Failure to embrace the Internet can hurt you
By Nancy Doucette
Imagine you threw a party and nobody came. If you haven't updated your agency's Web site recently, you may be experiencing the online marketing equivalent of just that.
That was the sad reality that Scott Cornelius, president of ECI Insurance Agency, Inc., in Piedmont, Oklahoma, confronted in 2008. "We're located in an Oklahoma City suburb of about 6,000 people," he notes. "Back then, if someone keyed in 'insurance, Piedmont, Oklahoma,' we didn't show up in that search." Adding insult to injury, Cornelius points out, is that ECI is the only insurance agency in town.
In 2006, Cornelius left his position as director of operations for a global golf store franchiser and joined the family agency. He and his sister Denise Johnson purchased the agency from their father who had founded it in 1964. Goal number one, Cornelius recalls, was to build a Web site for the agency. His initial effort was less than stellar, he admits, as evidenced by his recollection above.
The following year he met with Insurance Technologies Corporation (ITC) at the Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma Convention. After reviewing their four tiered programs, he purchased one of ITC's Web site templates. The agency began getting more hits than it had previously, but they came mostly from marketing reps and people that ECI asked to go to the Web site. Prospects and clients still weren't finding the site.
The moment of truth came in 2008 when ECI didn't qualify for a big contingency check Cornelius and Johnson been counting on. "We were dying on the vine," Cornelius says. "We couldn't keep cutting expenses and expect to survive."
The agency's ITC rep called at about the time Cornelius and his sister were considering the agency's dismal future. He told them about ITC's search engine optimization services. Compelling as the program was, "For an agency that didn't have any extra cash, it was a significant expense," Cornelius says. Aside from the set-up fee for an optimized Web site, the monthly support fee would be a stretch, he adds.
Their backs to the proverbial wall, the siblings decided it was do or die, so they did.
"It was one of the smartest moves I've made since I got into the insurance business," Cornelius beams. The optimized Web site (www.eciagency.com) was launched in May 2008, fortified with three key search phrases: Oklahoma City auto insurance, Oklahoma City insurance, and Oklahoma City motorcycle insurance. "In June 2008, our hits went from fewer than 50 per month to close to 500," he reports.
"That same month we got a lead from someone who needed a workers comp policy. It was Friday afternoon around 3:00—he needed it immediately. We got right to work on it and quoted him a $22,000 premium. He accepted the quote and we made 15% commission. That eliminated my concerns about being able to cover the monthly support fee for the optimized Web site.
"He found us online by keying in 'insurance, Oklahoma City'—one of our key phrases. We showed up at the top of the search results, and we made it easy for him because we could do it all online."
It may seem pointless to be talking about Web sites—still. Some agencies have had an online presence for nearly 20 years…and that's exactly why we need to keep talking about Web sites. Too many agencies haven't updated their Web site to take advantage of changes in technology and respond to consumers' changing buying habits.
Laird Rixford, vice president of product development for ITC, points out that search engine optimization (SEO) is easier than it was just six years ago. "Today there are only three search engines: Bing, Yahoo!, and Google. Bing and Yahoo! use the same search results so really there are two main sources that contribute about 95% of all search traffic. So, your SEO efforts can be focused primarily on the Google and Bing crawlers," he says.
Search engines are constantly tweaking their algorithms which direct the crawlers, he continues, and in 2012, Google began placing a higher value on a Web site's content. Sites with freshly updated content earn higher rankings and therefore appear higher in the search results. "Google understands that it takes time, effort, product and industry knowledge for organizations to create fresh, new content," Rixford says.
Combine that with the search engines' quicker indexing capabilities and "content relevancy has really come to the forefront," he says. Google's complete index of the Internet has accelerated from three or four months to seven days. "Popular sites such as CNN or The New York Times are re-indexed by the minute," he observes.
How does that relate to the agency community? "Update your Web site content and you give the search engines a reason to come back. They look favorably on sites they believe are being well taken care of. They disregard those sites that haven't been updated in a while," he says.
And that brings Rixford to the subject of social media. Embracing Facebook, LinkedIn, and blogs is a sure-fire way to bring fresh content to an agency's Web site. "It also allows agents to demonstrate their expertise in the industry as well as build relationships," he maintains.
