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(Re) Building Your Web Presence

You know you need a more robust website, better self-service options for your clients and a social media presence. How do you get started?

Consumers today generally want three things when they shop: they want to be able to research what they’re looking for; they want a way to interact with a business easily, whether it’s to get more information or provide feedback; and they want to be able to service themselves when possible.

These expectations were underlined in a survey by NCR Corp. where 63% of Canadians said they prefer to shop with retailers that provide easy interaction online, through mobile connectivity, and self-service kiosks rather than with ones that don’t. Likewise, a study by Sociable Labs  found that 62% of all online shoppers that also use Facebook have read product-related comments from friends on Facebook. Seventy-five percent of those shoppers have visited a retailer’s website after reading such comments and 53% have bought a product after reading comments from others on social networks.

Insurance is no different. When potential and current clients take to the Internet to learn more about insurance, web-savvy brokerages can gain an advantage by understanding this behaviour and meeting these expectations. Establishing a multi-faceted web presence means having a well-constructed website, self-service capability and use of social networking tools. You’ve probably heard all this before but might be wondering “How do I do all of this? Where do I get started?” 

The First Step: Your Website

A website is the very first piece of a brokerage’s online presence. Your firm most likely has some sort of website already, but it never hurts to go back to basics. This is especially true if you’re considering a major overhaul of your web offerings.

One of the most important decisions a business can make regarding their web presence is choosing a vendor to design and develop it. Freelance developers are easy to find on the Internet, are generally the cheapest and can have a website up for as little as $500 in a matter of weeks. With luck your brokerage can find a talented and ethical freelancer, but there are risks. If a freelancer is developing your site in addition to holding down a full-time job, he or she can burn out quickly because of unforeseen time constraints. Your site development can fall behind schedule fast or can be put on hold indefinitely, and the final product might not look as distinctive as you would like. If this type of hire is all your brokerage can afford, ask for references and years of experience. If a freelancer has more than a year or two of development experience in addition to holding down a full-time job, chances are he or she can handle the workload.

Professional website development companies design custom, brand-driven sites for businesses of all sizes. They are generally more reliable than freelancers but they are also more expensive. Prices can be anywhere between $2,000 to $8,000, or $75 to $200-an-hour depending on the number of employees the web development company has. This type of company will work closely with a brokerage to create a unique site that is customized to your needs and strongly branded. This takes more time to create and develop.

If you settle on a larger development company, perhaps the best option is to look for one that works exclusively in the insurance industry or at least has significant experience with insurance. The communication between the vendor and the brokerage will be much easier when the vendor knows the industry jargon, making it easier for the vendor to design. The two sides also can collaborate easier about what content and functionality to include.

A vendor that hosts the site on its own servers and assists with its maintenance is especially beneficial. The brokerage doesn’t have to pay an IT consultant to maintain servers or monitor security. The technological expertise of the vendor’s staff and the maintenance it provides is included in the startup and monthly fees.

A branded website should be ready to go up within a few weeks. It’s important for a brokerage to ask the vendor to provide administrative or content tools that will allow the brokerage to make subtle changes immediately, such as adding content, changing pictures or even adding whole pages when and where necessary. 

Self Service: Web Portals

Developing an online presence that sets brokerages apart from their competitors goes well beyond basic website building. Self-service web portals have become indispensable tools for brokerages, allowing them to develop a more personal relationship with clients and provide better service.

A portal is a password-protected extension of your website where clients can log in for individual information and self-service options. Portals are great for resolving repetitive tasks like checking specific areas of coverage, issuing certificates of insurance and auto liability certificates. Customers can do that on their own, at their convenience. A portal is especially useful for commercial lines clients that don’t operate during typical business hours.

A portal, also called a secure client website, generally takes longer to develop (a few months perhaps) depending on the functionality a brokerage wants to allow from its customers, how much client data needs to be imported and how extensively user access is configured. Choosing a vendor that has extensive experience working in the insurance industry will reduce development time. Your brokerage and the developer can work together more collaboratively to determine the structure and functionality your brokerage wants the portal to have. 

Interacting: Social Media

When building a solid web presence, brokerages cannot afford to ignore social media. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter aren’t just ways to keep up with friends. They are valuable marketing tools because they broaden the possibilities for interaction and communication. Best of all, it’s free.

Facebook is the most widely-used social networking site on the Internet today, having amassed one billion members worldwide. A brokerage can create a Facebook profile in a matter of minutes, add branding, photos and videos to complete the look. Brokerages provide information with Facebook’s status updates, which can then include links to the brokerage’s website for more information.

Content should be updated frequently. You want to give your brokerage’s audience a reason to check out what is new. Include links to industry news articles or your brokerage’s own written material. Beware of making it overly aggressive. Your brokerage’s page should be informative and engaging. If its content is solely heavy-handed sales pitches, customers will be turned off.

Those who visit a brokerage’s page and “like” it can then provide feedback. Your brokerage can take this information and respond accordingly, which is terrific for retention.

Likewise, it may not seem as though much can be done with a medium that limits messages to 140 characters or less. But don’t discount the power of Twitter. Setting up an account is easy. Give your account a name that matches your business. If it’s taken, you’ll have to find creative ways of making the name distinctive to potential followers. A brokerage can send out short messages to its followers and provide links to its website or Facebook account that provides more extensive information. Brokers can search for those who are tweeting specific questions and answer them as a way of attracting new clients. The key is providing valuable content, such as news about coverage and services. A brokerage can tweet about different industry events they may be sponsoring or attending. Encourage followers to spread the word about your brokerage and follow others in the insurance industry.

If it’s important for you brokerage to see how much traffic its Twitter account is generating, you can set up URL tracking through tinyurl.com or hootsuite.com.

LinkedIn is best known as an “online job board” but it is more than that. It allows quite a bit of interaction and has more of an overt business focus than Facebook. Someone from your brokerage will need an individual profile so he or she can create the brokerage’s page. The company page will link to the individual profile of the person who created it.

Once your brokerage’s profile is done, take an active role. Post status updates regularly as you would do with Twitter and Facebook. Join groups that are related to insurance and participate in discussions. This will give your brokerage exposure and allow your staff to show its expertise. Search for questions other members have about insurance and offer to answer them. You can also upgrade to a paid LinkedIn membership, which offers your brokerage the chance to connect with more people and organizations connected to the insurance industry.

No matter how your brokerage decides to establish its web presence, it cannot afford to “set it and forget it.” Making the web work for your brokerage requires constant input. Websites need to be updated with new content regularly or they won’t attract attention from search engines. The same goes for social networking. New content on social media sites helps current customers feel confident they are doing business with the right brokerage and lets all your followers know that they are valuable to you.

Jeff Purdy is  senior vice president and general manager for Canada for Applied Systems’ Canadian operations.

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Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the December 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

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