Reflecting on the United States' recent presidential election, a good deal of attention was paid to the Obama campaign, specifically in how he, as an orator, moved the masses with his message. But while he stirred voters with his rhetoric and used major media outlets en route to a victory, an army of volunteers mobilized on a grassroots level to promulgate his message utilizing methods such as personal voter interaction, e-newsletter blasts and rallies, among others.
It's debatable which of the two assaults - be it from Obama or his volunteers - was most effective, but when all was said and done, he without a doubt managed to engage his audience in one medium or another.
Somewhat similarly, insurers today are taking the glassroots approach to social media, engaging their target audience where they're most "at home," and spreading their brand and message from the ground up.
In these settings, unlike with courting voters, which has a distinct endpoint and goal in sight, the value of social media to the insurer isn't necessarily to sell insurance, but to get the brand associated with value, and build trust with the consumer.

Growing the Web

As discussed in last month's issue, insurers have found social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to be fertile ground for interacting with their customer base on somewhat of a grassroots level. But in addition to establishing a presence on those sites, many carriers have begun to add more Web 2.0 functionality to their own Web sites (or related microsites), which often are tied in to the social networks, serving to engage, inform and deliver added value to customers.
Chad Mitchell, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc., Stamford, Conn., says he's seen a strong investment among carriers in Web 2.0 for branded microsites lately, specifically motorcycles, personal watercraft and RVs. For these products, he says, the next stage of online quoting is immanent.
"It's key right now to retain customers," Mitchell says, "so if they have an auto policy, insurers are now wanting to switch them from a mono-line to a multi-line policy; if they have auto and home, insurers want them to extend into all areas. But with specialty vehicles, an easy transfer is now to say, 'Hey, if we have your car or truck, why not put all your vehicles with us?'"
One of the first carriers to make such an online push is Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co. Having enhanced and revamped its motorcycle product line a few years back, the insurer wanted to market its new product. So, in addition to an advertising and public relations campaign, it rolled out the Allstate Garage microsite about a year ago with the intention of utilizing the Web as a means of engaging motorcyclists about their passion.
"The Web is a way for motorcyclists to connect to one another, and a way for them to gather information about everything related to their interests," says Lisa Jillson, Allstate senior marketing manager, and one of the minds behind the microsite.
The microsite is predicated on offering information centered on motorcyclists' passions, including the ability to plot rides, find mechanics and build and customize a virtual bike. Also included is insurer-specific information about finding an Allstate agent, a tutorial about motorcycle insurance and the ability to purchase a policy, among other options, the site is intended to be a one-stop-shop for enthusiasts.
While the microsite has received many accolades, Jillson says, it isn't looked at as being a tool just to drive policy sales.
"We had more to gain from prospecting than from existing customers, considering we had just revamped the product to make it more competitive, so we looked at the site as more of a prospecting tool," she says. "Some initial survey data has found that more than 70% of visitors would now consider Allstate motorcycle insurance after visiting the site, but our goal was really to promote awareness that we offer motorcycle insurance. That was the focus of year one."
Allstate is currently looking expand upon the site's success, and build more reasons for visitors to return in 2009.
"We know people stay on the site an average of five times longer than what Nielsen reports as being the the industry standard for consumers, so we've definitely hit a nerve," Jillson adds, "so we've definitely hit a nerve."

Planting a Stake

Similar to Allstate, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., Columbus, Ohio, has been active in developing microsites and expanding its social presence. Hired in late-summer 2008 from CNET to develop the company's overall social media strategy, Shawn Morton, senior consultant for Web user experience, says a lot of what the insurer did last year was proof-of-concept work to test best practices.

