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Roberto Hortal Munoz is the head of e-Business at insurance company MORE TH>N , as well as being a very well received speaker at our recent Future of Digital Marketing event.

Here, we ask him about his use of comparison sites amid growing concerns in the sector over their value to brands.

We also dig into the challenge of sales attribution across different channels and the company's various efforts around online communities.

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Is the intense competition between comparison sites delivering value to insurance providers?

Certainly, some insurance providers are getting value from the explosive adoption of price comparison sites. Price comparison sites change the rules of the market quite significantly, bringing scalability into the equation.

Previously an insurer's reach was more or less proportional to their marketing budget. Now, we can all reach the same amount of people just by taking part in the aggregator market. Those insurance providers that adapt quickest to the implications that a scalable market brings will certainly extract a lot of value from this new ecosystem.

I think financial services brands could do worse than looking back to what has happened in travel in the past few years: a wave of disintermediation spawned a myriad of direct brands across the value chain, in turn creating an ideally fragmented marketplace for aggregators to thrive in.

Some direct brands have been very successful in that environment - doing a bit of aggregating themselves to fend off the intermediaries - while others have become utilities and drastically dialled down their direct distribution to cut costs and focus on their core competencies.

The question is: What are the options that open up to insurance providers, and who will have the courage, skills and flexibility to seize on them first?

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What effect are comparison sites having on your RoI from paid search on Google, as well as other advertising costs?

Seen purely from a customer acquisition perspective and ignoring the deeper implications for the insurance market, I believe price comparison sites actually help reduce overall acquisition costs.

Their revenue model remains a fairly basic CPA-based one, typically charging flat or near-flat fees on conversion only so costs remain predictable. After Google changed the rules about brand protection, I haven't actually seen many aggregators buying branded keywords, at least not the brands of those insurers in their panel, so they are not having such an impact there either.

Where they do massively impact costs is in generic keywords. Words like "car insurance" have become prohibitive for all but the deepest-pocketed direct insurers. These words tend to be typically low converting so the impact on actual sales or direct RoI is not big.

The missed opportunity from not being able to effectively use those keywords as part of your brand activity is more difficult to ascertain and easy to underestimate.

Aggregators have made the drive to find a better value attribution model to replace today's "last click takes all" more urgent. Until such time, and purely from the perspective of generating sales, comparison sites don't seem to be significantly increasing our marketing costs.

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Could you see more insurance providers taking the Direct Line approach to
comparison sites?

I can certainly see some scenarios where direct insurers may decide to pursue similar policies. I can even think of some where this may be a very successful move for a strong direct financial services brand.

However, I would caution anyone thinking about going down that route to stop to think for a minute about the reasons behind aggregators' wild success, and the lessons that need to be learned from it.

Customers have loudly voted with their clicks for a channel that brings convenience to them and helps them make a choice on the basis of what the vast majority of them consider to be the key decision points: choice and price. Anyone looking to buck the trend and go against consumers' clearly stated expectations would do so at their own peril.


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Is the rise of price comparison sites impacting premiums or levels of insurance coverage?

Financial services is a very strongly regulated marketplace. Consumers can be sure that, whatever the market pressures, regulation ensures cover levels and premiums are reasonable and appropriate.

I have seen some companies launching basic cover products to more effectively compete on the aggregators. I haven't seen reliable adoption figures for those products so I wouldn't be able to tell whether these are really being adopted by consumers or are they just adding noise to an already deafening marketplace. This is not something MORE TH>N is doing.

In terms of premiums, price comparison is making providers' pricing a lot more transparent, and may be driving some to lower their premiums to better compete in the marketplace. Again, I can't say this is something particularly impacting on MORE TH>N premiums, as we are fully aware of the need to grow a sustainable business over the long term.

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How do cashback sites compare to comparison sites in terms of
effectiveness?

Cashback sites share just two characteristics with price comparison sites: they are consumers' favorites and they offer us a predictable marketing cost model based on CPA which makes it easy to work with them. That's really where the similarities end, as far as I'm concerned.

For consumers, cashbacks provide none of the convenience that aggregators do. For merchants, cashbacks firmly root the market back to nonscalable territory. They provide no real extra reach - at least nothing compared with aggregators' ability to display an insurer's prices to all its visitors.

