I recently got to engage with John Swigart, CMO at Esurance (recently acquired by Allstate), who will be keynoting at our Marketing Leadership Forum in Los Angeles on April 18. Here are some words of wisdom from him about how to take new marketing tactics and put them into action. 

1. What was your approach and justification for investing in new marketing tactics that are still in their development phase?

I’m pretty consistent in pushing my teams to explore new avenues that may yield better results for us. I want us to make informed decisions but take risks, whatever the application might be. We’re a company borne of the Internet, so I think we are a little more forward-leaning than some of our competitors in some ways. We push pretty aggressively — how can we improve, gain more mindshare, and sell more policies — things like paid search, cost per clicks are all very much a part of the online environment we grew up in, as is social media, so it made sense for us to explore making a tighter connection between our offline advertising and our social media presence online. The average Facebook user spends about 6 hours a month on the platform, so we certainly see the value of having a conversation with some of the 200 million Facebook users in the US.

2. For your industry, what "gotchas" did you have to look out for?

Aside from some of the silliness in TV advertising in car insurance, we’re in a very conservative space. Launching an ad campaign that is counter to the prevailing sentiment and encourages people to come and post on our Facebook wall certainly carries some risk. Our new ad campaign is a departure from the zany, mascot-driven ads featured by our competitors. Esurance pioneered the use of characters in car insurance advertising in 2004, and we’re pioneering the move away from that approach now. We’re using social media for true engagement, and not just as another medium for character-driven marketing messages. That said, at times there is not a lot of love for insurance companies, and our management team had to be ready to accept and see negative comments from consumers. Ultimately we felt the company could use them to learn about how to make our business better. Some people may not have the best claims experience, so not all of the comments on our Facebook Wall are positive. But I’m OK with that. We’re giving consumers that otherwise might not have a voice a place to come and share their thoughts and experiences with Esurance. We’ve been able to turn a fair number of those negative situations into positive ones and hopefully gained a few more customers in the process. No other company in our space is pushing this notion of transparency and real dialogue with customers like we are.

3. By making investments in uncharted territory, what did you set as goals for yourself, and how are you measuring them? Are there tools you can use yet, or do you have to do measurement by hand still?

We wanted to have an advertising campaign that would help us break through the clutter, connect with customers, and help drive better conversion rates. We primarily use a mix of proprietary in-house metrics, third-party tools, and surveys to track the campaign effectiveness. We also measure a few things by hand, like the number of customers we help with product or service issues on our Facebook page. The results so far have been encouraging. We are seeing better response rates to our new advertising, more people getting quotes from us who are in our desired core target, and increased conversion rates compared to our previous ad campaign.

4. What is your shiny new object of the moment?

Facebook will continue to be a big focus for us, but Google+ and Pinterest are probably the latest platforms that people are talking about. Google has made social a huge priority, and we obviously do a lot of business with Google, so we’re doing some experimenting with Google+. But before you commit time and resources to jump onto another platform, you have to ask yourself — why are we doing this? I think it’s important to not get caught up in running after the latest fad in social media marketing without doing some due diligence and making sure it’s a fit for your brand and can offer tangible benefits for both you and your customers. We listened very closely to Facebook’s recent announcements, and it sounds like there will be tremendous opportunities for brands to increase their visibility on the platform. But it’s not clear yet how the new changes will impact the individual interactions like the ones we are having with our customers, so we’re going to keep working on that.