LeadsCon 2019 Wrap Up

Well, it’s over. Four days in Las Vegas finds me reflective and proud. And, at least for the first few days upon returning, tired. Like, the kind of tired where you fall asleep at dinner. Or while helping with homework. Super, super tired. Given this, I waited a few days to draft my wrap up post for this event.

I’ve been attending LeadsCon for 10 years, so the Las Vegas event is equal parts reunion, brand-building, and business development for our clients and ourselves. This year, we saw more of that trend, with some adjustments here and there. Read on for a quick recap.

Partnership Marketing Workshop
We were fortunate to be chosen by LeadsCon and AccessIntelligence to lead a Partnership Marketing Workshop on Monday (prior to LeadsCon’s official kickoff). This event, our third in a row, has become an important anchor for our business. We look forward to it every year and commit significant (to us, anyway) resources to making it happen. This year, I was very proud of the effort. Among the high points, I’d include the following:

  1. This was our largest audience, to date. In fact, we filled the room.
  2. In addition to the audience size, we attracted the most diverse group we’ve ever had, with a particularly strong showing from brands and channel sale organizations. (This is very important to me, as without these folks actively engaged, things can get salesy, fast.)
  3. Our speakers did an amazing job keeping the audience engaged, and also staying real. In fact, our first session, led by Damon DeCrescenzo and Jason Kaplan from the Credit Pros, was as contentious and frictional as any I’ve seen. That’s what we aimed for!

There’s plenty more I could say about this event, but the above struck me the most.

Balling on a Budget
As a bootstrapped startup in an industry full of well-funded and established firms, we’ve got to be thoughtful about how we make a splash in Las Vegas. This year, we held a series of cocktail parties at our suites in the hotel. These were super fun, and they didn’t break the bank. For three consecutive nights, we hosted our clients, friends and partners. The venue was perfect, and everyone seemed to really enjoy it. And, we got to throw a party….every night!

Meetings off the Floor
While we were each active at the show and in the sessions, we used these same spaces as private meeting rooms, which worked out really well. These folks are always going hard, but I saw sixth gear from the team in Vegas. I think we took Anna to the point of critical illness, but at last check, she’s still among us and returning to normal. As is often the case, I’m blown away by the team’s effort in Vegas.

Innovation Seems to be Slowing
This is the only critical comment I’ll make, and I promise it’s constructive. When I walked the floor of the exhibition hall, it felt as if there are a large contingent of companies fitting into three buckets: networks, call centers, and software. The networks are buying and selling media, typically in a very transactional way. The call centers seemed hard pressed to differentiate. And the software companies appear to be locked in competition with one another on a product level.

None of the above is surprising, but it’s also a little disconcerting. I think there’s a lot of innovation left in this space, but sometimes, you couldn’t get a sense for that. I hope that next year, we see more innovation and disruption. It will keep the space vibrant, ya know?

That’s it from me. What an awesome week in Vegas!

Why Write? A blog post about blogging.

I love to write. I try to spend a couple hours each week composing something with a goal of sharing my work. While I’m certainly not alone, I’m learning this is becoming an increasingly rare practice.

For example, not everyone on our team enjoys – or feels comfortable – writing. During our Q4 retreat (which happened a couple weeks ago), I asked a few of our folks what holds them back from writing more. “I’m not good at writing” was one reply (incorrect, by the way; this person writes beautifully). Others said they’re too busy. Some pointed to fear of public criticism, and not wanting to be vulnerable to that. The most common response, though, was that folks don’t know what to write about or what to say.

The discussion stuck with me. So, as I often do when a topic provokes extended curiosity, I thought I’d write about it.

I’ll start with why I write

I write, mostly, because I love to write. It makes me happy. I enjoy the process – from the planning and outlining to the refinement. It’s fun. And, admittedly, I get a little rush from the feedback that comes from posting something that people enjoy reading. I also like to try out new phrasing and messaging. I play with cadence and flow. I poke and I prod, so to speak.

For me, it started early – like, 5th or 6th grade. I was a wiry, goofy kid with ADD, but when I would read aloud the things I wrote in class, the other kids laughed with me (as opposed to ‘at’ me). That felt good, so I ran with it. Later, I developed an incredible relationship with Gregg Schwipps, who was my writing professor at DePauw. He taught me the value of authentic language and helped me understand how impactful a well-told story can be. That experience, like much of my time at the school, had a major impact on me. Since leaving college, and certainly since becoming an entrepreneur, I’ve always tried to keep some time in my schedule blocked off for writing.

