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Marketing over the Internet

Some independent agents may view the Internet as a threat to their way of doing business, but I see it as a powerful extension of my marketing program. In 1999, 1 wrote more than $100,000 in new-business premium from leads generated by my Web site, up from around $40,000 in 1998. Currently, the Internet is accounting for 15% to 20% of our new business production. Instead of being afraid of this new technology, I am taking advantage of it. In this article, III explain how I created my Web site and how I use it to grow my agency.
Getting started
I spent about 100 hours looking at various Web pages before I began work on my own site (www.dsayles.com), which I created about a year and a half ago. Because I am familiar with computers and the Internet, I decided to design the Web site myself instead of hiring a consultant to do it.
I purchased a software package to learn how to write in HyperText Markup Language and used Front Page, Microsoft's Web-page manufacturing program, which contained helpful hints for making a Web page. I also bought a book on Web-page production-"Web Page Design"by Laura Lemay. All of these products cost about $250. 1 initially paid $150 for my domain name. Disk space on IDT, my Internet service provider, costs $600 per year, which is charged to my credit card at $50 per month. Now that the site is up, it costs only about 0.5% of my budget to maintain because I do most of the work myself. I update the site monthly; usually I devote a weekend to the task.
I designed the Web page for speed and ease of loading, so I don't use fancy graphics or lots of pictures that take a long time to download. I read in a recent study that if people have to wait more than 20 or 25 seconds for a page to load, they stop and move to another site. Because I want to keep the site as cost-effective as possible, I did not buy links to other sites, either. But I did list the site with such search engines as Yahoo and Lycos, which do not charge for the service.
Any agency that is well-automated can set up its own Web site for minimal cost. There are two caveats, however. First, Internet browsers are not all the same, so an image that is green on a Netscape browser may show up as blue on a Microsoft browser. To ensure my site looks the same to all visitors, I check it myself using various browsers. Second, do-it-yourself Web design requires patience because it is technical-one misplaced comma in your programming could throw your whole site out of whack.
Promotion and sales
To promote the Web site, I put its URL, or Web address, on the agency letterhead and business cards, and I include it in all advertising. I also ask clients and prospects to take a look at the site and tell me what they think, even if they voice a criticism.
As of last August, the site was averaging 2,500 hits per month, and the number of hits has been steadily increasing. Even better, 20 to 25 visitors per month send me e-mail messages from the site. If the e-mail concerns commercial-lines or marine cargo insurance, I respond to it. If a request is for personal-lines information (a quote on homeowners insurance or a change to an auto policy), I initially respond to it before giving it to one of my staff to handle. I also get e-mail from customers who want to thank me or my staff for getting a job done quickly. Some customers also want to make a policy change or follow up on a previously requested change.
The high number of hits on my Web site translates into effective marketing. The more an agent gets his or her name in front of the public, the better the odds of writing new business. I'm also turning 5% to 8% of my e-mail inquiries into sales, and that is a conservative estimate. (The percentage is the same for commercial and personal lines.) Visitors to the Web page come from all over, but most live in New Jersey or will be moving to the state.
Although some visitors live in states where I'm not licensed to write insurance, I still respond to them as a courtesy. I've even received e-mail from people as far away as France, telling me they finally found a place on the Web they can use to obtain information about marine cargo insurance.
I also measure the effectiveness of the site by the unsolicited comments rve received about it Members of my staff pass along clients' compliments about the Web site. Industry groups apparently like the site, too. Marine newsletters have published my Web address, and other marine information sites on the Internet have linked my site to theirs.
Once I respond to an e-mail request for a quote, it's fairly easy to obtain the information I need to provide it. Typically, the person gives me a phone number in the e-mail. I call the prospect and tell him or her that we should talk in person. If the e-mail does not contain a phone number, I email the prospect, mention our 800 number and ask the prospect to call the agency with a convenient time for us to meet. Most visitors give me at least a contact name and phone number. However, some people go much further. A recent prospect's e-mail contained almost all the information I needed to quote a marine cargo policy. Once, an exporter from Delaware was so impressed by my Web page that she told me to bind marine cargo coverage and give her the details later.
Let me give an example of a typical sale. The owner of some small retail stores wants to change his insurance, so he surfs the Internet, selects a few agents and sends them e-mail messages describing his situation and requesting quotes. If the business is local, I call the prospect and arrange an appointment to make my presentation in person. The beauty of the Internet is that the prospects come to you.
Consumers usually look for insurance on the Internet when they're not happy with their current agent or if something happened to upset them-a billing or endorsement error, for example. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't think people who search for insurance online are interested only in the lowest price. The type of buyer I encounter on the Internet is no different from those I meet through other forms of direct marketing. I've designed the Web page to be an extension of my existing marketing program, not a substitute for it.
Setting goals
Eventually, I want to host the Web site from a server in my office instead of using an Internet service provider. I also plan to integrate the site with an intranet so my staff both inside and outside the office can access it. One of the site's weaknesses, which I plan to eliminate, is it doesn't define exactly where I do business, and about 8% to 10% of the requests for information I receive are from states where I don't do business. Because I respond to almost every e-mail, I do waste some time letting these people know I can't write their insurance.
I plan to put personal-lines applications on the site as well. I've refrained from doing so up to this point because of secaty concerns; I question the public's comfort level with giving personal information over the Internet. Nevertheless, I can't afford not to keep up with competitors who are offering online apps.
A successful Web site should be easy to navigate and understand. I keep my site simple-it contains only 15 pages. Some agents get carried away with putting too many links on their site. The site content must be meaningful and not ramble, otherwise visitors will lose patience and leave. Design a Web site with some type of focus in mind. If an agent has a niche, he or she should market it on the Web site to help distinguish it from other insurance sites. Whatever an agent does to sell a prospect during a face-to-face appointment, he or she should highlight on the Web site. An agent should design the site so that basic information is on the beginning pages. As visitors have more questions, they can go further into the site for more details about coverages and services.