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Aviva USA Creates Island in Second Life

Aviva USA has created an island in the virtual world of Second Life that is designed to recruit the next generation of life and annuity agents.

Photo Gallery: Photo Gallery: Inside and Outside the Buildings on Aviva USA's Second Life Island

Video: A Tour of the Aviva USA Island

LOOKING FOR a unique and effective way to connect with members of the younger generations who have the potential to be effective insurance agents, Aviva USA ($40 billion in assets) has established a presence in Second Life, the online virtual world with approximately 14 million "residents." The Des Moines, Iowa-based life and annuity insurer created a private island within Second Life that translates to approximately 16 acres of land, complete with waterways, themed landmasses and modern architecture, according to Aviva USA president of sales and distribution Mark Heitz.

With an assist from Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM's Digital Convergence Business Unit, Aviva USA developed the island as a venue for agent recruitment and education, Heitz explains. "If you look at the average age of our producers and agents today, it's obviously getting older. Certainly, as with anyone, [older agents] ultimately will retire," he says. "If you look at [Second Life user] demographics not only by age, but by education, affluence, brand sensitivity and even the male/female splits, this certainly looked to us like it had the right demographics. There are, potentially, in the population of Second Life users, [many] that would be good life and annuity agents."

Heitz adds that the carrier is taking an agent-recruitment strategy, as opposed to an end-consumer marketing approach, to its Second Life initiative because that is where Aviva USA currently sees the most potential in the online world. "Our thought was that initially, since insurance is not something that is big in the Second Life world right now, ... the first and best use of this for us is as a means of attracting new, younger agents to sell our products," he says.

Jeff Goldberg, a senior analyst in Celent's insurance practice, says that it is yet to be seen whether Second Life will be an effective tool for insurers, but that the virtual world could very well have the potential to be a valuable recruiting tool. "While it's still to be proven whether Second Life can be as effective a tool for corporate interactions as the hype suggests, agents an insurer does recruit through that environment may prove to be particularly valuable. Any agent recruited through Second Life will have already shown their comfort with new forms of communication and will be prepared to utilize different channels to reach customers -- exactly the skill set a tech-savvy insurer wants," Goldberg says.

Taking the Tour

According to Heitz, Second Life members can visit Aviva USA's island by invitation only. He says the company is looking to make sure that visitors to the island are legitimate and interested candidates to become Aviva USA-licensed agents. "We want to have some control over who can come onto the island," Heitz relates. "Once we get a consumer area more up and running, I think we'll be more prone to perhaps making that invitation [more widely available]."

Potential agents can request an invitation by calling a toll-free Aviva phone number. Invitations were distributed to attendees at June's Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) annual meeting, a popular agent gathering that was held in Toronto and at which Aviva USA formally unveiled the Second Life initiative.

In its current incarnation, the Aviva USA island's function is primarily one of information and education. The island has a welcome area and tutorial trail with five stations of information that introduce visitors to the island and its features. It also includes a commons building -- designed in a similar style to that of Aviva USA's new real-life headquarters in West Des Moines -- that features an area devoted to its Bright Futures national ad campaign, a wellness area with interactive surveys and a timeline history of the company.

In addition, a replica of Aviva USA's wellness bus, which tours the country as part of the carrier's relationship with the Mayo Clinic, is stationed on the island. Visitors also can walk away from the island with Second Life in-world accessories for their online characters, or avatars, such as Aviva-branded hang gliders and messenger bags.

"It's a combination of who we are, what our history is, what our products are here in the United States and the exclusive relationship with the Mayo Clinic for wellness benefits to attract interest in becoming an agent," Heitz says of the island's content.

A cross-departmental team was put together to work on the island's development, including representatives from Aviva USA's application development, Web governance, compliance and legal, training and sales development, product development, and marketing communications areas. In addition, a group of sales support team workers were trained on Second Life to answer questions and take next steps with potential agents who express interest in Aviva USA through the virtual world. "As the usage and the demand from Second Life increases, that team will be expanded," Heitz notes.

While not necessarily a small dollar amount, Aviva USA's Second Life project investment represents less than 1 percent of the company's sales and distribution budget, Heitz reports, adding that he expects the investment would be significantly increased if the company decided to make the island more focused on training or the end consumer.

Currently, however, Aviva USA has no plans to expand its Second Life presence to interact with end customers, Heitz adds. But he says he is optimistic that the company could move that way if Second Life residents become more amenable to making insurance decisions in-world.

"The question becomes, will Second Life residents ultimately be comfortable with studying about and buying their life insurance and annuity products through Second Life?" Heitz says. "We think that strong potential exists and that it will reach people who might not otherwise purchase our products."

For now, however, the project's success will be measured by how many potential agents are attracted to the company via Second Life. If the company recruits around 500 per year through the initiative, Heitz says, he'll consider it "very successful."

As Second Life itself is still a growing and evolving medium, though, patience will be a virtue as Aviva USA looks for a return on the investment, Heitz explains. "This is not a program that is in the more normal scope of how we would expand distribution. We're specifically targeting a younger potential agent," he relates. "We have to understand that we're certainly one of the first companies to even start down this road. We have to be patient, because it is new and different."

"It's good for insurers to start exploring what does and does not work, as online interactions of all kinds are becoming more important," adds Celent's Goldberg. "Even if Second Life itself does not prove fruitful for an insurer, building a customer service staff that is comfortable with new and different channels will help reach new customers as the way people prefer to interact continues to change."

Heitz acknowledges that the initiative likely will be more beneficial in the long term -- perhaps not realizing its full potential for several years -- as the Second Life community continues to grow. "If we can get started now and be a leader on it and get our story in front of this audience sooner, I think the potential for that impact being significant increases," Heitz comments.

"We as a company have to set aside for where we want to go strategically and how we utilize technology to do that," he continues. "The people who are now utilizing Second Life are, demographically, the types of people that historically buy our products. If we can connect with them through this use of technology, then the potential of them becoming customers of ours is much greater."

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