Why writing is only sort of good for business

These days, I write a lot about our business. I do think it helps, but mostly in vaguely-attributable ways (at best). Others may point to revenue growth which is clearly linked to content, but for us, that’s not the goal. I don’t write to drum up business. It’s not that I don’t want more business – it’s just that I think content that aims to sell isn’t genuine. And, I think salesy writing that’s disguised as something else is obnoxious. I’m not saying that thoughtful content doesn’t sometimes lead to more business; I just don’t write with that as the goal. I’ve heard from several folks that something I’ve written has helped them to move forward. I’ve also been told that a blog post I wrote actually inspired someone not to become a client. Clearly, this wasn’t my goal, either!

Many say writing can be good for search engine optimization, but I’ve actually been told that mine isn’t. It’s well-documented that if you can assemble the right words in the right places in such a way that google likes it, this can be valuable. But, since this violates my first rule (don’t write just to drum up business), I think that kind of writing is annoying, too. Our former head of marketing, who I adore, once told me that my writing wasn’t ‘keyword rich’ enough. I don’t know the word for the sound your mouth makes when you hold your lips together and force air out, but that’s how I responded to him. (For an A/V example, Oklahoma State University’s football coach, Mike Gundy, famously made this noise during a press conference recently – it’s absolutely worth the distraction.)

Really, I think writing is good for business mostly because it helps you develop your business’s voice. It helps put a persona behind the brand. Writing allows you to assert a point of view. It lets your audience get to know your ‘vibe,’ or way of being. And it can help establish, I suppose, some authority on topics that matter to you or your audience. It helps you develop an answer to the question: ‘who are those people?’

Why non-marketing types should write, too

This touches back on my motivation for writing this post. I find it remarkable how few people outside of the marketing discipline publish content. Like, if you don’t have an MBA or the words ‘marketing’ or ‘content’ in your title, you shouldn’t write. I don’t get it.

I think business development and sales people, in particular, should write all the time. Think about this. You communicate for a living. Your job is to help people understand why they should work with you or buy your product. Unless you’re somehow pulling this off without the help of language, why wouldn’t you want to constantly improve your own use of words? When you go through the process of writing and posting something, you become more expert in concisely communicating your message. When it’s not just right, you can tweak in a way that you can’t do with spoken communication. Later, you can use those refinements in live action. Writing also helps you build your personal brand. It helps you chip away at the due diligence your audience is doing when you’re not in the room or on the phone. It establishes authority and authorship. It makes everything you say hold more meaning, and it helps you be seen as less subjective.

Some will say sales, marketing and business development are all so interconnected that this is last assertion is obvious. OK. We can debate that another time, but for now, let’s look at other disciplines. I love it when technical professionals write – especially when their work helps me make business sense of technical things. (For a brilliant technical view across a range of business concepts, I think HubSpot’s CTO and Co Founder, Dharmesh Shah is hard to beat.) Another example is finance and venture capital. While we’ve never gone the route of approaching investors, Los Angeles-based VC Mark Suster’s blog is some of my absolute favorite reading. And when I want to learn from content that can benefit my personal life, I often still prefer for those insights to make an impact on my business. I think Dr. Brene Brown – a research professor by trade – has absolutely made me better at home and at work.

Let’s land this plane.

I could go on and on. But, you’ll stop reading (if you haven’t, already). My point? You don’t have to be an expert in an area to have an impact within it. Sometimes, as noted above, content that aims to address one topic can help both the writer and the reader develop new thinking in other areas. In other words, don’t overthink it when it comes to putting your thoughts out there. Instead, open up. Write about stuff. Tweak it; play around with it. Then, share it. Even if you’re bashful about the value of your own ideas, you’ll benefit from the process. And, someone out there might just benefit from it, too.

Sharpen your pencil and share your ideas. You’ll be glad you did it.



From M/A to Partnerships: Understanding the important relationship between Mortgage Firms and Insurance Providers

A couple weeks ago, as thousands of professionals from within the mortgage and insurance categories flooded Las Vegas (for InsureTech Connect) and Boston (for LeadsCon’s Connect to Convert), a bombshell fell on the two industries which will surely impact business for years to come in each category. The news, in case you missed it, was the announcement of LendingTree’s (TREE) intention to purchase Seattle-based insurance lead seller QuoteWizard for north of $300 Million. (You can read the full report, here). On the surface, this deal makes a ton of sense. These two firms have independently done incredibly well in their primary markets; their joining forces should lead to even more impressive dominance in performance marketing space, with coverage in two of the most active and important lead generation industries.

