Harnessing the power of digital marketing: Using non-traditional tools to sell a traditional product

If you’ve followed my earlier articles on this site, you may find this one a bit different. Typically, I present the perspectives of two top producers on a particular issue, and typically those two producers have no affiliation with one another.

This month, I’m taking a little bit of a different approach. This month, I’ve spoken to two different top producers who handle two very different market segments within the same organization. Somewhat fittingly, I think, my approach this month is a non-traditional approach to an interview that focuses on a non-traditional approach to marketing and selling life insurance. That approach is using technology – more specifically, social media and other “digital tools” – to market and sell.

Both of this month’s top producers, Ryan J. Pinney, CSFP (shown at right), and Nic West are with Pinney Insurance Center. Mr. Pinney is vice president, brokerage sales, and works primarily with the firm’s traditional brokerage relationships and brokerage affiliates – typically individual independent producers and smaller general agents who broker business. His insights, as you’ll see in the interview that follows, focus primarily on how the “typical” producer or general agent can leverage technology like automating processes, using technology to eliminate paperwork, and leveraging online tools to be more effective.

Nic West is a director at Pinney Insurance Center, and he manages two facets of the firm’s business – their direct marketing division, WholesaleInsurance.net, and their affinity relationships that operate in the direct-marketing space. In this interview, Mr. West’s experience and insights will focus primarily on how those already heavily involved with technology and the direct marketing of insurance can make incremental changes that provide big results like landing page optimization techniques, pay-per-click advertising, targeted remarketing, search engine optimization (SEO), etc.

Getting started with a digital marketing strategy

I began the discussion by asking them share a little bit about their backgrounds as advisors and how they first decided to integrate a digital marketing strategy – that is, integrating marketing on the Web, through social media, etc. – into their businesses. Mr. Pinney told me, “I began my career as a financial advisor in Roseville, California, with my family’s insurance agency in 2004. I loved helping other advisors with their ‘problem’ planning cases and wanted to learn everything about the insurance industry I could. The more I learned, the more I saw a huge opportunity in web solutions and digital marketing.

“Consumers were spending more time online,” he continued, “researching products and, eventually, buying them. But most agents still carried paper files and scheduled face-to-face client meetings. That didn’t match up with the business model of online giants like Amazon, for example. Our agency’s first consumer site went live in 2002. When I began, I started looking at ways to help agents make the transition to web marketing the same way our consumer sales department had. This led to our first online platform, EZLifeSales.com, and also to DataRaptor.com, our new platform that incorporates digital marketing with the agency tools that made EZLife so popular.”

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Mr. West came from a different background. “I started selling face-to-face in the height of the mortgage market. I was selling ‘mortgage protection’ insurance to those who just bought houses or refinanced. After driving all over town, I thought there had to be a better way.

“I ended up partnering with an existing online retailer of life insurance,” Mr. West continued, “and wrote more insurance in one week than I had in six months. Shortly after this experience, I decided to partner with another firm and start a ground-up build of an agency with a focus being 100% online marketing and sales fulfillment. We started with SEO practices and then branched out to social media, pay per click, media buying, and paid email traffic to generate leads.”

Mistakes and setbacks

Since no one I know immediately succeeds in a new market or with a new approach, I asked them both to talk about their early mistakes and setbacks in moving into the digital arena. Mr. West talked about putting all of his digital eggs in one basket. “A significant misstep was relying 100% on SEO for as long as we did,” he said. “When 100% of your business comes from this source of traffic and then Google changes their algorithm, it can absolutely crush a company. Luckily, we were quick to react and diversified into other marketing media that were less volatile.”

For Mr. Pinney, there was more than a single issue. “There are a two things I would do differently,” he told me. “One of the challenges a digital marketer faces is keeping up with search engine algorithms. Prior to early 2012, the best way to do this was through link building. As a result, our largest consumer website had an extensive collection of backlinks. But once Google began implementing penalties for sites with overly optimized link profiles, suddenly everything that had helped us was now hurting us. We had to backtrack and find new ways to stay visible online—social media helped a lot with this. If I were doing it again, I’d worry less about specific search engine algorithms and more about building a solid marketing funnel.

“The other thing I’d do differently,” he continued, “is start building a customized solution earlier. For a long time, we watched digital marketing leaders like HubSpot and Marketo and cobbled together our own solutions from a variety of third-party sources, trying to replicate the services they offered. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Finally, I decided to build a system that offered the digital marketing functionality I wanted, with the insurance agent-specific functionality my partners and affiliates needed. That was the origin of DataRaptor.com. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t waited so long to build this platform.”

• To comment about this article, post questions or provide your own insight on digital marketing, please visitthis thread.

