In 2015, Renado Robinson quit his job with Travelers to start his own independent agency in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Robinson had started his Travelers career in 1997 as the mailman. When he went off on his own, he didn’t have an agency license or any appointments with carriers, and his main marketing strategy was cold calling.
Early on, Robinson remembers meeting a prospect at their door. They told him they weren’t interested. Two months later, “I went back with a dozen donuts and said, ‘I’m just trying to sweeten you guys up a little bit,’” he recalls. “A month after that, they called me to write their homeowners.”
Robinson ended up saving the couple 40% on their homeowners policy, then followed up with birthday cards later that year.
“They called me into their office and said, ‘We’ve been with our current agent for over 10 years, and not once have we ever received a birthday card or any type of recognition,’” Robinson says. “They gave me a copy of their insurance policy booklet and asked me to write their business insurance. That turned into our second-largest commercial account in the office.”
Today, Crosswinds Insurance Agency generates over $3.5 million in written premium and employs three full-time staff members. Building a business from the ground up is no easy feat, but if you ask Robinson—or any successful agency owner—about their biggest secret for marketing their business, one rule quickly rises to the top: Don’t talk about insurance.
That means, when marketing your services, don’t talk about coverages, don’t talk about your agency’s carrier appointments and, most of all, don’t sell insurance. Instead, connect on a human level. Sell yourself, your story and your people. Talk about your values, your interests and your community.
Here are a few pointers on humanizing your agency’s marketing to let your clients and prospects know you’re a person first, and an insurance professional second.
In 2018, nearly half of agencies cited social media in their top three marketing activities, according to the 2018 Future One Agency Universe Study. But mindlessly posting about insurance products will do little to win you many likes, shares and engagements, let alone many customers.
“Out of every 10 social media posts, two pertain to insurance—the rest give people a snapshot into my life,” Robinson explains. “Family and lifestyle posts get more engagement. Insurance is insurance, but people want to deal with people they can relate to.”
And even if you don’t have a huge marketing budget to play with [see p. 40], a great way to grab your audience’s attention is through paid social media advertising.
“We do a lot of Facebook boosts, as well as sponsored posts on Instagram,” Robinson says. On Facebook, “you can choose the audience you want to target. If we’re talking high-end homeowners, we’ll target people who are looking up luxury vehicles and houses or certain luxury gifts online, and include that in our characteristics and categories.”
The most personal way to digitally market your agency is “video, video and video,” says Sydney Roe, digital content manager, TrustedChoice.com. “You want people to feel like they’re in your office, and the communication medium that most resembles that in-person experience is video. If you’re not building that deeper connection with your prospects, someone else will be.”
“It’s all about being a human brand,” agrees Peter van Aartrijk, principal with Chromium and co-author of “The Powers: Ten Factors for Building an Exponentially More Powerful Brand.” “People really enjoy video, especially short ones.”
At his agency, Robinson embraces video marketing by recording short clips in his office and then sharing via Facebook and Instagram. “I have a green wall in my office with my company logo on it, and we do a lot of video in front of that,” he says. “It went from just posting photos and video on social media to people wanting to come in and have their photo taken in front of the green wall.”
Robinson also films “60- to 90-second videos highlighting another local businesses,” he says. It’s a great way to engage with other professionals in his community: “They get access to my network and I get access to theirs.”
Scott Greene, producer at Elliott Insurance in Springfield, Ohio, recently started marketing with video and found it to be “a huge hit,” he says. After appearing in a spoof video for a friend and local business owner, Greene enlisted the help of a local media agency to try it out.
“It’s been great for us in more ways than just trying to sell, because people are really engaging with us,” Greene says. “We posted our last video on Instagram and Facebook, and now we’re making a YouTube channel. We’re all in with it.”
The idea behind the decision is that “we live in an era where people aren’t doing business 9-5 anymore,” Greene explains. “People still want to do business with people they like. Video is a way we can be in front of people at 4 a.m.”
