The digital marketing arena is changing quickly—and 2023 will only bring more changes. Here are six tricks independent insurance agencies can keep up their sleeve.
How is independent insurance agency marketing like a magic show? Because every magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but the good ones know that you need more than one trick to steal the show.
As digitalization continues to drive insurance consumer expectations and interactions, most independent agencies are involved in digital marketing and understand its importance. In fact, about half (49%) of agents rank “building an online presence for marketing" as the most important activity for success, according to the 2022 Agency Universe Study (AUS)—topped only by “identifying operating efficiencies to more effectively service customers" at 51%.
Also, social media and digital marketing is the top marketing activity among independent agents at 62% in 2022, up from 58% in 2020, according to the AUS.
Newer agencies—and there are plenty of those, the AUS found, with the channel growing by 4,000 despite the pandemic—are even more likely to focus on digital marketing. Three in 4 newer agencies rank digital marketing in their top three marketing venues, compared to 46% of their older peers. Newer agencies are also more likely to be measuring the return on investment (ROI) in their use of digital marketing: 34% compared to 17%.
While digital marketing is nearly a given at this point in the independent agency channel, updating your repertoire to keep up with the latest and greatest trends is a magic trick in and of itself.
For Dshanya Reese McCarty (pictured above), brand marketing manager at Watkins Insurance Group in Austin, Texas, learning the tricks of the trade is a process that never stops.
“I'm an insurance person—I'm not a marketer," Reese McCarty says. “I'm learning on the job and have been for the last seven years."
Reese McCarty started in the newspaper industry, working in retail advertising before the rise of the internet prompted her to look for a job with more potential. She got a job in customer service with an insurance carrier “until I could figure out what I really wanted to do as a grown-up," she says. “Twenty-five years later, I'm still in insurance."
Thirteen years ago, she transitioned to the independent agency channel. “At the time, our agency had a need for someone to just put stuff on Facebook," Reese McCarty says. “One of the managers came up to me and said, 'Hey, you seem to be good at putting words together. Can you just put some stuff on Facebook every once in a while?' And then it became, 'Hey, do you know anything about websites?'"
“It got to the point where more and more of these tasks were given to me that I could no longer properly manage my book of business," Reese McCarty recounts. “So then I became the marketing person."
However, the digital marketing arena has changed a lot in 13 years—and 2023 will only bring more changes.
Not Just an Illusion
As digitalization continues to accelerate, flexibility to keep up with changes to the economy and consumers' expectations will only become more important to independent agency marketing.
“We have a tendency to put on blinders and lose sight of what's going on in the world around us," Reese McCarty says. “Consumers are paying more attention to how agencies and brands are handling themselves and whether or not we are acting in the best interest of both the customer and society."
A whopping 82% of consumers want a brand's values to align with their own, according to a 2022 Google Cloud study conducted by Harris Poll. Perhaps even more tellingly, three-quarters of respondents say they have parted ways with a brand over a perceived conflict in values.
“We have economic uncertainty, we have the continued fracturing in our country, we've got civil unrest, and it's hard to break out of the mindset of 'OK, this is what my content calendar says I need to do today,' and end up putting things out into the universe that may be perceived as tone deaf," Reese McCarty says. “It's a bit more challenging to get out of the robotic way that we have been doing things in marketing and be a bit more human and more aware of our surroundings."
Consumers' increased sensitivity to spending is another trend to keep in mind, says Charlie Lucas, administrative and marketing assistant at VW Brown Insurance Service in Columbia, Maryland.
“As we hear a lot of talk about the economy and potential inflation and recession worries, people are wanting the cheapest option but also failing to realize that could leave them in a bad position in the future when they're underinsured," Lucas says. “Helping to educate potential customers about those risks is really our main focus."
Lucas, who graduated college in May, empathizes with young consumers who are likely to fall for the illusion of cheaper prices. “A challenge I've noticed from being new to the industry is how little young people know about insurance, so I want to really focus on the basics in our social campaigns," she says. “If you're in an industry for a long time, you may forget that there are people who are so unfamiliar with the jargon and terminology that they just end up walking away because they don't understand."
“It's about educating clients and helping them identify what their options are and what the trade-off is going to be," agrees Christen Losey-Gregg, principal and chief operating officer, Losey Insurance and Financial Services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who notes that not only is general economic worry playing a role in coverage challenges, but catastrophes, such as hurricanes, increased wildfire exposure, and flooding, have caused concerns for her client base.
To help clients through these challenges, “invite them to join you in advocating to legislative officials," Losey-Gregg says. “In South Louisiana, where flood insurance premiums in some places are nearly unaffordable, talking to them about what's happening and helping them put together talking points so they can reach out to their elected officials is a key piece to everyone's success."
Another key marketing trend that won't pull a vanishing act in 2023 is data and the role it plays in personalization. “Reaching the right consumer at the right time is the biggest challenge in insurance marketing," says Casey Rotary, director of marketing at Mason-McBride Insurance & Financial Services in Troy, Michigan. “Independent insurance agents are limited in their access to integrated customer data, and I expect that digitalization will become more prevalent in the future."
“With more digital enablement, we can gain a better understanding and improve our marketing effectiveness," she adds.
Is This Your Card?
Marketing your agency's services while navigating consumers' conflicting expectations may seem like a feat for Houdini himself, but “it's about taking the tidbits that you can and having something actionable each day," Reese McCarty says. “Hopefully it'll get your brand out there, but if it doesn't, you're able to be nimble and course correct—be willing to try anything."