How to get started

Because they were so open about their missteps, it seemed logical to ask them about any advice they’d give to the advisor taking his or her first steps into this area. Mr. Pinney said, “The first step is to create a marketing plan. You need to know which outlets you want to use and how they work together. For example, are you going to focus on email marketing, content marketing, social media, or all three? You need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of these tools, and then make an educated decision on how to make them work together. The best way to do this is with consistent messaging and a clear call to action.

“Having said that,” he continued, “I know that creating content and learning new platforms is no easy task. In my experience, many agents let a lack of technical skill keep them from getting started.”

That’s why he includes functionality in his DataRaptor platform, allowing newcomers to get a feel for digital marketing without a big investment in time or learning new skills. “If they enjoy it, it’s easy to add social media as a next step, or create their own email newsletter—both components of a strong digital marketing platform,” Mr. Pinney said.

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Mr. West encouraged the new advisor to begin with the basics. “Put up a website. Put up a social media presence to include a Facebook business page, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. Consumers need to see content, and that content is not always viewed on your website. Now that you have a website to collect client interest and social media to help give credibility, you need to get traffic to all sources. Traffic can come from pay-per-click, paid email marketing, retargeting, and organically. Those without a stomach for risk will think SEO is the way to go—you couldn’t be further from the truth, and unless you are a next-generation SEO marketer, you are wasting your time.”

Digital marketing ideal for term, B2B products

I asked about the kinds of products that they market, and more specifically, whether they’ve found digital marketing more helpful in marketing some specific kinds of products, or whether they find that it works fairly similarly across an entire product portfolio.

Mr. West spoke to that first. “By far the cheapest acquisition cost of a client is with term life insurance. Once you have acquired that client, you can now cross-market other product lines like critical illness to help them combat the rising health care costs associated with the Affordable Care Act. There is not much search volume for these other products, making them quite difficult to lead with in your digital marketing.”

Mr. Pinney elaborated further, “Digital marketing is a challenge no matter what you’re selling, but it’s a little easier to get engagement in the business-to-business space – in other words, brokerage marketing to other advisors. Our agent-driven platforms, EZLifeSales and DataRaptor, are targeted to a specific niche—advisors who want to sell more in less time with less paperwork. It makes connecting easier since we are those advisors. We know where to reach them and we know what their pain points are. It’s a little harder to reach consumers for our business-to-consumer sites in this hyper-crowded digital marketplace. According to comScore, the average person sees more than 1,700 banner ads online per month. That’s not counting ads on social media networks, in emails, radio ads, television ads, billboards, and more. You need a really strong hook to compete in that space. The business-to-business space, on the other hand, is more clear-cut: Do you offer a solution that makes sense? If you do, people will listen.”

• To comment about this article, post questions or provide your own insight on digital marketing, please visitthis thread.

Digital marketing plus

There’s little doubt that Pinney Insurance is one of the industry leaders in digital marketing, so I asked them to talk about whether they are using digital strategies exclusively in marketing these days, or whether digital marketing is just one factor in a broader marketing plan. Mr. Pinney started by telling me, “Digital marketing is definitely where we spend most of our time. However, we do supplement that in a traditional way with things like print journalism and speaking engagements. In fact, the face-to-face connections you make at industry events are a great platform for driving traffic to your digital marketing outlets.

“For example,” Mr. Pinney continued, “at this year’s MDRT meeting in Toronto, I talked about digital marketing and why it’s changing the face of insurance sales. I turned my talk into an eBook and offered it to all my listeners who wanted to review the strategies and tips I offered—that eBook is still available at www.PinneyInsurance.com/the-innovators-edge, by the way. My talk helped boost awareness about the digital marketing campaign behind the eBook, so both strategies worked together. I think digital marketing is a space everyone can—and should—be using, but as algorithms and organic reach change all the time, you still need one or two traditional marketing tactics you can use to supplement your digital reach.”

Mr. West added, “I am an exclusive digital marketer for the purposes of initial lead acquisition. I do, however, send direct mail to clients for the purposes of cross-selling or referral generation in combination with other digital efforts. I also use direct mail in combination with email to communicate with my existing client base around topics like conversions and policy reviews.”


I asked about where the expertise in digital media originated within their businesses and what kinds of experience and education their digital marketers have, and I was not at all surprised to learn that Mr. West did not depend on anyone to get things up and running. “I started 100% on my own and had to really figure it out,” he said. “It took lots of lattes and late nights. I eventually hired a small team of young guns who are always surfing blogs and underground marketing forums for the next best source of traffic and online conversions. Their backgrounds are in web design and a lesser background in programming and marketing. Some have degrees, some don’t. I don’t consider a degree a prerequisite to working with me. I would rather have someone who spends their waking hours in an underground marketing community than someone with a degree or certificate on their wall.”

