Neil Johnson speaks to Insurance Age about how brokers can harness their websites to drive interest

Internet assistance - Keeping in touch Louise Meeson offers practical advice on how brokers can utilise their websites to build customer relationships and improve business performance

Insurance Age | 29 Jan 2010

The internet has revolutionised our buying habits. While many town centre shops sit vacant, the virtual high street goes from strength to strength - according to card payment firm Retail Decisions, online retail purchases in 2009 soared a massive 21% on the previous year to £49.8bn.

However, the insurance industry in general has lagged behind other sectors, leaving a gap in the market, which has been filled by the web-savvy aggregators. While some notable exceptions have bucked the trend, many smaller brokers do not have a web presence or, if they do, often have basic brochure-style sites, which fail to engage with the target audience - a short sighted approach to take in this day and age.

In its most recent general insurance online shopping survey, digital consultancy Foolproof found that 63% of adults in the UK bought their previous motor insurance policy online while 45% purchased their home insurance on the web and this looks set to rise.

In Foolproof's 2006 report, 66% said they expected to buy their next motor insurance policy online while 49% intended to buy their next home insurance policy this way, both of which have risen to 76% in 2008.

The number of people who use the internet for research is even greater. In its 2008 survey, the consultancy found that 93% of motor insurance and 92% of home insurance respondents cited the internet as one of the resources they would use to research buying their next policy.

While far fewer businesses buy insurance this way, the number is increasing. Given that small to medium-sized enterprise business is the bread and butter of most smaller brokers, it is vital that they get to grips with the internet sooner rather than later.

Adrian Waters, technical director at Ceta, says: "I do think the industry has been lagging behind somewhat. The majority of consumers choose to do their research on the internet but if you search for insurance brokers, often they don't have websites or are very basic. Just having a website is an essential element. It's a confidence thing as potential customers want to see what they are dealing with."

Equal opportunities

He points out that a professional website can allow smaller brokers to compete with national players, adding that it's not all about sales but that it can be used to improve customer service, gather information - which can be used to cross-sell - as well as showcase customer testimonials.

Steve Manton, chief executive of marketing agency M Consulting, agrees that most brokers have been slow off the mark, but he does highlight pioneers such as Moorhouse and Belmont.

"You need to plan the customer journey. You must keep the website fresh as you want people to come back to it regularly. In order to do this, you can publish information such as government White Papers and blogs - elements that get you recognised as a source of knowledge," he adds.

It could be that some brokers have resisted the lure of the internet as they are afraid of losing their personal touch but this need not be the case.

Mr Manton says brokers do not have to spend up to £30,000 on implementing a fully integrated e-commerce solution but could use the website to direct enquiries to a call centre, highlighting the importance of free social media tools, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, in building brand recognition.

Neil Johnson, director of marketing company Lamb, says: "When you buy a URL and server space you have, in effect, created your own TV channel. You can't just ignore it, you need to make sure it's fresh and up to date," he adds.

"From a broker's perspective, they have an opportunity to be a voice in their own local community. Why not engage? Why not talk about what's going on locally - for instance ask what people think about the local school being shut. If your business is situated in the community, then interact with it."

Indeed, brokers that embrace the internet are reaping the benefits. Welsh personal lines broker Motaquote, which is part of Protectagroup, says that since it invested in pay per click advertising in August 2009, the number of visitors to its website has increased significantly.

Nigel Lombard, MD at the company, says: "A website should not be a temporary measure. It needs to be part of the strategic business plan.

"If businesses want to move forward and grow their customer base they need to make effective use of their website by ensuring the information is relevant and up to date. The content on the site should be related to any keyword search terms used in search engines by customers."

He continues: "Brokers are great at networking and these skills are transferable to social networking sites. Using your URL will help raise awareness of your brand online."

So, the message is clear: it is simply not enough to have a web presence - it's about making sure you engage with your audience in as many ways as possible. The internet is here to stay, so you ignore it at your peril.