What in the world is digital marketing? It’s certainly more than an agency dabbling in social media or creating a basic website or using primitive search engine optimization techniques to attract readers to the site. 

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The most effective digital marketing encompasses a variety of online elements wrapped into a cohesive marketing strategy.

Innovators believe digital marketing provides an opportunity to show what makes their firm unique.

Still, skeptics wonder whether digital marketing is worth the investment.

 

Is social media really that complicated?

Figuring Digital Marketing ROI

The most effective digital marketing encompasses a variety of online elements—social, content and email marketing, blogs, e-newsletters and video—wrapped into a cohesive marketing strategy.

“Digital means you have to have a website in place and social media accounts built up and content,” says Stephanie McClintock, vice president of marketing and communications for Woodruff-Sawyer & Co., “and all this creates an ecosystem in which to build on a digital strategy.”

While digital marketing is already becoming a best practice in other industries, participation by insurance brokers varies greatly. Brokers such as Assurance use marketing automation software to determine visitor interest for follow-up. Yet others offer little digital presence.

“Unfortunately,” says Steven Handmaker, chief marketing officer for Assurance, “there are still many brokerages who believe that the way you sell insurance is basically, ‘Welcome aboard, here’s a phone book.’ We hear it is still that bad.” 

In general, Handmaker says, other industries are farther ahead in their use of digital marketing and sales enablement technology.

“There is still a long way to go,” Handmaker says. “Nobody is A-plus right now.”

The innovators believe digital marketing provides an opportunity to show—not just tell—what makes their firm unique. It can also be used to strengthen a company’s brand name, which allows them to develop trusted relationships and gain leads and clients.

Still, skeptics wonder whether digital marketing is worth the investment. Handmaker says some insurance brokerage marketing departments still struggle to convince their leadership to spend money on digital marketing.

So is digital marketing worth the investment? Even advocates of digital marketing acknowledge that tracing a direct link from the Tweet to the sale is challenging.

Leslie McNeice, director of group communications and advertising for AmWins Group, says the wholesaler’s website brings about 100 leads per month. Over the past four or five years, she says, 65% of people going to the AmWins website have been new visitors.

But that is only part of why AmWins employs digital marketing practices. The approach is also helping to boost the firm’s brand, providing several ways to reinforce messaging, showcase industry expertise and support a promotional platform for its sales staff.

Unfortunately, there are still many brokerages who believe that the way you sell insurance is basically, ‘Welcome aboard, here’s a phone book.

Steven Handmaker, chief marketing officer, Assurance

“Incorporating digital marketing is a natural evolution of our marketing strategy,” McNeice says. “To promote your company effectively, you must be where your clients are. I don’t think you can be an effective marketer without digital tactics. It is happening whether you like it or not.”

Digital marketing has become important because consumers have gone through a digital transformation, says Rick Morgan, senior vice president of Aartrijk, a branding and marketing communications firm.

“Today, their journey is different than their predecessors’,” Morgan says. “To find, evaluate and choose an agency or broker, they use digital tools.”

Using digital marketing actually improves the process, Morgan says.

“Customers who contact you digitally have prequalified you,” he says, “so they are serious about doing business with you.”

And since digital marketing is a great equalizer, smaller agents and brokers can use it to create a big presence. Digital marketing is only a part—though an important part—of an overall marketing strategy that also includes traditional print advertising and sponsorships.

“A digital presence is important,” says Stephanie Schreiber, creative marketing specialist for R&R Insurance. “We are trying to keep R&R Insurance in the forefront of people’s minds so when they have an issue they will call us.”

Where to Begin

To the uninitiated, the Internet offers a dizzying array of expert suggestions ranging from top-level strategy to micro details. It’s tough to know who to believe, where to start and how to keep up.

“This is a confusing space for a lot of people, and there is a lot of hype and mumbo jumbo about it,” says Dean Davison, director of communications at Lockton. “However, there are a lot of good and smart things you can do to win and keep clients.”

To build visibility and an online brand through digital marketing, says Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, a company must have high-quality text and visual content and a strong social media marketing presence.

“These fields, along with SEO (search engine optimization), are actually becoming intertwined,” says DeMers, who blogs about digital marketing for Forbes.com. “For example, social media and content marketing directly affect SEO campaigns.”

When it comes to effective digital marketing, McClintock says, “Content is the center of it all, literally speaking.” And yet, judging whether content is truly worth the reader’s time requires marketers to give it a hard look through the eyes of the audience. “When you read it, does it answer the question?” she says.

