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Most insurers are letting consumer technology like smartphones and social media networks get ahead of them, creating a challenge to attract a new generation of customers who are not interested in doing business with agents the way their parents did.

But it has also created an opportunity for companies like Allstate and State Farm that have embraced interactive technologies as a way to extend their brand's reach to children of the 1980s and 1990s.

"You're not going to get any more mortality (business) with the things you're doing now'' among the younger generation, said Douglas French, managing principal of Ernst & Young's insurance advisory practice, told reporters recently.

While the insurance industry is known for many things, an orientation toward the young and/or hip customer is not one of them. In some ways this contrasts strongly with banks, which are offering check deposit via cell phone and pushing the Internet to replace branches for much of their business.

Catchy advertising gimmicks like Aflac's spirited duck or Geico's cavemen notwithstanding, underwriters usually aim their pitches at a middle-aged customer seeking an aura of confident authority about matters like health and property.

While that has continued to work among a segment of the market, branding experts say there is a missed opportunity.

"It's a buggy whip mentality. Everything is moving more and more to high-tech electronic online interface and particularly with this generation,'' said Robert Passikoff, president of brand loyalty and customer metrics researcher Brand Keys.

"They're still looking at this as a commodity ... if we can get the price down low enough, people will come to us and I don't need a lot of friends on Twitter and Facebook.''

FEW BRIGHT SPOTS

There are some companies in the industry that have been more aggressive with their push into new media, though mostly in automotive insurance. Industry executives say auto insurance lends itself to new media because the transactions are in some ways simpler than other insurance lines.

Allstate has a suite of mobile applications for smartphones that offer services like home inventory lists and roadside assistance requests.

"A very significant number, up to a majority, of wireless users will have these devices with them and they expect to be able to interact with companies through these devices where they are,'' said Bob Wasserman, vice president of e-business for Allstate. "You start to think about what this device can do and you build other capabilities.''

State Farm is just as active, with prominent links off its home page to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr feeds and a suite of mobile applications for customers, though they are still just a supplement to the company's traditional network of agents in storefronts across the country.

Berkshire Hathaway's Geico is also aggressive in mobile, offers an application that lets people obtain rate quotes by taking a picture of their drivers license among its lineup of phone applications.

No matter what channel they are using, the auto insurers seem to have picked up on an idea that other insurers have missed: younger customers don't want to go to an agent's office and don't want to be sold products where they already know they can get a better price elsewhere.

Brand Keys' Passikoff said that shift in thinking could take a decade for insurers to really make, but some say that may not be sufficiently aggressive.

"I don't see the industry moving fast enough,'' said Bill Chrnelich, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers' insurance practice, in a recent interview. "This industry isn't focused enough on that change in their sales and distribution.''

You can see on our home page our link to Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and Myspace.

Posted 1:48 PM

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