Martin Talks looks at how using marketing practices from other industries can be productive for brokers and insurers

Businesses are used to comparing their practices against that of immediate competitors. But comparisons need not to be so limited. There is much to be learned from other industries in how they operate. And what works for them may work well for you.

The online community networks are a great way of making your business partners or customers feel valued and thereby instilling a sense of loyalty towards you.

Still a relatively new marketing tool, it is being used in the telecoms industry to great effect. The idea is that you set up a virtual forum on the internet and then invite a select number of your key business partners and/or customers to participate in discussions and test and review new products and services.

Virtual communit
Each community can access and discuss issues important to them, enabling them to review various products and services. Participants on the end-user forum get access to products before they are actually released and can give detailed feedback on the websites.

Creating online communities could work well for insurers. Like mobile phone companies, you need to promote yourself twice - not only to the end consumer, but also to the brokers that you want to sell your products and services.

Engaging people with your brand is an important part of securing and maintaining them as a customer. This is exactly what online communities can provide.

The discussions around the merits of your products and the brokers' insights into what the end user is looking for would be invaluable. An excellent side-effect is that it will provide invaluable feedback which can inform future product development.

If you are a broker, you have slightly different marketing issues to address. You work as a hub for other people's products and services.

This means that you and your peers are all dependent on more-or-less the same sources and so have to work harder to differentiate yourselves.

Ensuring that your company is marketed properly online is a key stepping stone to this differentiation. Nowadays, having a website and even providing online quotes is to be expected.

So, what else can you do? Well, take a leaf out of the retail market's book.

Used extensively within many other industries, insurers have been relatively slow to adopt viral marketing.

Viral marketing - or buzz marketing as it is sometimes now known - aims to create grass routes adoption through word of mouth.

Each of us sees around 3,000 brands a day and we are very effective at screening most of them out, so creating a strong message that sticks is increasingly important.

The core principles behind viral marketing are a lot like public relations: getting a third party to endorse your organisation, spread your message and give you credibility, is the key.

Part of the beauty of emails, is that once the initial outlay is made, they can be transferred between people instantly and at virtually no cost. This means that if you create the right viral campaign, then all the work will be done for you.

More kudo
People will want to send it on to people they know. It can be an exceptionally cost-effective way to market yourself, as ultimately there is no limit to the number of people that a viral campaign can be passed to.

Plus, the very fact that it comes from a friend, rather than a company, instantly gives it more kudos and makes the recipient more likely to look at it.

It's like having an army of people talking about you to their friends - but unlike a game of Chinese Whispers, they're following a script that you've created, so they don't go 'off message'.

And viral campaigns often link directly to a company's website, extending the length of time your audience is engaged with your brand.

While the Christmas Fairy (see box) may seem miles away from insurance, the principles are the same. The communication needs to be engaging, while retaining your core values and conveying your offer. If done properly, the results are very effective.

The insurance industry can learn much from other industry sectors about new and effective marketing strategies. And with the ability to measure everything that occurs online, it has never been easier to assess their effectiveness. IT

' Martin Talks is chief executive of interactive marketing specialists, blue barracuda

Case study: Early Learning Centr
Background: The Early Learning Centre (ELC) wanted to raise awareness of its Christmas offers and grow the size of its customer database. It also wanted to develop a theme of helping children reach their potential, which was part of its marketing strategy.

Campaign: A viral marketing campaign was developed, which could either be forwarded by someone or triggered when you visited the ELC website. An animation would play in which the Christmas Fairy would fly around a room and use her magic wand to conjure up three large boxes from under a Christmas tree. When the user clicked on one of the boxes - entitled laughter, music or imagination - toys came out to give the users present ideas. The fairy also conjured up a gift selector, enabling users to give a child's details, including their birthday and information on the kind of toys they liked, so they could be emailed whenever a relevant new product arrived.

Results: As well as a strong direct response, with people applying for the gift selector, there was a large viral effect with literally thousands of fairies being forwarded to friends. Seventy one per cent of visitors opened the follow-up emails that they received from the site, which is extremely high for such a campaign.

Crucially, the return on investment was huge, with sales generating over 10 times more money than the viral campaign had cost to make. As well as significant database growth, extra data was gathered to inform future marketing.

Case study: T-Mobil
Background: T-Mobile wanted to find a way to increase its share of the business market, among both business users and resellers that stocked its products.

Campaign: Four websites were built and four different online business communities created. Three were around different T-Mobile products and aimed at the end user, while the fourth was specifically for its resellers.

Each community can access and discuss issues important to them, enabling them to review various products and services. Participants on the end-user forum get access to products before they are actually released and can give detailed feedback on the websites.

The resellers' site is password-protected site for security. Registered users can access information about the latest models coming out as well as literature to help them with their jobs.

Results: T-Mobile's online business communities are doing extremely well. Online forums are regularly attended and the end users feel much more connected to the brand. Not only do they feel that their opinion is valued but they also have an effective method of conveying those opinions as well. Resellers also have much better access to information, enabling them to sell T-Mobile better.