When people get to certain stages of their time shuffling around in this mortal coil — say, getting married or becoming parents — they realize that life insurance is one thing they need to get in order. SBLI had a similar epiphany a few years ago when it came to its marketing database.
“We needed to build a database separate from the one IT was maintaining,” says Rose Cahill, vice president and director of marketing for the Woburn, MA-based insurance company. “For marketing purposes, we didn’t have complete data, and it was in different formats. For us to create a true multichannel platform, the first step was to get our arms around the data.”
Acxiom became a key business partner for SBLI, which pulled together a team of folks from marketing and IT, as well as reps who worked regularly with the policy and lead data, to look at what data SBLI had, the condition of it, and what additional data needed to be appended.
“It was a struggle at first,” she admits. What was ultimately the most helpful strategy was figuring out what end result SBLI wanted from the data.
“We could tell you in excruciating detail what policies our customers owned, how they paid for them, all that kind of stuff — but we didn’t have the demographic, psychographic and lifestage information we needed for marketing,” Cahill explains.
And that was what SBLI needed in order to move toward a multichannel strategy — to employ not only traditional channels like direct mail and print, but also newer media like e-mail (see sidebar on page 14) and social networking.
SBLI’s core products are term life insurance, whole life insurance and fixed annuities. The company offers no variable products, “so what you see is what you get with our products. They are not subject to the vagaries of the stock market,” says Cahill, who joined the company after spending over a decade with competitor John Hancock.
In the traditional sales model, SBLI sells through a network of over 6,000 outside insurance brokers who are licensed to sell SBLI products through their agencies throughout the country. The other side of the business is direct sales; SBLI has its own internal group of agents who sell to customers who inquire directly to the company about policies — the marketing department sends leads to the agents for follow-up. For the most part, SBLI’s internal agents do not do prospecting.
Is there channel conflict? “I’d be lying if I said no,” Cahill chuckles. “Of course there is, but we find that, for the most part, the things we do to support our internal agents also help drive brokerage sales. So when you net it out, it helps the company overall because we’re able to provide products to where people want to get them.”
That means by calling the company direct, visiting an agent at an independent brokerage, visiting SBLI.com or getting a quote via SBLI’s mobile Web site. And while there are some slight differences, for the most part the company’s core prospect is the same, regardless of channel: age 30-55, married with young children and suburban. They’re very involved with their kids’ academic and extracurricular activities (think soccer moms and Little League dads), have mortgages and lead extremely busy lives.
Because the company started in New England — former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who had a practice in Boston, founded the company in 1907 as a way to offer the average person affordable coverage — SBLI’s presence is strong in the Northeast. “So brokerage has been a good way for us to expand,” says Cahill.
Products were sold through banks in Massachusetts in the beginning, and the direct sales model was instituted about 20 years ago, when new management saw it as a way to expand across the country. Today, SBLI has over a half million customers, and 10 million records (prospects, inquirers and customers) in its database.
The average sales cycle varies depending on the policy. Because all products are underwritten, people do need to have a medical exam and, in most cases, provide doctor’s records. People who get paperwork done on time can have a policy issued in as little as 30 days, but it is all based on risk. Individuals who do things like scuba dive or fly airplanes, it could take up to 90 days. Sixty days is the common timeframe.
“In our business, customers need multiple contacts to move forward,” says Phil Crampe, e-commerce manager for SBLI. “It’s not like waking up and thinking ‘Oh, I’d like to buy an iPad’ and you just do it. You don’t wake up and think, ‘I’ll buy life insurance today.’ You know you need to, but no one really wants to do it. The process scares people, so it takes multiple contacts before people move forward. And today, because people are educating themselves online, they want more information, and there are more touch-points.”
Continue to Page 2: Softly Social
Those touch-points, naturally, include social media. SBLI started out slowly in the social realm, using Tweetdeck to monitor conversations about term or whole life insurance. Not surprisingly, these often occurred among folks just getting married or expecting their first children, who were asking for recommendations from friends.
Rather than barge in with a hard sell, says Crampe, he’ll just congratulate them and send a link to SBLI’s quote calculator, just so they can see how much a policy might cost. Or he’ll offer a link to an article on planning to pay for college tuition on the learning center area of SBLI’s Web site.
“If you hit them with ‘buy now,’ that’s a fast way to turn them off,” he says. “It’s an extremely soft sell, just a way to keep SBLI as a point of reference.”
He also finds that Twitter can be useful for brand and reputation management. If, for example, there is negative press involving other companies using the name SBLI across the country, Crampe can use Twitter to clarify that the Massachusetts firm was not affiliated with them.
On Facebook, SBLI created a “Smart Money Tips” fan page featuring SBLI spokesperson and financial expert Jonathan Pond; the page now has more than 2,500 fans. Pleased with the success of that, the company began running ads on Facebook this summer. SBLI is currently doing A/B testing on creative to see what works best and then will start segmenting those offers. “As far as how that translated to paid policies, we’ll have to wait and see,” he says, noting that SBLI is tracking which landing pages prospects land on from the ads, as well as what time of the day the ads are served.
Back in the physical world, SBLI still uses traditional media such as print targeting publications reaching the core lifestages of new marriage and parenthood. As for direct mail, Cahill estimates that SBLI’s volume is probably 75% of what it was five years ago. “If direct mail was still driving great response rates for us, we’d be doing more of it, “ she says.
What is really driving the shift, of course, are budgets and what the customer wants.
“When we think about who is in our sweet spot — Gen X is there now, Gen Y is approaching it and the Millennials will be there next — they do everything digitally,” she says. “And I can tell you we’ve doubled the number of leads that come from online initiatives.”
When SBLI does mail, pieces are fairly straightforward and not heavily designed: #10 envelopes with strong copy are the winners. “Especially in this economy, anything that looks too promotional will just be thrown out without being opened,” says Cahill.
The SBLI.com address is included in all communications both online and off as a response mechanism, but a fair amount of folks still like to pick up the phone and call. And all direct mail pieces still have coupons, even in this day and age. “We tried doing pieces without and response fell,” she says. “Sometimes people even hold on to the mailings and send in the coupons a year later.”
Cahill notes that she’d love to be able to try tactics used by retailers, like discounting. “But the insurance industry is so regulated that you can’t do anything that would be perceived as a rebate to entice someone to buy. So we have to provide valuable content.”
IN THE GAME
In New England, SBLI uses beloved former Patriots footballer Tedy Bruschi as a paid spokesperson. Print campaigns feature the retired linebacker, and SBLI also displays signage at Celtics and Bruins games. When SBLI analyzed its customers’ social media behavior, the sports-related groups were among their favorite Facebook activities. “Well,” laughs SBLI’s Phil Crampe, “The Red Sox and Dunkin’ Donuts — they’re both very New England.”