With industry research indicating that many individuals don't understand their annuity and life insurance needs, the responsibility falls on insurers to provide product research and needs-analysis to customers.While meeting with a financial advisor is one way to educate customers, many carriers, such as New York Life, are enhancing their Web capabilities to reach customers directly. And their efforts are being noticed.

Newyorklife.com, the corporate Web site of New York City-based New York Life Insurance Co., received the top billing in a fourth-quarter Web ranking by Dalbar Inc., Boston. Dalbar is an independent Web site ranking organization that critiques site innovations from a wide range of financial services providers.

Dalbar cited the carrier's ability to provide customers with "simplified access" to the site, and gave high marks to its online customer service center, which supplies users with easy access to information. The new service center had been updated from the previous quarter to offer users access to contact information, as well as specialized links for prospectuses, unit values and performance summaries "from one convenient location," notes Dalbar.

A perennial favorite

New York Life has been a perennial regular in Dalbar's top 25. The key to its success, company executives believe, begins with a synergistic relationship that links New York Life's business unit, the carrier's IT group and its Internet group, a business-driven entity that understands Web-based strategies within a business context.

"My organization is not an IT-centric group-it's business people talking to business people, and we are in harmony with the goals and strategies of the life/annuity business," says Kenneth Hittel, vice president, corporate Internet, for New York Life.

"Our group has done a lot of work over the years to ensure that we have all the IT capabilities we need to satisfy the business people. We actually have excellent communication from top to bottom, with very little ambiguity from a business point of view."

New York Life's IT unit might be called in to provide the heavy lifting of a project that's deemed important to the life and annuity business. But once IT builds it, Hittel's Internet group and the business unit work in tandem to oversee 95% of regular Web-based activities, all the while "keeping the site relevant and vibrant," he adds.

"Right now, there isn't a lot that you can't do on our Web site. We can measure success in the way people use our virtual service center because if they use it once, the return rate is very high."

New York Life has a planning section on the site that houses 70 different calculators and interactive work sheets to help consumers determine their need for life insurance and annuities. "We try to present them in a fashion that we don't scare away people," Hittel says.

That's not always an easy task because insurers, try as they might, can't be all things to all people. However, New York Life is trying to make it happen. The company is catering to at least two distinct types of visitors, so the Web site must reflect the needs of both.

"There are individuals who come to the site who are totally unfamiliar with life insurance, and are researching it for the first time. Then there are people who have been researching life or annuity products for six months, and perhaps when visiting our site, they are homing in on a particular product. We made a point to create the site so that it works for both constituencies," Hittel says.

Lead generation

The efforts appear to be paying off: Newyorklife.com averages 45,000 unique Web visits per week-up from 39,000 unique visits per week last year-encompassing about 220,000 page views, which Hittel says computes to about five Web pages per visitor.

When people visit the site, the average visit lasts 14 minutes, which Hittel regards as "spectacular" given the fact that the site is geared around financial services.

One of the strategies New York Life carried out that Hittel believes greatly improved the Web site occurred three years ago when the mission was to enhance Web-based lead generation.

"In 2000, we created an initiative centered on three distinct elements: Communication/education, customer service and lead generation," explains Hittel. At the outset, the first two elements outpaced the lead generation capability, but that's changed over the past two years, as lead generation functionality has become the site's top emphasis.

In 2004, New York Life's Web site provided 20,000 leads to its 7,400 field reps, and Hittel expects to provide its agents with 35,000 life and annuity leads by the end of this year.

Cross-functional cooperation between business, Internet and IT units is the key to New York Life's success.

The carrier worked with its IT unit to design a lead distribution system that pushes leads out to agents within 24 hours. Before agents receive leads, they are processed by what the company calls a "lead coordinator," who in turn parcels them out to the appropriate agent. "It took a year to build the system and it has been running for the past two years," Hittel states.

Devoting attention to lead generation became paramount, Hittel says, because the carrier learned that individuals would often take the time to fill out personal information. However, because the system was not robust enough, the lead would get lost in the shuffle-often moving through the process days later or sometimes not at all.

Despite the Web site's robust capabilities, "we make it clear that you cannot buy life insurance on the site, and that an agent is the value-added part of the process, the trusted advisor. We try and be very clear in that message," says Hittel.

Fourth Quarter Scores)

  1. New York Life 83.46
  2. Fidelity 81.69
  3. Lincoln Life 79.07
  4. TIAA-CREF 77.14
  5. MassMutual 74.09
  6. State Farm 73.20
  7. Guardian Investor 71.90
  8. Prudential Financial 71.47
  9. AXA Advisors 71.28
  10. USAA 71.08

Source: Dalbar Inc.

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