“When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.”
—King of Swamp Castle, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”
Scott Cornelius and the King have something in common. When Cornelius bought his father’s insurance agency—Earnie Cornelius Insurance Agency Inc. (ECI)—in 2006, the business had no Web presence at all. This wasn’t all that unusual for insurance agencies at the time, when “brochureware” websites were still the norm and e-marketing was for geckos and cavemen.
Cornelius, who had just come from the retail sector (he’s the former director of operations for retail golf chain Golf USA), was appalled at the insurance industry’s lack of online marketing. “I was really surprised how little the Internet was used for insurance by companies and customers alike,” he said. “In retail, consumers have been using the Internet since 2000.”
Determined to grow the agency by at least 20 percent a year, Cornelius launched a website to attract new customers, building the first version himself. But “it didn’t show up in the search engines and quite honestly, it was not anything anyone would want to look at.”
A year later, Cornelius created another website, using a template provided by Insurance Website Builder, a digital agency marketing platform built exclusively for insurance agents. This site looked much better, but was still not showing up in search engines for ECI’s small town of Piedmont, Okla.
By the beginning of 2010, Cornelius’s agency was in a financial hole. “We were expecting a large bonus in 2009 and did not receive it,” he said. “If we didn’t generate some commission income, we were not going to make it long term.” Because Insurance Website Builders had just introduced an advanced SEO service, ECI signed up for it. The cost was $3,600 for set-up and a $750 monthly support fee.
The results were immediate.
Related: Read the profiles of the other three finalists:
“Over the course of the last 3 years, we have tripled our business and now have a debt-free agency,” Cornelius said. “We attribute most of our success from our Internet leads and the opportunity to write additional lines of business.”
Today, ECI’s website satisfies the agency’s business objectives of attracting prospects, delivering real-time quotes, providing targeted information, capturing visitor information and scoring high on search engines.
“In addition to delivering a graphically appealing design, ECI’s website demonstrates its ability to provide client value by incorporating self-serve technology and business best practices throughout the site,” said Peter van Aartrijk, CEO of Aartrijk, who, along with Jeff Yates, ACT executive director, and tech consultant Steve Anderson, selected ECI as the best agency website of the year.
The judges singled out ECI in several areas, including website look and feel, mobile optimization, client services available, social media integration, ease of use and content quality.
“What made this site stand out was how they initially used a template, then customized it for their own agency and information,” Anderson said. “There were standard forms included in that package but again, the agency took it to a different level by adding self-service certificates through the customer portal—another example of starting with a base and adding other services or improvements.”
Numbers tell the story
According to Google Analytics, ECI’s website sees between 700 and 1,000 visits in a 30-day period, with at least 2 out of 3 being new visitors. On average, most people visit 2.45 pages and spend more than 2.5 minutes on the site. In a given week, ECI receives between 20 and 30 legitimate quote requests from organic Web searches in personal lines, commercial lines, life and health. And the little old agency in Piedmont, Okla.—consisting of two producers and 9 total employees—has positioned itself as a leader in yard welders and construction program business, writing business in at least 7 states, a coup that Cornelius is convinced wouldn’t be possible without a solid webpage.
Because of the website, “we have changed the way insurance is sold. Customers are coming to us ready to purchase,” Cornelius said. “The website gives us instant credibility and we do not have to cold call customers. Even though our office is in a small town outside of Oklahoma City, we look like a big agency that can meet all of the customer’s insurance needs. Approximately 80 percent of our new business is written without ever actually seeing the customer.”
It is this ability to transcend the limits of size and geography that makes a good website such a powerful tool for independent agencies. “Agencies are discovering that this concept of going paperless and using automation finally has allowed them to break down the geographical barriers and work from anywhere,” Yates said.
Small Agency, Big Ideas
ECI’s highly visible website is designed to entice and inform prospects and provide 24/7 service to existing clients. Among its attributes:
- Optimization for Google, Yahoo and Bing
- Automatic search engine pinging so refresh request is sent to the search engines when page is updated
- Search engine-friendly URLs to increase visibility
- Navigation menu in ordered list indexed by search engines
- Hl and H2 tags to notify search engines of important content and keywords
- XML sitemap to notify search engines of URLs available for crawling
- Optimized blog updated several times a month
- Mobile application
- Regular keyword analysis
- Flash and video capabilities to download free reports and update documents
- Web lead forms to capture potential prospect information
- Online comparative raters for home, auto, life, health and commercial insurance
- Forms for policy changes, payment info and requesting additional info.
In designing the website, ECI looked to direct writers like Esurance, Progressive, State Farm and Geico for inspiration, Cornelius said. “You have to give the customer something to do when they get to your site. At ECI they can get a quote, file a claim or read our blog to get information.”
Cornelius learned early the importance of measuring Web activity. Using Google Analytics, he tracks not only the raw numbers and how they translate to new business, but also what readers are looking for, which he uses to determine content.
ECI specializes in contractors’ business, so content and SEO are built around that. “In Oklahoma, most communities now require the contractors to have general liability and workers’ comp to get a permit,” Cornelius said. “Most of these contractors don’t know where to go for that, so they pull their phones out and go online. Even though some request a quote online, most still just call us.”
For the site’s general content, ECI uses Insurance Website Builder and IIABA’s Trusted Choice, which provides two articles a week. Travelers, Safeco and CNA also have good content on their websites that ECI shares. The agency hired a part-time college marketing major who regularly updates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the blogs. Key words are defined within all content so it shows up in the searches along with the website.
Providing online customer access is another essential element. ECI offers 24/7 online customer support accessible through the website, where customers can access for auto IDs, certificates of insurance and coverage information.
It’s this “ease of doing business” where most agency websites lag, Cornelius said. Smart agents can combine the power of the Web with their extensive product knowledge to provide service that transcends price. “Most of the time, the average consumer doesn’t have a clue what they are really buying; they are mainly looking for price,” he said. “Even though they can get a real-time quote for home, auto, life, health and commercial on our site, what we really get is their name, phone and/or email. We contact them within 24 hours and start talking to them about all of the options. Educating the consumer is one of the biggest keys to gaining a long-term customer. We also work on account rounding and selling them multiple policies, such as life or health. This insures the customer will stay with you longer.”
The agency built a database of more than 2,300 email addresses, which it regularly contacts through Insurance Website Builder’s “AgencyBuzz” email marketing program.
ECI’s biggest website challenges are keeping content current and relevant, and staying at the top of search engines. The site is optimized for more than 15 search phrases, which Cornelius regularly tweaks based on visitor searches.
How does he see the website evolving in the future? “My biggest dream is for the customer to go to our site and fill out everything and the policy to be issued without anyone in the office touching it. We are close in health and life insurance, but have a way to go in property and casualty. Generations Y and Z generations want to conduct business via the Internet. They don’t want to talk with an agent. I want to have that option available to them.”
Website of the Future
Although websites like ECI’s are state of the art, technology is advancing so rapidly that today’s cutting-edge website will be dull tomorrow. Our judges weighed in on what they think the next wrinkle will be.
- Increased use of “clean, consumer oriented” video to appeal to millennials and beyond.
- Mobile capabilities that are equal in functionality to what’s available online and provide easily accessible customer information, including certificates of insurance, policy information and the ability to make payments.
- Adaptive website design, which automatically reformats to any screen size, whether it’s a smart phone, tablet, laptop, desktop or a television screen.
- Electronic signatures and online payments will become increasingly mobile; more states are allowing electronic proof of auto insurance.
- To extend market reach, small agencies can plant producers in other states who can work from home; a strong online presence can tie everything together.