Here are six tricks you can pull out of your sleeve to update your marketing in 2023:
1) First-party data. Like a magician holding a saw over his assistant, Google continues to delay the end of the third-party cookie, which is now predicted to be phased out by the second half of 2024. A third-party cookie is placed on a website by someone other than the website's owner and collects user data for the third party, according to TechTarget. Digital marketers have been on notice and are preparing to transition to first-party data.
“Every year, the collection of data and the curation of the data that you collect becomes more and more valuable," says Brian Bennett, president of STIR, an advertising and integrated messaging firm. “With the elimination of the third-party cookie, it's becoming harder and harder to reach people."
“Businesses need to establish their own audiences by reaching out to collect and to house the first-party data of their prospects," he says.
Of course, this means data hygiene and analysis are crucial so that agencies can use the data they collect, whether it's running pay-per-click ads or sending emails. However, 81% of agencies do not use a customer relationship management (CRM) or sales automation application, according to a 2021 survey from Applied Systems®, and only 29% of agencies use data analytics to gain business insights from their management systems.
2) Vertical video. In general, digital marketing has shifted “from photo to video content," Lucas says. “People want the easiest way to get short clips of information that doesn't require them to put extra work in." And vertical videos—videos captured on a cell phone that is held upright—have gained in popularity on Instagram Reels and TikTok as mobile-friendly ways to communicate to a scrolling audience.
“Since those kinds of platforms try to capture the attention of a younger crowd, our big focus is on the education side," Lucas says, who shares that one of the first things she did when she began working at VW Brown was start a TikTok account. “We're building brand awareness and have people in that area see our logo and name and put a friendly face to it."
Vertical video is really about “getting our foot in the door for the future," Lucas says. “It's about the familiarity. I have a recurring video called 'Did You Know' where I just share a crazy, random fun fact about insurance. It'll make someone chuckle, and they'll see your name—then, hopefully, when they need insurance help, they'll think of us."
3) Feedback. Does your agency have a process for prompting reviews from customers? In a 2022 study of affluent insurance consumers across generations, Chubb found that online client reviews are the most trustworthy method of advertising to young affluent consumers, with 32% of millennials and 29% of Generation Zers finding them the most trustworthy. Even among older generations, online reviews either tied or beat word-of-mouth advertising.
“Invite every customer to post an online review—including the unhappy ones," according to the “Insurance Agent's Guide to a Strong Online Reputation" from Gather Up. The guide noted that five-star rated businesses actually have below-average sales, the sweet spot being 3.4 to 4.5 stars. Choosing the channels that work best for your customers and for you to track and respond to them is key, the e-guide explained, whether that's text, email or QR codes.
Additionally, replying to reviews demonstrates attentiveness to customer expectations and “boosts your visibility in local search by signaling to Google your agency's prominence—one of the factors in search rankings—and bumping it up in search results," according to Gather Up.
4) Artificial intelligence. “One trend on my radar now is how to effectively use artificial intelligence," Reese McCarty says. “There are five areas in which AI can help me with my day-to-day job: marketing efforts to specific demographics, creating custom marketing materials, adjusting strategies when I need to, measuring the effectiveness of campaigns and increasing my ROI."
Reese McCarty is particularly excited about content creation tools, one of which is Jasper, which can not only help with creating content, but also with generating ideas and scaling content marketing. “It helped me crank out my content planning for 2023," she says.
On the other side of the marketing experience is AI chatbots, which serve clients and prospects visiting the agency site. “I think that technology is going to continue to grow in terms of its implementation and use to interact with consumers," Losey-Gregg says.
While her agency has held off implementing AI bots because the agency's target customer base tends to have more complex needs than bots can currently handle, Losey-Gregg is optimistic that, with continued development, bots may become an option. “I do see it as something that would be helpful in the future," she says. “And if the consumer you're after is more oriented toward a simpler or very specific product, a bot could help guide them toward that point of sale."
5) Google Business Profile. Agencies should make sure their Google Business Profile is complete and accurate. “The fact that agencies are local businesses comes in handy because the algorithms of search engines tend to serve up companies that are nearby," Bennett says. “It's really important to make sure your information is not only accurate but 100% consistent everywhere it's posted."
“If it's accurate and fully developed, Google feels confident serving up that information to someone who's searching," he adds.
6) Helpful content. In September, Google rolled out the “helpful content" update, which reduces the search ranking of “content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people," according to Google. While its impact is less visible in the short term than expected, Google continues to hone the update, which means it's more important than ever that content is centered around being helpful to humans—not to check every search engine optimization (SEO) box.
“It is worth paying attention to putting out high-quality, unique content that connects with your audience, establishes your credibility, and positions you as valuable and trustworthy," Rotary says. “I expect to see more of a people-first approach to marketing in 2023."
More than 60% of buyers engage in three to seven pieces of content before connecting with a salesperson, according to a 2022 Demand Gen report, and developing content that answers potential customers' questions is a great way to prove credibility and meet the customer where they are in their journey toward a solution.
“Put yourself in the mindset of the potential customer or prospect and ask yourself, 'What is the question they're asking?' By the time they ask a human being in a sales environment, they've already searched for that question many times on the internet," Bennett says. “Produce that answer and publish it, and support it with a paid social or digital program."
AnneMarie McPherson Spears is IA news editor.