New data from Reston, Va.-based comScore Inc. underscores the growing importance of the online channel for insurers.

A study, which combined analysis of the online behavior of 1 million U.S. consumers with a more in-depth survey of 2,000 U.S. online consumers conducted in March 2009, found 63% of respondents went online to obtain price quotes. This dwarfed the percentage that indicated they called local insurance agents representing a single company (26%), or called independent agents (25%).

"As with many important purchases, the online channel is often the first place consumers go to research auto insurance prices," says Kevin Levitt, VP for comScore. "Whether or not the consumer eventually completes the purchase online, marketers must understand that it is critical to communicate with prospective buyers at this phase of the purchase funnel."

Moreover, consumers are evincing a greater tendency to purchase insurance online. Although 52% of respondents indicated they purchased through an agent, 30% consummated the transaction over the Web. This contrasts markedly with five years ago, when only 4% of the respondents to the same survey indicated they purchased coverage online, and 74% bought through an agent.

Levitt says this trend presents challenges for insurers.

"While the online channel can reduce costs and increase efficiency for both insurers and consumers, it also removes the relationship building effect of working with a local agent," he says "Accordingly, insurers need to find ways to cultivate customer relationships with those acquired through the online channel if they hope to solidify their brand loyalty.

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