Mr. Pinney added, “In our area of the business, we have a dedicated marketing team that does everything from web design to content production to videography. I work with our marketing director to provide the overall direction and strategy, and then the team creates and implements whatever materials are necessary to fulfill that strategy. In terms of professional backgrounds, our marketing director has an extensive background in the life insurance industry, including positions as an underwriter, agent, and financial planner, as well as experience managing marketing, sales, and operations teams. Our team members have years of experience in their fields, with a combination of formal education, advanced degrees, and portfolios of independent work. We look for people with expert-level skills in their field, and let them do what they do best.”

• To comment about this article, post questions or provide your own insight on digital marketing, please visitthis thread.

Growth coming via analytics, mobile

I encouraged both advisors to look ahead and share their thoughts on where they see growth and opportunity. Mr. Pinney told me, “At the moment, our most untapped potential is in using analytics and ‘Big Data’ to refine our marketing funnels. It’s one thing to create content that describes your product or service. It’s another thing to create a free guide explaining what that product or service can do for a client, add interested readers to a mailing list, and reach out to people with more information, offers, and webinar invitations so they can really get a feel for what you offer. We’re already doing a lot of these things independently, but it’s time to bring all that data together and really segment our customer base to see which pieces—and parts of the process—speak loudest to them.

“Harnessing the power of analytics,” he continued, “is one big reason I created DataRaptor. In one place, agents can get stats on their clients—who’s up for renewal, who doesn’t have a disability policy yet, etc. I want to give them the ability to pair that client data with marketing data, so they can see what individual clients have clicked on, both on their website and in their marketing emails. In this way, the client self-selects for particular products or marketing campaigns. It saves the agent time, it fits the client’s needs, and it can lead to a longer-lasting, more productive agent/client relationship.

For Mr. West, the most significant opportunities lie in the mobile arena. “Definitely mobile strategies. We are just getting into this marketing arena and are, quite frankly, behind the eight ball. Mobile traffic is cheaper and has a higher conversion rate than desktop traffic. The issue is creating your website for maximum conversion in a 4”-5” telephone screen.”

The power of retargeting

To wrap things up, I opened the floor to any additional comments or areas that the advisors wanted to address. In response, Mr. West talked about retargeting. “Retargeting traffic with display ads has been crucial for my digital marketing efforts. Retargeting,” he explained, “is basically adding a cookie to the browser of a visitor that didn’t convert the first time on my website. With the cookie, I can continue to ‘follow’ them around the Internet, displaying my ads on sites they frequent. Since they have visited my brand before and they are seeing my brand again, they are likely to reengage in the buying process with me versus another source.”

Mr. Pinney focused on something more traditional in this business—relationships. “One of the best ways to use your digital presence is to build relationships,” he said. “Be helpful—don’t just sell or monetize. Interact with your audience, answer their questions, ask your own, and be generally approachable. This applies to social media followers, blog readers, webinar attendees, etc. It’s okay to tell people what you do and what you sell, but be sure you do it after you’ve provided them with something of interest or value. That will increase the value of every digital interaction you have with your clients and prospects.”

Turns out that, at their core, digital interactions and relationships may not be so different from face-to-face interactions and relationships after all.

• To comment about this article, post questions or provide your own insight on digital marketing, please visitthis thread.

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Ryan J. Pinney, CSFP, is a six-year MDRT member with six Top of the Table qualifications. A regular contributor to financial publications where he has been featured by Bankrate.com, Yahoo! Finance, and Fox Business News, he is a sought-after expert at using technology to drive insurance business and streamline the application and underwriting processes. He leverages his experience with search engine optimization, social media, and online marketing to assist agents and agencies alike create their online presence and profit from it. Utilizing the same principals and technology his firm provides to agents, his firm sold more than 16,000 policies direct-to-consumer over the Internet last year.

Nic West is a director at Pinney Insurance Center. Having placed thousands of life insurance policies, Mr. West’s knowledge of consumer buying habits is vast. After firsthand experience with both door-to-door marketing to businesses (B2B) and selling individual policies face to face (B2C), Mr. West realized the need for a strategic overhaul. It was then that he left the grind of door-to-door marketing and face-to-face sales and adopted a technology-based approach. Now a successful direct marketer, Mr. West is a pioneer of a non-intrusive, highly profitable distribution model.

Charles K. Hirsch, CLU, is contributing editor of Insurance Forums. He is also the president of Hirsch Communications Consulting, LLC, a communications consulting operation in Florissant, Mo. For many years, Chuck was the editor and publisher of Life Insurance Selling magazine and wrote the monthly column, What’s Going On in the Life Insurance Business. From 1999 to 2008, he was the publisher of several of the leading industry magazines in the life insurance, property/casualty insurance, and mortgage markets. These days, Chuck’s firm specializes in the development and execution of many kinds of communication strategies, particularly in the financial services business.