In one instance, Nationwide developed a microsite devoted to Sanjaya Malakar, a wildly popular American Idol contestant dominating the public consciousness at the time, and who inspired a cult following online and in many social networking circles among the show's fan base. Nationwide's microsite allowed people to alter photos of themselves, giving them Sanjaya's hair style and outfit, which they could then share with friends on social networking sites. While the microsite had nothing to do with Nationwide's products or policies, it allowed them to engage his fan community, and assess their reaction to the brand and its Web site.
"We gave them behind-the-scenes videos, photos, exclusive announcements," says Morton, "and we found that his fans had an overwhelmingly positive response, and spread the word about it. Compared to some of our other campaign launches, this initiative received a lot more social media buzz - many more mentions in blogs and more photos. We did very little promotion - most of it through regular press releases or through fan and social media involvement to spread the word. So it proved to us that if you pick the right group, not only can you get them to participate, but they'll also spread the word."
Nationwide is currently using a similar approach with its NASCAR microsite. Given that the company sponsors the Nationwide Series, it pondered what exclusive content it may have - photos, behind-the-scenes video, etc. - and took it to the sport's online communities. But the main thing, according to Morton, was to facilitate sharing first.
"It sounds like a cliché, but it's really engaging more in a conversation with our customers and prospects rather than just sending out information," he explains. "Whatever form that takes, that's really the cornerstone to our - and likely everyone's - social media approach. People are talking about our brand out there. We can be involved and expect feedback. You just have to get used to the idea that it's a dialogue, and not just us pushing information at them."
No stranger to social networks and microsite development, San Francisco-based Esurance is currently ramping up the hype about its latest microsite devoted to this month's new Star Trek film. The company immediately knew the film was the right fit for a microsite because, according to Kristin Brewe, Esurance's director of brand and public relations, Star Trek fans are known for being enthusiastic and loyal, and also tend to be online tech-y people.
"We look to find people who are 'online people,'" Brewe says. "Another big group like that for us are environmentalists. There's lots of consumer research that shows that environmentalists, and active, enthusiastic supporters of causes related to the environment, tend to be very online-focused.
"You just have to find where your target segment is online," she continues. "Because of this, we see microsites as more of a brand-building exercise. For us, the overall result we're looking to achieve with them is to be top-of-mind for online auto insurance customers. We know online customers look only at the top three companies-and we're third. So for us, we know we have to stay in that top three."

Filling Out the Field

Social media, be it an insurer Twittering its latest news, having a conversation with consumers on MySpace about the brand, or offering unique information and content on a microsite to a niche group, is all about simply having a presence, and making contact with people where they want to be found.

"The biggest thing is simply acknowledging people and letting them know that you're there," says Nationwide's Morton. "There's now an expectation - and research to back that up - that people expect brands to be active in social media," he says. "Whether customers are praising you or complaining about you, the key is acknowledging that you got the feedback. And social media provides that opportunity. Brands have the opportunity to respond, and the people who are doing that are a little ahead of the curve because they're showing that they're paying attention. And, for a lot of users, that's what they're looking for."

Where Wed 2.0 Can Help

While many carriers are learning how to attract and engage customers through social networks, one area where there's room for improvement is in the utilization of their Web sites as a sales tool.
Because of the current recession, many customers are being forced to decide between buying groceries and paying their insurance policies. During this time when money is so tight, Chad Mitchell, senior analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Forrester Research Inc., observes that many customers don't fully understand their policies and what they're spending their money on. For many people, there may be areas where they can scale back their coverage to help meet their budget.
With Allstate's Bumper-to-Bumper Basics, a Web tool (www.allstate.com/auto-insurance/bumper-to-bumper.aspx), that helps people determine the best possible auto coverage by asking a series of questions about their vehicle, personal and financial backgrounds, the Northbrook, Ill. insurer is attempting to address this situation. But for the industry as a whole, Mitchell thinks there is much room for improvement.
"What's missing right now are those types of online advice and online sales tools in which customers can anonymously understand from a pricing and budget perspective how their risk and coverage is affected and, more importantly, how it relates to their budget," he explains. "If you look at retirement calculators and many of the products and advice tools E*TRADE, Fidelity, Schwab and brokerage houses have created, the disparity between those online shopping processes, and those for auto, life or home insurance is vast. You can enter in extensive personal information and see how it will affect your wallet."
When viewed as a tool to promote advocacy and build trust, Mitchell says these online tools are an investment insurers can make over the next 12 months that will lower costs and increase customer retention.
"You're not trying to replace the advisor, but trying to make that anonymous shopping experience better," Mitchell adds. "From a risk perspective, it will help insurers retain policyholders because they can go through and see what the risks will be if they cancel, and they can figure out how to save themselves money."

Plan Your Strategy Accourdingly

There's more to utilizing social networks than jumping on Facebook to connect with customers, according to Denise Garth, VP - global industry affairs at Newton, Mass.-based Innovation Group.

"You first have to understand who the customers and markets are you're trying to reach, what methods and approaches are going to be most accommodating to those markets and then be able to deliver on those or transition them over time as the customer transitions," she says.
Geography and an insurer's products definitely play a big part in targeting customers, Garth adds. "Late last year I was in Asia, and they were talking about positioning access for direct-to-consumer auto insurance using the Internet, but were utilizing television and direct mail ads, and it was extremely profitable."
She also offers the example of a China-based group that recently set up its Web site to sell direct-to-consumer auto insurance in China, which leveraged social networking capabilities similar to Facebook, and was successful. Additionally, she mentions that Tokio Marine recently announced that it would partner with a mobile phone company to deliver direct-to-consumer business. "It's a slightly different model in each case."
Editor's Note: Refer back to INN's April 2009 issue for part one of this feature on social networking.
This article can also be found at InsuranceNetworking.com.

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