There is no shortage of predictions and New Year’s resolutions about the challenges facing independent agents this year. There’s one trend, however, that needs no prediction because it’s already a reality that every agent must address or face growing irrelevance – society’s reliance on the smartphone.
eMarketer, an independent market research company that provides insights and trends related to digital marketing, media and commerce came out with their predictions including three that will exert immediate impact:
Mobile wallets will become a standard feature on newer smartphones and more retailers will accept proximity payments from systems like Apple Pay, Android Pay, Samsung Pay and others.
Sales via smartphones will spike this year due to moves by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon to simplify the transition from mobile shopping to mobile buying.
The last prediction is that Facebook is becoming largely mobile. In the third quarter of 2015, 727 million of Facebook’s 1.55 billion mobile monthly active users (MAUs) were mobile-only, equivalent to 47 percent of users who have never interacted with Facebook on a desktop computer. During the same period in 2014, just 34 percent were mobile-only.
Agents should be concerned with security issues when it comes to smartphones.
2015, 727 million of Facebook’s 1.55 billion mobile monthly active users (MAUs) were mobile-only, equivalent to 47 percent of users who have never interacted with Facebook on a desktop computer. During the same period in 2014, just 34 percent were mobile-only.
The bottom line is this: Society is hooked on the convenience and value of the connected world and that goes for more than half of older Americans as well the vast majority of younger consumers. Conceding the fact that insurance is a more complex product than a loaf of bread or theatre tickets, why would agents believe that they are exempt from this trend?
Agents need to make it as easy as possible for consumers to do business with them by incorporating the smartphone in their operations in three ways:
Websites must be mobile-optimized (able to read on a smartphone) and more interactive.
Social media must become a key communications tool with consistent and conversational posts.
Agents must allow access to at least some of their services via a smartphone with an agency-branded app.
Time is Now
The urgency for taking these steps is tied to the fact that agencies that delay drive away business in two ways: 1) current clients will move to more digitally-savvy competitors who make it easier to get answers and stay in touch 24/7 using digital tools, and 2) losing the opportunity to even pitch some prospects when they project an image of a “digital dinosaur.”
Is your agency a digital dinosaur? Ask yourself these questions:
- Is your website mobile-optimized?
- Does your website feature social media badges that are not connected?
- Does it take more than two clicks for someone to find what they’re looking for on your website?
- How does your website compare with those of your competitors? Do they all look the same?
- Do you post on social media more than once a week?
- Are posts tailored to your agency?
- Do you have a mobile app and is it branded to the agency?
- Do your digital tools project a distinctive personality and brand?
The fact is, much of the customer experience today is online and with a smartphone – and agents must adapt accordingly – and soon.
We have talked about the many reasons why agents need to add up-to-date digital tools to stay competitive. One possible reason is the financial penalty an agency could pay in diminished value without a truly up-to-date, distinctive website and effective social media and mobile capabilities. We wanted to test the validity of that reason, and what we found is fascinating.
Many agency principals have told me they understand the need to add or upgrade their digital tools but do not feel an urgency to do so. Their reasons generally fall into three categories:
- Those principals nearing retirement who believe their clients don’t use these tools
- Those who say their younger producers are already using them individually.
- Those who put off the investment due to cost.
An agency’s technology platform and its age are factors considered in valuation. Others include a track record of organic growth, profitability, reputation, employee productivity, and the degree of dependency on large accounts or on a certain industry.
Digitalization should not be considered a discretionary investment but rather an essential one for an agency’s long-term growth and profitability.
Hub International has been acquiring agents for many years and is arguably a pioneer in the process, not just in assigning a value to an agency but of also evaluating its long-term viability and strength. When Hub’s CEO Martin P. Hughes was asked what value he places on an agency’s degree of digitalization.
“Not one iota,” he said. “We can teach those skills, however only if they’re open to it. If they’re old school and not taking advantage of all the latest tools, then it’s a problem if they’re not open to change.”
Hughes cited other important factors including “sound leadership with a lot of runway left,” producer capability and willingness to be team players. He said that financial considerations are obviously important. However, the two most important factors for Hub when valuating companies are the “cultural pieces” and producer capability.
“Hub started this ballgame of acquiring agents, and we been very good at it because we are highly disciplined, he said. “We’ve made mistakes, but it has been because we fell in love with the market and not the people.”
What this boils down to is this: The effective use of digital tools matters, not because they add to or detract from an agency’s value but because they build name recognition, deepen client relationships and reach prospects the agency would otherwise miss. If an agency makes a conscious decision to not use digital tools at all or to continue to use an outmoded model, it will likely be less attractive to would-be buyers, not because of the lack of digital tools but because of its old-school vision and unwillingness to adapt to the connected marketplace.
When the Internet was still in its infancy, independent agents needed little more than an online address in order to have a website and what’s more, it was more novelty than necessity. Times have changed, however, and while most agents recognize the importance of a website, many have not kept pace with how consumers use them and how to make them stand out.
Early websites (the first was created in 1991) consisted of mostly text and were simple in structure. Of course they had to be given those slow early Internet connections. Remember the dial-up modem? At the same time, though, the simple design created a better user experience. Today, the Internet can accommodate far more complex and content-rich websites. Bigger is not always better and user experience is more important than ever.
In a survey conducted by Carat, a digital agency, 41 percent of respondents feel overwhelmed by the wealth of choices on the Web and make it harder to make purchase decisions. In addition, 55 percent of people online use only two or three trusted sites for their content discovery and purchasing.
For many of us, when we start looking for an agent, we don’t set aside time at a desktop computer. We’re more likely to ask our friends and neighbors for recommendations and browse the Web while commuting (not when we’re driving!) or when watching TV. We scan websites and only look for the information we need — and we want it quickly.
That’s why usability is so critical. Content is still king, however, content must be packaged so that it can be delivered in the most efficient and effective way. That means intuitively placed information, plenty of visuals, and easy navigation.
So how should an agency take steps to make its website more distinctive and useful?
Throw out the notion that a website is nothing more than an informational brochure with a listing of services and a pledge to provide the “best service.” Think of how the website will be used, not read.
Does the website look like every other agency in town? If so, what simple changes can be made short of a complete rebuild to make it stand out?
Understand how the agency’s website is being used now. A first-time visitor will take only 10 seconds to develop a first impression and decide whether or not to explore the site further. How long does a visitor spend on the site and what do they look at? How does a visitor’s behavior change on the site? After the first 10 seconds, what clicks, scrolls, and mouse movements take place and over what period of time? For best results, make sure the website is connected to Google Analytics.
What do clients want from a website? What information or help do they want online without having to take the time to send an email or place a phone call?
What devices are visitors using? Are those experiences optimized on those particular devices? What devices do clients and prospects use?
The fact is, many agency websites fall short in significant ways and unfortunately, the margin of error in today’s connected marketplace is slim.