Offering content to build brands and attract customers is nothing new, but digital marketing provides several channels and formats to be delivered and for customers to respond to.

McNeice thinks of it as the traditional “soft-sell” marketing approach, in which companies provide thought leadership and information through white papers and reports. With digital marketing, the material is being offered online in different formats.

There is a lot more to using quality content, however, when the content appears online as part a marketing campaign. For the content to be effective, firms need to engage their audiences not by directly selling, but by offering relevant information and contributing to the online community. The key, McNeice says, is not to post “salesy” text. “People do not want to be sold to,” she says.

The key to a successful strategy is knowing what kind of content potential customers need and making that content easy to find. A “best-in-class” digital marketing campaign, McClintock says, develops content that meets the specific needs of each audience. It’s a complex process, she says, and agents and brokers are still trying to figure out how to do it right.

At the very least, high-quality digital marketing content, whether found in Tweets, blogs, webpages or posts, must be well written and easy to understand and provide relevant information with effective graphics to support the ultimate goal of converting readers into customers.

Visual-based content, such as videos, infographics and images, are performing very well, DeMers says.

“Visual content is much easier to consume more quickly, making it more attractive and also shareable,” he says. Visual content will continue to rise in popularity, he says, as content competes for people’s attention.

Morgan says assuring high-quality content begins with websites and blogs. High-quality content is likened to breadcrumbs spread along each digital media path to lead visitors to a company’s website. Being a trusted partner, McNeice says, is part of the overall brand strategy for AmWins.

“We can’t be on social media and reflect our brand promise without providing relevant and useful content,” she says.

Of course, there are always surveys and focus groups to find out what current and potential customers want and where they go to find it. Assurance’s practice leaders and sellers develop content through observing which topics get the most attention. But to discover the most popular content published by competitors, DeMers is also checking the tracking website buzzsumo.com.

To promote your company effectively, you must be where your clients are.”

Leslie McNeice, director of group communications and advertising, AmWins Group

McClintock says she likes TrackMaven, a product that “crawls through the various digital channels to measure your social signals and report on your performance relative to the industry.” By responding to the data and improving on digital marketing efforts, such programs give marketers evidence to improve results and show progress to the C-Suite.

DeMers suggests focusing on answering questions, especially from mobile users, as more people reach the Web through mobile devices than computers. Ensuring mobile optimization, building links from other websites, engaging in social media channels and guest blogging are more great ways to boost SEO, DeMers says.

Willis North America is already producing a large volume of material, such as white papers, industry reports, news releases and speeches, which is repurposed through other channels, says COO Eric Joost.

Willis, he says, is “just taking knowledge and making it very consumable.”

Davison says ensuring the information is easily available is also important. “Risk managers and CEOs want the information when they want it,” he says. “We are trying to publish content that is highly specialized.”

“I always recommend posting content at least once a week but ideally once per day,” DeMers says. “The key is consistency.” The quality of the content is most important, he says. “One amazing piece of content can have the effect of thousands of pieces of lower-quality content.”

Developing a steady stream of quality content can be challenging for those with tight marketing budgets. You can find it by hiring writers or by including guest bloggers who can expand the audience.

Building an Audience

Search engine optimization aims to boost website or webpage visibility in a search engine’s un-paid organic search results. Before LinkedIn was launched in 2003, SEO was already a best practice. Companies investing in websites wanted to ensure search engines—including Google and Bing—were ranking their information as high as possible to encourage visitor frequency.

Being easy to find requires marketers to be aware of ever-changing search engine requirements. Because there are so many opinions on SEO strategy, McClintock suggests listening to as many expert opinions as possible and then deciding what will work best for a firm’s program and budget.

In the early years, keyword “stuffing”—the practice of repeating words to gain priority on a company’s results pages—was a major strategy for attracting readers. In response, Google changed its algorithms to punish repetitive words and reward what it views as substantive content. Thus content must be updated frequently to enhance SEO.

“From a lead generation standpoint, we ideally want visitors to come straight to us,” McNeice says. “But the reality is they are going to Google, so we have to work with Google.”

Google is specifically giving more weight to so-called semantic searches, DeMers says. Sematic searches are based on user intent and less on specific keywords to help viewers find what they are seeking. The good news, he says, is that SEO is getting easier because the technical aspects—changes to website code or architecture such as HTML code—are less important than in the past.

“What’s most important now is simply the quality of your content, your brand and your brand’s reputation online,” he says. “So focusing on quality content publication, giving your audience a great user experience and building a strong, reputable and trustworthy brand are the core tenets of building successful SEO.”

