It's not rare for an insurance company to be criticized on the Internet. But when bloggers take aim at a carrier, usually it's because they've had a bad customer experience or a disagreement over a claim. Chris Kieff, author of the online marketing blog "1 Good Reason" (www.1goodreason.com/blog), had no such issues with San Francisco-based Esurance (approximately $600 million in 2006 written premium) -- he just thought the company could do more work in the arena of online social networking.
Esurance has created the kind of viral marketing campaign that many companies dream about. Erin Esurance -- a sultry, pink-haired cartoon secret (insurance) agent -- has been hard to miss over the past few years as the star of Esurance's television ads. The animated heroine battles robots and monsters while extolling the virtues of online auto insurance. Erin seems to have resonated with viewers, especially those who spend a lot of time online. >>
Given the character's popularity on the Web, Kieff simply wondered why Esurance hadn't done more to leverage social networking sites and other Web 2.0 concepts to take full advantage of the goodwill (affection?) that has developed around Erin. "[It] seems [to] me that a little bit of work on the part of Esurance and they could solidify a very loyal fan base and become a cult classic," the blogger wrote earlier this year.
You might assume that a blogger demanding more corporate involvement in the Web 2.0 world is rare, but it's not as rare as you might think, according to Jeff Goldberg, a New York-based senior analyst in Celent's insurance practice. He says recent studies indicate that many users who previously were opposed to advertising on social networking sites now have come to expect it.
"At the moment, social networking sites aren't really trusted for high-trust items such as insurance," Goldberg says. But "users are becoming more receptive to advertising ... through a social network. As we move forward, it will be possible to advertise over these networks with positive results."
There is, however, a very fine line insurers need to walk. While some may criticize Esurance for not fully delving into online worlds, others attribute the company's existing Web penetration to the fact that the insurer has remained relatively hands-off. Fans of Erin have created their own YouTube videos about her, posted Erin-centric artwork to their blogs and developed tribute Web sites. Some even have created Erin Esurance MySpace and Facebook profiles -- all without prompting from the company.
"That's priceless," says Esurance brand and public relations director Kristin Brewe, who created the Erin Esurance character. "If I spent a million dollars to go and do a campaign on MySpace, I probably would not have had that result because it wouldn't have been social; it would have been me pushing out."
And there, in brief, is the challenge that faces insurers as they try to leverage the opportunities of Web 2.0. Efforts to tap Web 2.0 technologies -- including social networking, RSS feeds, podcasts and blogs -- to improve customer loyalty can quickly become an intrusion on consumers' personal space.
"You're walking a fine line there," suggests Celent's Goldberg. "That's really the question that's being asked right now: 'How do we do some more innovative marketing using social networks without upsetting users?' That's the big thing. You don't want to trick users into linking to you as a friend on MySpace or Facebook and then have them realize that you're just really a shadow user for an insurance company. That's going to create a bad feeling."
Perhaps illustrating the unpredictable nature of this challenge, Erin Esurance's rise as a Web icon was not exactly planned. The character launched with a television ad campaign in July 2004 but with very little presence on the insurer's Web site. According to Esurance's Brewe, the thinking was that the site's purpose was to sell insurance.
"It's a transactional Web site," she states. "When you're quoting online there's really not a lot of opportunity. You're trying to make the process as short and as sweet as possible. It's interesting that, because we're an online company, the brand experience becomes a little bit less opportune than if we had, say, a storefront."
However, fans quickly began to proactively contact the company to request more of Erin -- such as Erin icons for their instant messenger applications and wallpaper images for their computer desktop backgrounds. "People were really interested in the character and engaged with her, so we just thought, 'Hey, let's give them what they want and what they're asking for online,'" Brewe relates.
Integrating Erin with the company's consumer-facing Web site took some work, but the concept itself was an easy fit. After all, while Erin was created by Brewe in-house, the company contracts with San Francisco-based Wild Brain to animate the character using Flash, itself a kind of Web 2.0 technology.
Currently, the Esurance Web site features Erin's World, a representation of Erin's home that allows users to navigate through various content areas, including the insurer's television and radio spots, a blog that is presented as Erin's diary, and image galleries that feature fan art. Brewe points out that the enhanced Web site has helped Esurance reach its target audience -- consumers who manage their finances online, typically between the ages of 18 and 45. "This was a way to personalize the brand a lot, and it's definitely the way people connect through the company," she explains.
Erin's emergence also has helped Esurance stretch its marketing budget, Brewe notes, allowing the carrier to compete on a brand-awareness level with bigger-spending competition. "Word of mouth and user-generated content are essentially free for us, so that's been a huge help in getting our name out there," Brewe details. "We ... are able to stay in the same consideration set for much less advertising spend, in large part due to ... the viral popularity of Erin Esurance."
As for Kieff's blog, the one that suggested that Esurance could be doing more in the Web 2.0 space, Brewe -- who responded to the criticism in the blog's comments section -- says her strategy dictates otherwise. One of the reasons that social networks are popular is because users are looking to escape advertisers and mass messages, she suggests.
"The definition of social networks, to me, is that they are social," Brewe says. "Corporations need to be careful when they interact in those areas, because corporate is not social." To walk that line between successfully leveraging a Web 2.0 entity such as a social network or blog, Brewe advises insurers to focus on content and ideas, then think of the Web as a sort of "creative commons."
"Start by creating content that is valuable," adds Celent's Goldberg. "Once you've got the valuable content, especially if you brand it in a slightly independent way, you can then take that content and integrate it with a social network or put it on a blog and submit it via RSS readers, or create a podcast that goes into those aggregators, and then potentially welcome user feedback."
The spirit of the Internet, Esurance's Brewe says, is about sharing, recreating and reinventing ideas. "That kind of spirit is why we are stoked that people independently do things [with the Erin Esurance character], and we don't want to get in the way of that," Brewe relates. "If we got involved in every kind of thing, we'd stamp out the creativity that has happened."