From that point of view, cashbacks are just glorified online directories, so basic in fact that they need to incentivise people to visit them and give away listings' impressions to merchants in order to generate business. Cashbacks are important because they have found the single proposition that consumers value over convenience; hard cash.

I see cashbacks as competing with, rather than complementing, comparison sites. Savvy consumers are already making comparisons on the aggregators, then heading off to Quidco to make the purchase. This behaviour threatens the long-term sustainability of the price comparison sites in their current incarnation, as well as opening the door to interesting opportunities for cooperation and cross-pollination among them.

What is most interesting to me is the social media potential of cashback sites. Cashback sites work with their customers purely on trust. This trust is generated via tools (such as merchant ratings, discussion forums, blogs, etc) that allow users to weed out the bad merchants and promote the good ones. An active community of users potentially recommending your brand to their mates for immediate purchase? Who wouldn't want a piece of that?

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How are retention rates working out for customers referred from comparison sites, affiliates, search, cashback sites etc?

It's been widely reported that retention rates for customers from channels which prime price over value are lower than average. It's not just the channels themselves; the barrage of insurance advertising people are constantly under is helping educate people about the potential savings to be had by churning.

From my point of view, lower retention rates are largely a long-term trend of our own making. Car insurance, much like mobile phones, is largely a saturated market and companies grow their books primarily by taking others' customers.

Aggregators and cashbacks have certainly accelerated this trend and making it even more urgent for the industry to find a way to reinvent itself so that either this long-term trend is reversed (by aggresively rewarding loyalty, perhaps) or the industry adapts to provide the shorter-term products people seem to prefer
these days.

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What proportion of your sales is being generated through the web, and can
you break that down by channel (eg affiliates, comparison sites etc)?

I am not able to give a precise figure. However I will say that eBusiness (that's what we call the aggregate of Direct Web and Aggregators at MORE TH>N) is our main sales channel.

People have clearly adopted the internet as their preferred option when it comes not just to research, but also to purchase of general insurance, and we're clearly seeing this ourselves.

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How does online acquisition compare to offline in terms of cost?

While individual channels' Cost Per Sale vary, and it could be claimed that online channels tend to carry a lower 'last click' CPS, the truth is that offline spend contributes massively to creating awareness and driving searches, direct visits, affiliate clicks, etc.

I am not convinced that talk about 'online costs' and 'offline costs' contributes much. I prefer to spend my energy trying to find a good model to split each sale's attributed value proportionally to every single activity that, over time, contributed to this individual customer finally making a decision to purchase our
product.

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Are there still a lot of consumers out there that research online but
convert offline?

I'm not seeing a lot of those cases anymore. People did display that behaviour years ago but most are now familiar and comfortable with the internet as a distribution channel. People are also aware of the many ways in which merchants, payment providers and regulators protect their online transactions. Indeed, it seems to me I'm better protected when shopping online - from disreputable merchants - than offline.

We do see consumers doing research on price comparison sites, then visiting
direct and getting a quote before they eventually buy. That figure is made up of early adopters and is rapidly decreasing as well, on the back of familiarity, trust and changes by the price comparison sites which mean that prices displayed are more accurate and less likely to change now.

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Are you doing anything to move away from the last click wins model?

As I've already mentioned a couple of times, this is a priority for me. I believe finding such a model could be a huge competitive advantage for a marketer. We're working hard internally and with our agencies to develop and test various approaches to a much more complex way to attribute sales to the 'marketing value chain', with some success so far although we're still well into the journey.

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Are you looking at other forms of online marketing like viral?

I'm always looking at opportunities to do things differently. We did an interesting thing with viral last Christmas where we bridged online and the real world. Our Personal Customer Managers emailed customers to let them know of our Christmas opening hours and included, as a little present, a papercraft model of our MORE TH>N wood people, the ones featured in our ad campaign.

The models could be printed, folded and glued into Christmas decorations. We had quite a few downloads and I'm sure we made a few people smile. Some may have even decided to stay with us.

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Can you talk a bit about Living, your green social network; the reasons for its launch and the challenges of execution?

Living is our main social networking activity. We're not new to social networking by any means - we've been successfully running PetHealthcare.co.uk, a community and forum for Pet owners, for a number of years.