Much of the work our firm does touches these industries – we represent leading players from both the insurance industry and the residential finance (mortgage, home improvement) ecosystem. In fact, we’ve been the driving force in a number of partnership programs between insurance providers and lenders. While we weren’t surprised by the news of the transaction, we do find it both extraordinary and noteworthy. I figured I’d write a little bit about the transaction, and more importantly, the general benefits of a mortgage-insurance partnership strategy.

First, though, some background. I know each of these businesses pretty well. My relationship with LendingTree dates back a number of years – I consider a number of folks on their senior team to be close friends. It’s a business that I respect tremendously. QuoteWizard has been a great partner to a number of the companies I’ve been involved with as well, and while their senior team typically communicates with my partner, Brett (our COO), I’ve come to similarly respect their work. These are good companies, and I’ve got exactly zero doubt that they’ve done something very smart by joining forces.

I’ve also believed for a long time that mortgage lenders and insurers make for very good partners. Dating back to Brett’s and my time at DoublePositive (when we launched the now-mothballed ReadyForMyQuote mobile product), I’ve been thinking about how to profitably align these industries. I’ve seen firsthand the success that USAA has had in helping their Members on both the bank side (which is where their mortgage products live) and the property and casualty business (I’m a Member and I’ve supported that business in the past). Later, at my last ‘real job’ (a national property and casualty insurance agency) we worked hard to partner with residential lenders. In other words, I’m a believer that mortgage customers make good insurance customers, too.

It would seem I’m not alone. This acquisition is certainly big news, but if you read the ‘trades,’ you know that there are a number of businesses out there who are thinking about insuring borrowers. Some are wholly-focused on this; these businesses exist specifically to leverage the relationship that these two industries can and should have. Others see this as a program or a channel – though not a business model. Whether all-in or simply playing at the margins, the list of firms looking to bridge the mortgage application and the insurance policy is growing. (Quick note: We represent some of these businesses, so I face a weird thing, here. I either mention just the ones we work with, share a broader list or just skip naming them, entirely. I’ll go with door number three to avoid any feather ruffling.)

So, why is this happening?
Given the level of activity between the insurance and mortgage industries, one’s mind naturally looks for the motivation behind this. Let’s put the acquisition that inspired this post on the shelf (as the parties involved may have had additional/different motivations than just the synergistic relationship these industries can have). I’ll focus instead on the perspective of a mortgage entity (which could be a direct lender, a broker, or even a loan officer) and the insurance provider (maybe a carrier, an agency or an agent). Specifically, I’ll try to nail down why they’re valuable to one another. To my mind, there are a couple major contributing factors, and then a bunch of secondary benefits. Both are briefly described below:

Major Factors
These industries are either critical or supplemental to one another’s ability to sell. You can’t borrow money for a home that isn’t insured. This means that for a mortgage firm to close a loan – and for a loan officer to get paid – an insurance certificate is required. (Further, RESPA mandates that the lender can’t sell insurance.) For the insurer, the relationship is less necessary than it is beneficial. I mean, who wouldn’t want to work leads who have to buy what you sell?

Secondary Benefits
There are likely dozens of solid justifications for lenders and insurance companies to work together. Some, though, are really simple and important; I’ll stick with these.

Insurance Benefits

Homeowners = better insurance customers.
While insurance carriers rely on dashboards that look like a nuclear submarine control panel, their profitability really comes down to just a few elements: acquisition cost, customer longevity, and products sold per customer frame the basics; loss ratios and claims frequency form the more advanced perspective. Working with homeowners aligns to better than index outcomes in each of these areas: they’re more likely to buy multiple products, less likely to move, and generally display a lesser risk profile than non-owners.

Exclusive leads rock! Cheap, really good ones are even better.
This actually speaks to the above point. Typically, when a mortgage firm refers its customers, it does so to a single, trusted entity. And, often, they do so without charging market rate for a lead. Insurance agents prefer exclusive leads to those they have to share with their competition. And because these leads don’t typically carry the weight of expensive media COGS (costs of goods sold), these programs can mitigate – or even eliminate – upfront acquisition costs.

Lender Benefits

Incremental Revenue.
Lenders have very few opportunities to engage their customers. If they’re successful in funding a mortgage, it’s likely years before they may be approached about a new loan (either purchase, refi or line of credit). Further, as consumers become more and more rate conscious, there’s no guarantee of that repeat business ever happening. Forming a partnership with an insurance company can mean incremental revenue for the lender.

Increased NPS and Loyalty.
Helping customers with things you don’t necessarily sell isn’t just good for revenue; it’s good for referral activity and loyalty. When a lender partners with an insurance company, and that partner delivers great service, it reflects well on the lender. They can expect an improved Net Promoter Score and a greater degree of customer loyalty.