While many agencies may lack technical in-house video skills, van Aartrijk reminds agents that “it’s not about making a perfectly canned video that is overproduced, boring and long. It’s about making it fun and breathing a little personality into your business.”
In 2018, nearly two-thirds of agencies cited maintaining and updating their website as one of their top marketing activities, according to the Agency Universe Study. As an independent agent, your website is your “most important office,” van Aartrijk says. “Paying attention to the personality you’re projecting on that site is critically important.”
Crosswinds’ website was created by website builder Wix, but all the content is produced internally. When a web user first arrives on the website, they’re greeted with a pop-up chat window that says, “Let’s chat! I’m available to answer your questions.”
“It links to a Wix app on my phone and email, so when someone comments, I can respond either via the app or email,” Robinson explains. “It’s a great tool for when someone just has a quick question or needs a little more information about our agency.”
Ultimately, your website should illustrate the value proposition of your agency and the heartbeat of your brand. Most important, “you have to show your people,” van Aartrijk says. “And I’m not just talking about the owner.”
And just as it’s important to avoid complex jargon when meeting in person, the same logic applies to your website. “Don’t force your prospects to learn complicated insurance lingo—speak their language,” Roe says. “This will help with SEO, too, because search engine algorithms match a prospect’s search words and phrases to a website that has similar copy.”
As many as 87% of consumers will purchase a product because the company advocated for an issue they cared about, according to the 2017 Corporate Social Responsibility Study by Cone Communications.
That means aligning your agency with local causes is a great way to connect with consumers beyond insurance. Crosswinds, for example, sponsors PTAs and sports teams at local schools.
“We have a monthly e-newsletter, but we don’t include much about insurance,” says Emily McCoy, marketing and community relations coordinator at Davidson & Associates Insurance, an independent agency in Vancouver, Washington. “It’s more client-, community- and team member-focused.”
Every issue of Davidson’s e-newsletter contains information about community events and local businesses, introduces or celebrates staff achievements and, most successfully, shares details about the agency’s referral partners program, which highlights a local nonprofit every month.
“Each nonprofit is designated a month, and for every quote we give out as a result of a referral, we donate $25 to that nonprofit on behalf of the person who referred them to us,” McCoy says. “It’s all about creating touchpoints and connecting with our community throughout the year.”
Another great way to show the human side of your agency is to take your agency’s brand to local events. Davidson does 10-15 events per year, the biggest of which is Give More 24—an annual day of giving in southwest Washington that raises money for local nonprofits.
In 2018, the event raised $1.3 million in the course of 24 hours for 155 nonprofits. “We’re the presenting sponsor at that event, and our agency team also volunteers to help them raise money,” McCoy adds.
When it comes to marketing at events, different agencies in different communities require different approaches. In Greene’s town, for example, “the county fair is a huge deal,” he says. Elliott Insurance sets up a booth every year and sponsors local kids’ 4-H projects.
“We also do time checks over the speaker system saying that we are in one of the buildings, we’re giving something away and asking people to stop by,” Greene says. “It’s been successful just by getting our name in to the community.”
Elliott Insurance also sponsors local little league teams, and the effect has spanned generations. “We had one new customer say, ‘I played for Elliott Insurance back in 1987,’” Greene says. “Some people think this stuff doesn’t stick with people, but it does.”
But remember: Showing the human side of your agency only works if you are reaching your target audience. “The heart of marketing is consumer attention,” Roe says. “Instead of asking yourself, ‘What should I be doing?’ Ask yourself, ‘Where is my consumer’s attention?’”
“In the old days, marketing was all about who could shout the loudest. But now you’ve got to meet people where they are,” van Aartrijk agrees. “In an industry that is all about taking risks, agents are often afraid to make a mistake by trying things.”
What if you try something and it doesn’t work? Just because one idea fails doesn’t mean a different one will, too. “If you see that something isn’t working, try another avenue,” Robinson says. “Don’t give up—marketing plays an integral part in growing your agency.”
Will Jones is IA assistant editor.