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Analysis From Watchfire GomezPro: Trend Toward Simplified Homepages

Feature-rich homepages may provide a complete overview of what the institution has to offer, but they require undue scanning and effort from the majority of customers who come online seeking to complete only one of a handful of the most common tasks.

Traverse the world of online financial services and you will find many homepages devoting the majority of their real estate to indexing links to dozens of products and features, and to lengthy text designed to brand the institution or contextualize a service. While such homepages may provide a complete overview of what the institution has to offer, they require undue scanning and effort from the majority of customers who come online seeking to complete one of a handful of the most common tasks.

This path is often paved with good intentions: The online channel manager wants to present the institution as offering a wide range services, cross-sell products and features, or make it easier to navigate to lesser-sought services. However, the design approach of treating all critical and minor features the same is also often the result of disparate ownership groups battling on behalf of their own interests.

Many firms, such as Allstate, are switching to a different approach that features less text, requires less scanning for the most-critical user paths and provides a cleaner, simpler initial introduction. Where the old page failed to prioritize products and services, Allstate's new homepage clearly prioritizes and breaks out the common tasks of getting a quote, finding an agent, managing a policy online and learning about Allstate. All other content can be accessed via top-level navigation options but is no longer highlighted in prominent areas of the homepage. While this approach makes locating information on products such as mortgages harder and does less to promote the value proposition of retirement planning, for instance, it prioritizes the most-sought paths.

Digging into the details of the design change reveals the extent of the refocusing of the homepage: While non-auto products are available through the quote drop-down, gone are the radio buttons highlighting the services that had taken up valuable real estate; a saved quote retrieval feature, which had rivaled the "Get A (new) Quote" feature in its prominence, is now an afterthought. Allstate has removed Flash advertising for offers like Kiplingers retirement videos and specific banking products from the left side, and lengthy branding text supporting retirement, savings and banking as well as lengthy instructional text supporting the value proposition of the agent locator tool also is gone. Links to corporate governance, Allstate Canada, the Allstate Foundation, home improvement and planning calculators are no longer featured on the homepage, and repetitive homepage links to the media newsroom, privacy policy and claim center have been reduced to single instances.

In simplifying corporate homepages, some financial institutions are challenged by the diversity of the markets they serve. Consider a bank serving consumers, small businesses and larger commercial customers. A homepage presenting first-time visitors with equal screen real estate for each different market will likely produce sub-optimal results for the institution. Indeed, several banks tried this approach with their homepages and have since abandoned it. Financial institutions are now targeting one market on the homepage, and most prioritize consumers. Bank of America, T. Rowe Price, National City and Wells Fargo, among others, will remember if the visitor clicks on links for other markets and prioritize those markets on subsequent visits. A similar trend is occurring with a wide range of multiline insurance carriers focusing on retail and, more specifically, property and casualty.

Nationwide currently is working on a site redesign that will align the online channel with the brand's current representation in offline advertising. As part of this effort, Nationwide is changing the layout of the public site and increasing the prominence of personal lines on the homepage. Today, the public site operates like three separate sites, and most personal lines content and functionality resides not on nationwide.com, but on nationwideinsurance.com. By prioritizing personal insurance lines, the new nationwide.com homepage is likely to give less attention to ancillary lines and services (e.g. investor relations, investments, retirement).

Liberty Mutual is also revamping its public site and is focusing on increasing the prominence of personal lines from the homepage and simplifying clutter. Today, the libertymutual.com homepage serves as the hub for all its services, portraying business insurance and international operations navigation options just as prominently as it does personal lines options. Currently, personal lines utilize roughly one-sixth of the corporate homepage. And with the new homepage, the focus will shift, and much of the functionality and navigation from libertymutualinsurance.com will appear on the corporate homepage.

When these insurers simplify and focus their homepages, why do they so often focus on personal lines? One reason often cited is that these homepages receive more visits from consumers than from visitors in other markets. However, that is not the best reason for prioritizing personal lines, as securing an institutional client could be immensely more profitable than landing a given consumer.

The best reason to prioritize personal lines directly relates to the asymmetric role of the site. The corporate homepage doesn't play the same role in attracting and serving customers in one market that it does in another. Why? Because the insurer doesn't take the same overall approach to attracting and serving customers in one market than it does in another. Business customers are more likely to visit the insurer online after having already been pitched or served by a relationship manager, whereas retail prospects are more likely to come to the homepage not knowing what exactly the insurer can do for them and what is offered online. In streamlining the site and prioritizing tasks, insurers shouldn't just consider the size or profitability of each market; they should also consider the overall experience a customer or prospect in a given market has with the insurer.

The emerging trends of simplified homepages, aimed at better supporting the needs of users pursuing the most common online tasks, should not be adopted uniformly from company to company or industry to industry. Corporate homepages should also not be designed with an ideal number of product/services highlighted. Rather, each institution will want to approach differently depending on how diversified they are and how disparately sought their products and services are. If a firm goes in understanding that every additional link or textual paragraph means less focus on (and more work to find) their most commonly sought paths, then they should be able to self-select which current areas are ancillary or repetitive. If approached sensibly, this methodology can facilitate a cleaner and more effortless user experience for the largest populations of a company's online users.

Tim Carpenter is an insurance industry analyst with Watchfire GomezPro in Waltham, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected]

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