Let’s wrap this up. LendingTree and QuoteWizard makes sense. So do the many business models and programs looking at the relationship between banks and insurers. To me, the more important message is that these programs aren’t just formed by acquisitions and deployed capital. There’s nothing stopping residential lenders and P/C insurers of all sizes from forming partnership programs that can leverage this value. These kinds of engagements help companies grow, but more importantly, they help customers have a better experience.

I hope you like this content. I’ve loved writing it. I think this stuff is fun to think about, but it’s even more fun to execute. I typically don’t use this blog to promote our business, but here I will:

If you’re a lender looking for an incredible insurance partner, we can help.

If you’re an insurance company looking for great lender partners, we can help.

If you have a technology that makes it easier for mortgage applicants to buy insurance, we can help.

Thanks for reading. Peace!

Breaking Through (Part One): My (humbling-as-heck) lesson about inbound sales communication

Recently, I posted a joke about a trend I’d been seeing a lot on LinkedIn and in my email inbox. I wrote:

“Pro tip: if you’re hoping I’ll reply to your cold outreach email or linkedin message, maybe don’t start your message with ‘Dear Benton’”

Almost immediately, things got weird. Typically, a post like this might get a few likes, and a few hundred views. I didn’t use a hashtag, nor did I tag anyone. In other words, I wasn’t trying to get a bunch of views or create some sort of viral thing. I was just feeling sarcastic after receiving a bunch of impersonal, (I felt) poorly written sales pitches. Most of these came through LinkedIn, but plenty have guessed my email address and hit my inbox. Bad form, I thought. I’d had enough. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

That post, to date, has received over 15,000 views and has dozens of comments. Many responses were sympathetic – others who felt like these were mass-communicated, spaghetti-on-the-wall spam tactics. But a few folks pushed back, citing cultural differences and pointing out that my snark might be misguided. Others questioned my logic. “So what if it’s a mass communication, or a poorly written note? Aren’t you still limiting yourself from opportunity by not responding?” (I’m paraphrasing).

Whoa. This is some provocative stuff – these folks make some pretty good points. Many of us work in industries that are fairly agnostic to borders – is my bias toward a certain style, format or salutation actually holding me back? Am I being so snooty that I’m missing out on good opportunities? Worse yet, could this be an unintentional form of discrimination? I decided that I need to think more seriously about this.

I take this kind of thing personally. Introspection isn’t always easy. I hate discrimination and I despise unfairly biased thinking. I absolutely shudder to think I might be guilty of either. From a purely business perspective, if we’re missing opportunities for any reason, I had better get to the bottom it. I decided to conduct a little experiment.

I chose two messages that I wouldn’t normally entertain. Instead of ignoring them, I wrote a thoughtful response to each. The first was an inbound email, the seventh in a series of uninvited communications from an overseas firm looking to sell us on their services. The second was a LinkedIn message from a firm that builds explainer videos (the example they sent was about stem cells!). In each case I responded, saying that I typically don’t reply to such communications, but that I’d be happy to learn more. To the overseas firm, I offered a 15-minute call to learn about their product. To the LinkedIn message, I wrote that I’d received dozens of similar communications, and that I’d be interested in knowing what sets the sender’s firm apart, and also how they think they could help us. Here goes nothing, I thought. The results confirmed my hunch that I can and should do a better job of exploring inbound opportunities. Much, much better.

The overseas firm blew me away. No joke. The 15 minute call went 45 minutes. Then, I asked my partner to review it – he called it a ‘no brainer.’ He’s right – it’s got the potential to help our team in a number of ways. While I still maintain that they approached me in the wrong way, we’re definitely going to buy their product.

The firm that builds explainer videos fared worse. I got a canned message back with a list of giant enterprise examples (that have no reasonable connection to who we are or what we do). The sender suggested I talk to someone else in her organization if I was interested. Not impressed.

There’s a lot to learn, here. First off, I’m clearly guilty of not thinking deeply enough. I valued form over function – mostly due to being busy. Maybe that sounds like a tough pill to swallow, but I’m happy to have learned my lesson. We’re better for this humbling experience.

But what about the senders? Wouldn’t they benefit from some tweaking to improve their own efforts? I think so. This problem won’t be solved by expecting folks to look in the mirror and become more open to inbound sales pitches (though as I’ve experienced, we all should). There’s always room to improve, and for any business development or sales professional looking to break through the noise, there are better ways to get the prospect’s attention.

I’m going to tackle this topic in part 2, next week. Stay tuned!

Let’s Connect!