Websites can be personalised to draw people in and be user friendly. Marcus Exall explains

Business is full of clichés. You can't avoid them. Like: "There's no such thing as an original idea." Or: "Why reinvent the wheel?" And no matter what industry you're in, it's likely that you'll use one of the biggest clichés of all when asked what makes your company different to your competitors.

"Our personality", you're likely to say. "The people." This may well be true, but how do you express that personality, so that you are not just another insurance company repeating the same mantra?

Finding a way to connect with people is not only a way to express your personality, but also a key to converting them into a customer. By its very nature, online communication is a more emotional experience than print or traditional television media, as the ability for two-way communication between you and your audience makes it more engaging.

Your website is an instant window into your company's personality. Whether you go for a traditional and reserved look, or a more contemporary and funky one, your site will say a lot about the kind of company that you are.

Your staff will undoubtedly be the one asset that is truly unique to your company, so incorporating them into your site can be very effective. A 'people' or 'about us' section, featuring photographs of people that work there, rather than just text about them, immediately personalises the user's experience. This is where the well-known saying about a picture painting 1,000 words comes in.

Looking interesting
Visual imagery is very powerful and your staff don't have to look like Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts to be able to draw people in. A nice smile and a direct email address may be all that's needed to make that potential customer drop you a line to inquire about your products.

If you're trying to make your company look 'interesting' but are worried about how your staff 'scrub up' in photos, moving the picture's setting away from the office environment could get the message across.

The email address with a person's name on it, rather than 'enquiry@...' or 'info@...' will show that you are approachable and can make a huge difference to a user's emotional experience of your site and perception of you.

As with a person, a company shows its personality through both its words and deeds.

Insurance companies are perceived often as having a hard and fast tradition of treating clients as a number. Literally. While the reason behind using customer reference numbers is obvious, cross-referencing a person's actual name, address and date of birth, for example, to bring up the correct records, is just as effective and doesn't reduce them to an inanimate object.

If you want to be seen as warm and caring, then you need to treat people that way. So, use the personal touch where possible. If you're sending out information, use people's names where possible.

With email, it's just as cost-effective to personalise communications as it is to send a blank mass mail-out. This will help make customers feel valued and that you're interested in them.

For brokers, where you are trying to attract a number of insurance companies to work with you, as well as consumers to buy from you, you need your personality to work on both counts.

You may want to convey that you're on the insurers' wavelength, but also demonstrate that you understand the consumer as well, so that the insurer feels confident selling through you. The internet gives you lots of opportunities to do this.

Developing an online community, for example, can be a great way of engaging people. If you specialise in creating insurance packages for extreme sports fanatics, hosting a forum on your website where visitors can compare notes on the best snow of the season may be what draws them to you.

Similarly, if you specialise in equine insurance, an area on your website that updates legislation around the horse insurance passport may not only draw customers to you but also convince insurers that you can sell their packages.

The key is to understand what makes your audience tick and and then bring out the traits of your company that fit naturally.

The communications that you send out also go a long way in expressing your personality. Everything, from the design of your electronic newsletter to the reminders you send when a period of cover is coming to an end, says something about your company's mind-set.

Viral campaigns are a great tool for this. They can be designed to fit any audience. They can be mentally challenging - such as a reinsurer sending out a chess game. Or they can be simply fun - such as a car insurer launching a smash-'em-up rally driving game around the time of the Grand Prix. Either way, the fact that you're even doing one will also say that you're a forward-thinking company.

For an insurance company, the way that you handle an claim is the ultimate test in communicating your personality. This is likely to be a period when your client is at their most vulnerable.

It is also the ideal opportunity to demonstrate that you are a company that cares and to make a connection with their emotional side that will stand you in good stead for the future. Handle a claim well and a customer could be yours for life. Handle it badly and not only will you not see them for dust afterwards, you can also rest assured that they will tell all their friends.

Having empathy with someone's situation is key here. If someone needs to make a claim, how easy is it for them to do so? Your website can go a long way in helping with this.

Visible section
Something as simple as making the 'filing a claim' section as visible as possible, can make people feel like you're trying to help, rather than hinder.

Direct Line is one of the few insurance companies that has Make A Claim on the homepage of its website. Something its policy holders must appreciate.

Email also enables you to conduct the 'after claim support' easily. A follow-up email a few days after the initial contact, with helpful advice or simply to check that your customer is happy with the way their claim is being handled, will go a long way.

Additionally, offering an online claim-tracking service on your website would give your customers access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This will make them feel empowered and looked after, as well as removing some of the traditional frustrations that customers can feel when waiting to be updated on an insurance claim. It will also reduce the need for them to ring your call centres, which will benefit you in the long run.

Brokers can also use online tracking systems to demonstrate they care. Giving insurers personalised accounts, to enable them to see how well their packages are doing and even adjust their offer online, will make them feel more connected to their broker.

A core part of showing your personality should be showing customers that you put them at the heart of what you do. It doesn't have to be expensive. Put yourself in their shoes and then use online tools to deliver the personalised experience that you'd like to receive yourself. IT

' Marcus Exall is client services director for interactive marketing specialists blue barracuda