "We're appearing on the first page of searches for residential, auto and commercial insurance in our area," Lloyd explains. More important, business—which was on the decline for a couple of years—has rebounded, and sales are up 15 % or more.
Lloyd is pleased with the results and excited about the future. "I'm loving the challenges, the things I'm learning, the ability to reach and serve more customers and, of course, the growth," he says.
John Andrade Insurance Agency
Bristol and Warren, Rhode Island
Mark Matrone, CIC, principal of John Andrade Insurance Agency, and his wife became third-generation agency owners in the late 1990s and saw agency premium nearly double in less than 10 years. Then, like most agencies, they hit a lull.
Amid the economic downturn, Matrone started shifting his marketing emphasis. "I thought about how I buy things," he says, "and knew we needed a program built around a strong Internet presence." He signed on with Astonish Results to let the agency, as he says, "go fishing where the fish are—online."
Employees bought in quickly. "They had sensed the lack of phone calls and the new business drop-off," he recalls. "It sold itself." The agency launched a new Web site, implemented targeted e-mail marketing campaigns, and dove into social media, including employee-generated YouTube videos. "These show we're having fun and want to share the fun with clients and prospects," Matrone notes.
The marketing shift fit well with the agency's generation-based marketing strategy. "I've worked to hire producers all along the age spectrum," Matrone notes, "because people often are more comfortable buying from someone their own age." Communication and networking differ by generation, too. "Younger people aren't comfortable cold-calling, but they network really well on Facebook and with other digital tools," he says.
The work is producing results. Policies-in-force, premium and customer counts are up. "People are selling more, so they're making more money," Matrone adds. "And as the economy improves, we're in a great position to capitalize on the turnaround."
Insurance Brokers West, Inc.
Daniel Groff, president and CEO of Insurance Brokers West, loves being an agency owner—something he's been since he entered the insurance business seven years ago and bought his father-in-law's share of a business. He loves helping people find better coverage and finds the commercial side of the business to be particularly fascinating.
Not long after getting into the business, he ventured out on his own, and his new agency enjoyed considerable growth. "But I knew we could do better," Groff notes. That "better" came through a digital marketing program launched with Astonish Results. "We didn't just get a digital marketing system," he notes. "We got a new culture built around reaching and serving customers and prospects in the way they want."
The agency launched a new Web site, changed internal workflows, and placed special emphasis on tracking data. It implemented a comprehensive drip marketing and client/prospect communication initiative and bolstered search-based marketing—organically, at first, and now through pay-per-click.
The agency still uses direct mail, cold-calling, referrals and other traditional marketing tactics, complementing them with social media to bolster relationships and boost visibility. The agency holds meetings to recognize success and address changes.
The efforts are working. "Our new business is up about 40% in the last two years," Groff notes. "With one carrier, the business we write in one office has nearly doubled." Retention is up, too. "Today, our retention is up 30%," he says. "We are showing anyone can sell price, but it's about the service."
Charleston, South Carolina
Technology has played an important role at Triest Agency for years. "Ever since my first computer class in 1979, I've been fascinated with computers and how they can make us more efficient," says Larry Freudenberg, owner. His affinity for automation helped him foresee the power of the Web for agencies and ultimately helped drive a shift away from many—but not all—traditional marketing tools.
After the agency partnered with Astonish Results to implement a digital marketing program, it launched a new Web site, established a Facebook and Twitter presence, started blogging, and produced videos addressing insurance issues and highlighting its commercial insureds. The agency also implemented an e-mail marketing program targeting several markets, including lawyers.
A key element of the digital initiative is the Astonish customer relationship management system. "That's the icing on the cake," Freudenberg explains. "It helps us understand and serve our customers better." A bridge lets it synchronize with the agency's management system—something that drives cross-selling success.
Overall, agency revenue is up 25% year over year, with the lawyer's program on target to double in size. "The agency as a whole should double in four years," Freudenberg adds. "All lines we want to write are notching gains," and carrier reps are, he says, "jockeying for position to talk to me. They see we're making things happen."
Account penetration is up, too; in just over a year, the agency has boosted its policy-per-customer count by about 35%. "Things are definitely hopping, and that's exciting," he says.
Ross Insurance Agency
Over the past few years, 87-year-old Ross Insurance Agency has encountered several challenges—some unique to its locale. "Our area is saturated with independent agencies," explains agency Vice President and Treasurer Kevin Ross, "so competition is fierce." Unemployment is high, population is declining, and the average age of residents is rising.
Aggressive soft market pricing cut revenues. Plus, 2008 legislation increased personal auto competition, making things even tougher. "Even though we weren't losing clients," Ross explains, "revenue was down about 10%."
In 2010, the agency started digital marketing with Astonish Results. Particularly appealing was the Astonish e-mail marketing program. "Being able to reach more people with a well-designed e-mail campaign and then follow up on those activities was a big deal," Ross explains. "It also helped us communicate better with existing clients."
The agency went full bore into search engine optimization work, using a variety of tactics to increase traffic. "We started using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and agency blogs," says agency President Maureen Ross O'Connell, Kevin's sister. A key focus was involving the community in all of its digital activities, she adds.
"Employees embraced the changes and are selling more," O'Connell notes. "Out of the gate—in the last seven months of 2010—we increased new business policy counts by 55%, and they've continued to grow." Adds Ross, "Every day, we're getting several opportunities to quote business we never had before. We're moving in the right direction, and our people are ahead of the curve."
Strong Tie Insurance Services
In 1991, with aid from an organization that helps Cubans immigrate to the United States, Efrain Ferrer settled in Miami and began preparing to become an American citizen. Before long, he moved to California and, in 1997, with little more than a panel van displaying an eye-catching logo, he opened Strong Tie Insurance Services.
Traditional marketing tactics fueled considerable agency growth for years, but Ferrer realized he needed a strategy to reach today's insurance buyers where they shop—the Web. "Consumer buying habits were changing and we needed a stronger online agency presence," he explains. "I knew that if we didn't change how we were doing things, we would miss out."
Ferrer, who says he was "behind the curve" when it came to digital marketing, teamed up with Astonish Results. Today, his 45-person, seven-location agency boasts an interactive Web site, a dynamic e-mail marketing program, a consistent blog presence and more—all aimed at finding and attracting prospects. The digital marketing strategy builds on and reinforces the agency brand and highly recognized logo, and complements other agency marketing activities.
"We continue to run print, radio and television advertising," Ferrer explains, "and we're still very active in our communities." The agency also uses direct mail, which integrates nicely with the digital campaign. "The mail pieces do a great job sending traffic to our Web site," he notes.
"Every day, we see more positive results from our digital marketing efforts," he adds. "It's quite valuable, and it's definitely part of our future success."