Google also judges content based on its length. The 600-word blog was an industry standard two years ago, but Google associates longer content with higher quality. While this can be frustrating, experts agree content should be written for people and not search engines, so it should be written to the length it deserves. Readers who “like” and share content also contribute to higher rankings.

Blogging is one of the best ways for a corporate brand to show and develop its personality.

Rick Morgan, senior vice president, Aartrijk

To improve SEO, DeMers recommends posting blogs, providing helpful supplementary information to base content, including reviews, maps and travel information, and developing relevant and comprehensive content on a topic or theme. Customers will read blog posts not only to determine expertise, Morgan says, but to learn what their agents and brokers value.

“Blogging is one of the best ways for a corporate brand to show and develop its personality,” Morgan says.

To maximize an opportunity for blogs to convert readers to leads, DeMers says, each blog should include a call-to-action button. Pay-per-click advertising is another way to direct viewers to a website. The advertiser pays a site like Google for every time a visitor clicks on an ad, which redirects to the advertiser’s website. “Our pay-per-click campaign is a great way for us to make sure we are not missing opportunities when agents are looking for a market on a risk,” McNeice says, “especially for programs that don’t yet rank highly in organic search results.”

Analyze What You’ve Got

But once an existing or potential customer comes to the site, the best way to encourage the sales process is to use marketing automation products, such as Eloqua or Marketo, which track a visitor’s “digital body language,” Handmaker explains.

“The digital age,” Handmaker says, “means guessing is gone and cold calling is a thing of the past.”

By using digital analytics from the sales enablement software, he says, Assurance can see the timing and interest of subjects covered on its website, which increases both the amount and quality of leads. With this information in hand, the appropriate representative may contact the visitor and offer to help.

“Based on information they are looking up and consuming, you can have a more meaningful conversation of how they solve problems,” Handmaker says. While it does sound invasive, says Handmaker, people react positively because they are being offered a helping hand. “If you are reading everything we post related to the Affordable Care Act and we have not had a conversation,” he says, “we would be negligent in not contacting you.”

What’s Next

As technological innovation changes the way people consume information, marketers will find themselves continuously adjusting their digital presence. Today, more than 50% of LinkedIn users access the site from their mobile phones, Morgan says. Twitter is also big among mobile users, DeMers says.

“The number one future trend is really built around mobile. That is an area that we all have to get better and more serious about,” Handmaker says.

“As important as mobile already is, it’s going to become increasingly so,” McNeice says. “I know that we are thinking about mobile for everything we do—even more so than just six months ago.… Technology has changed so rapidly over the past several years that what we felt was cutting edge five years ago now feels outdated.”

Digital marketing will have to adapt even more to different mobile devices as sales cultures evolve and producers become more mobile. “We are actually thinking about reducing our website,” McNeice says. While the firm wants to adopt a simpler design, it faces a challenge every digital marketer confronts: guiding users to their more compelling information in an intuitive way.

“We hope improving the user experience of our website will result in an uptick in leads because people will equate it to an ease of doing business with us,” McNeice says. That, she says, “ties back to how we want our brand to be perceived.”

Adapting to mobile technology is much more than having a responsive website design. According to Handmaker says, it means “providing meaningful data to a client in their hands via their mobile devices at the right time.”

Carriers are already beginning to do this for the consumer market, and brokers need to follow suit. Carriers, for example, use apps that maintain identification cards, issue certificates of insurance, upload accident photos and help clients file claims.

Video is a great teaching tool, says R&R’s Schreiber. “Two of our top-viewed videos are titled ‘OSHA Residential Fall Protection Rules’ and ‘Accident Investigation Mistakes,’” she says. “These are timeless topics that pertain to a variety of industries.”

DeMers says some marketers believe future trends in digital marketing technology will include wearables such as smartwatches and Google Glass. But this new technology must become more available and more accessible before clients and brokers can adapt to it for their business needs.

Handmaker is also looking into gamification technology to enhance the user experience. “I view gamification as a way to enhance learning and encourage positive behavior such as safety and wellness activity by offering video game-style rewards,” he says.

Regardless of future trends, digital marketing is already considered a best practice in other industries and by those who use it in the insurance brokerage sector. The industry has no choice but to move forward if for no other reason than its clients and competitors are doing it. But early adopters have found productivity and competitive efficiencies that will likely soon eat the lunch of the wait-and-see crowd.

It’s no longer a matter of the look-at-me crowd crowing about how cool their latest app is. Today, digital marketing is a matter of business survival in a rapidly changing marketplace.