In the spirit of MORE TH>N, We Do More, last year we started looking for more opportunities for MORE TH>N to enable conversations around other topics of interest to our potential customers.

We commissioned iCrossing, our SEO partner, to use its Network Sense methodology to map the networks of topics and conversations where our product, brand or site featured as part of the discussion. This work identified a gap that we could step in to fill - we couldn't find a neutral, authoritative, trusted and consumer-friendly space to discuss practical issues around how to live greener daily lives.

If it was to succeed, the site had to be genuine: countless companies have tried and failed to infiltrate the social space (remember Zuzzid?) when the only workable approach is to contribute and share freely. To be genuine useful. To really participate.

So we set it up using the tools that most bloggers use (Wordpress and plugins), gave it an independent voice (the writers, all professionals, are completely independent from MORE TH>N and have complete editorial control), freed the content by using a non-restrictive Creative Commons licence throughout the site and allowed it to become part of the fabric of social networking by providing countless ways to share, bookmark, recommend, rate and comment.

We also made sure the site was easy to use, accessible and effective at interacting with search engines. And of course we give it daily in-depth, engaging, original content so our audience will always find a new topic to add to their online conversations.

We launched the site just a couple of weeks before the big flood events last year. When the floods hit we published an article on how to best prevent flood damage and make a successful claim. It shot up to position one on Google for the search 'flood advice". Even now, over a year later, it sits comfortably at position three, just below the entries from the environment agency and direct.gov.

The site is clearly delivering its stated goals of being eminently useful and creating long-term engagement with the brand. It's constantly developing as result of user feedback, broadening the topics covered and providing the types of content and services its increasingly numerous audience find useful. It is really taking on a life of its own.

And all the while, it is delivering a branded experience to the thousands of people who decide to spend the time of the day in conversation with MORE TH>N.

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Published 5 August, 2008 by Richard Maven

529 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

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Craig

Loved:

"For merchants, cashbacks firmly root the market back to nonscalable territory. They provide no real extra reach - at least nothing compared with aggregators' ability to display an insurer's prices to all its visitors.

From that point of view, cashbacks are just glorified online directories, so basic in fact that they need to incentivise people to visit them and give away listings' impressions to merchants in order to generate business. "

Almost perfectly sums up the utter waste of time that Cashback sites are to merchants, shame he spoils it with the cop-out:

"Cashbacks are important because they have found the single proposition that consumers value over convenience; hard cash."

Hmm... hardly groundbreaking - customers like money, so why not attach a £10 note to the renewal form... Problem is it is not really the cashback site's money to give away - it is the merchant's advertising budget (or part of the cost of sale if they are being enlightened with how they view aff marketing).

So Cashbacks are only "important" if a merchant wants to give away their marketing budget to achieve "no real extra reach" via a "glorified online directories".

Amen.

over 7 years ago

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Caroline Ashley-Booth, Royal & SunAlliance

Thanks Craig. I'm happy to have "almost perfectly" summed up your views.

Indeed, that very view was my view until recently. If cashbacks don't extend reach and add to the cost of sale, how do they add value? Are cashbacks anything more than marketing parasytes?

I have written about turning parasytes into symbiotes at http://www.hortal.com/2008/04/29/ebusiness-secrets-2-turn-parasyes-into-symbiotes/

The gist of the blog post above: it is my view that cashbacks add value in at least 2 ways:
- First, they are crucial at slowing down the adoption of aggregators as the dominant distribution model. Hardly groundbreaking stuff it may be but the basic premise of a bit of a kickback has done more to challenge the aggs' march to preeminence than any amount of marketing spend and/or posturing by the direct insurers. Reining the aggregators in is important because of their impact on retention rates. From this point of view, participating in cashback schemes can be seen as investment towards retention, always a worthy goal.
- Second, and in many ways more significant, is the social networking potential of cashback sites. These sites run hugely popular forums, blogs and other collaboration tools aimed primarily at having your product/service rated by their savvy, engaged members. Every marketer knows that recommendations influence purchasing behavior orders of magnitude more than advertising. If that's the case, isn't this well worth the "sales tax"?

It is early days: I may be placing too much hope on the potential of those blogs and forums, aggregators may be able to develop their own social elements, maybe something else entirely comes along and sweeps up the market. Exciting, isn't it?

over 7 years ago

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