"ITC has to stay on top of these changing trends," he states. "Because we don't have long-term contracts with our customers, we have to earn their business every month. We do analytics on our customers' Web site traffic. We see what's working and what isn't. We send customers a monthly report card and if we notice that they haven't updated their content or posted a blog that month, we'll remind them why it's important to do so.
"Every agency can capitalize on social media,"Rixford says. "Ask your customers what social media they use. Ask for a 'follow' or a 'friend' request. Ask for their e-mail address."
Doing so, Rixford continues, enhances the agency's e-mail marketing efforts. "If an agency isn't doing e-mail marketing, it's losing customers. If someone fills out a quote request on your Web site and it's not tied to an e-mail marketing system, you can't acknowledge that request immediately. The prospect may move on. But if it is, a message goes out saying: 'We're working on your quote and you'll hear back from us shortly.' The prospect says: 'Great. I don't need to go anywhere else.'"
ITC hosts a free monthly "Masters in Marketing" webinar that provides tips on Web sites, online agency marketing, search engine optimization, and e-mail marketing. ITC follows its own advice and frequently updates its blog. Recent posts were "How to Find Time to Blog," "How to Write a Great Blog Post" and "4 Tips for Building Relationships on Social Media."
Proof is in the pudding
Scott Cornelius says ECI's online marketing efforts have delivered in ways he couldn't have imagined initially. "The agency is three-and-a-half times larger than when my sister and I bought it in 2006. We've grown from a staff of five to ten. Two of those staff people are responsible for quoting new business. We're not doing any cold-calling—people are calling us. Our mix of business is roughly 60% commercial, 30% personal, and the rest is life and health."
The life/health percentage is more significant than it might appear given that ECI was exclusively P&C when it started its online marketing in 2008. Cornelius credits having the right key words on the Web site—the list of key phrases changes frequently. Prospects can get quotes from up to 12 different companies and the entire transaction can be handled online, should the prospect want to.
He also gets leads from a link to personal money management expert Dave Ramsey. "They're all pieces of the puzzle which we've brought together," Cornelius says.
He pays close attention to Google Analytics to see where traffic is coming from, how long visitors stay on particular pages, whether visitors are first-time visitors or repeat visitors. The report he gets from ITC tells him what search words visitors are using.
ECI was recently invited to join Bainswest—a cluster consisting of 20 agencies that serves Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. Thanks to that association, ECI now has direct contracts with some 42 different companies, providing its clients and prospects with lots of options. Cornelius says it was ECI's e-marketing plan that caught the attention of Bainswest. He's now doing e-marketing workshops for other Bainswest members and includes his "10 Commandments of Websites" as part of his presentation.
"October 2012 was our best month ever," Cornelius concludes. "We'll have a record year. We moved into a new building at the center of town a couple of months ago. We don't have much to complain about these days," he says with a smile.
Scott's 10 commandments for Web sites
Scott Cornelius shares these suggestions with fellow members of Bainswest during his e-marketing workshops.
1. Always prominently display your phone number and mailing address at the top of your Web site. Make it easy to contact you.
2. Make the About Us page a true reflection of what you want the visitor to know about you.
3. Give your visitor something to do when they get to your Web site i.e., read a blog, get a quote (auto, home, life, health), watch a video, etc.
4. Display pictures of your staff. Customers like to know what the people they are working with look like.
5. Decide what your key search phrases are. Make sure those phrases are in your title.
6. You have only one chance to make a good first impression. Make sure your site really pops when you first arrive. Tell people how long you have been in business, you are part of one of the top agencies in the nation, etc.
7. Spend your time doing what you are good at (selling insurance) and hire an expert to set up and maintain your online presence.
8. Make sure you keep your name in front of both your customers and prospects at least weekly. This can be done through social media and e-mail campaigns.
9. Make sure you set up your Web site in Google Analytics so that you can track how many visitors visit your site, where they come from and what pages they visit.
10. Visit your Web site often. Look at it from your customer's perspective. Make changes regularly.
For more information:
Insurance Technologies Corporation
Web site: www.getitc.com