Nothing happens until somebody sells something; that's the old adage anyway. But consumers today are not only different, they are changing. The Web has democratized the marketplace, unlocking access to information and enabling consumers to make more-informed decisions and better choices.

In many cases, the Web effectively has ended the existence of asymmetrical information. Remember what happened to travel agents, for example? Agents and producers may be able to put together the best quote and product offering for a consumer. But it's also possible, and increasingly likely, the buyers already may have the same technology, access to information and the opportunity to find a better deal for themselves faster.

Personal lines insurers were first to offer and feel the effects of online sales. As their technological capabilities increased, insurers increased their advertising expenditures dramatically. In 2011, for example, 16 P&C insurers spent more than $50 million each on advertising, according to research firm SNL Financial. GEICO led the way, reportedly spending $994 million that year, having increased advertising expenditures more than 10 percent from the previous year. And that was actually below the industry's average advertising growth rate of 14.9 percent, SNL reported. Online sales of personal auto insurance for example increased to 17 percent of the market in 2011, according to research from Novarica, up from just 7 percent in 1995.

Now commercial lines insurers are beginning to offer online portals for sales and self-service. Early adopters, including Hiscox, Foresters, OneAmerica and others, are going out of their way to extend that technology not only to buyers, but to agents in an effort to simplify and accelerate sales cycles and lessen the administrative burden of servicing those buyers. "Online/direct doesn't mean no people," Novarica offered in a recent report.

Insurance can be complicated and even the best-informed consumer wants advice - from family, friends and professionals. And that's where the opportunity for differentiation lays for insurers. Consumers need insurance, they may even want to buy, but they don't want to be sold. As insurers plan for and create opportunities to buy insurance online and offer self-service channels, they are realizing that they still need the agents. And agents are realizing that though their roles may be changing, they are in a position to benefit from many of those changes, and spend more time having better interactions with buyers.

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