“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” If you wanted to know where that quote came from, you could go online to your favorite search engine, type it in and instantly see that was from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” But how did the search engine know that? If you can answer that, you know more than the average person about what it takes to build a business using the Internet, but you may not know, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

In the good old days, almost all life insurance was sold through face-to-face meetings with prospects, usually at their kitchen table, and usually at a time that was most convenient for them (certainly not the most convenient time for you or your family). That was then and this is now. In today’s world of fast food, 10-minute oil changes and movies on-demand, a growing number of people are turning to the Internet for purchases that, historically, have been made in person. Life insurance is a great example of this.

Today, a consumer can go to the Internet and, with little effort, obtain life insurance quotes on a wide variety of products from an even wider variety of companies at any time and without having to go through the traditional needs analysis required by his local life insurance agent. Granted, a needs analysis is a valuable way of making sure the client is being presented with the best possible solution that helps him achieve his goals, but this process often leaves him feeling like he was sold something. A consumer would much prefer to buy what he needs than feel like he was sold what he should have. That is where the Internet comes into play.

So how do you get in on this? First, let’s get a clear understanding of what we’re talking about. According to Yahoo!, people use its Web site to search for the term “life insurance” more than 408,000 times per month. That’s 13,600 times per day, 566 times per hour, or 9 times per minute. And that’s just for the phrase “life insurance” and only on Yahoo! Extrapolate, considering the many other search engines and all the search variations, and you will see that a lot of life insurance is being purchased on the Internet. So how can you share in this bounty?

Get organized
The first thing you need to do is to get organized in a way that will give you the best chance of achieving success. For example, people looking for life insurance on the Internet could be almost anywhere in the United States. So if you want to earn their business, you need to be licensed where they are. Start with at least five states in three time zones. Why three different time zones? Because when it’s too early to reach people in California, you can reach all kinds of people in Florida. The more time zones you’re in, the more you are going to be able to actually reach people who have asked for your service. In the past, getting licensed in multiple states was, in many cases, complicated and painful. That is no longer the case. For a fee, one service, www.licenseregistry.com, can get you licensed in almost every state. In fact, many of the states now allow for electronic registration, so you could have a license number in a matter of days. So what’s next?

You’ll need some sort of contact management system so you can keep track of all your leads. Pieces of paper or card catalog systems just won’t work. Why? Something you need to know about consumers looking for life insurance on the Internet is that many of them are window shoppers. They may not be looking for a policy right now or they may simply be shopping for the best deal. You need to have lots of leads coming in so you can find those people who are buyers instead of shoppers. Here are some good rules of thumb: For every 10 Internet leads you receive, you should expect to be able to take applications on three or four of them. So what do you do with the other six or seven people who were just shopping? that’s where contact management tools can help. You should continue to drip on them with a newsletter or some other sort of communication so when they are ready to buy, they come back to you.

Something else you should know about Internet shoppers is they are price savvy. They’ve probably visited many different Web sites, so they know what life insurance costs. If you want to be able to compete successfully in this market, you need to be able to quote them the best possible price for their given situation.

How can you do that? Fortunately, there are solutions. Companies like Compulife Software Inc. (www.compulife.com) have put together some tools that allow you to quote prices from the nation’s leading life insurance carriers for term and universal life products for as little as $69 per year. This type of service can be beneficial to everyone because you will be able to see how one company compares on price to the competition in your local market. In many cases, you will be able to offer clients coverage that is significantly lower than what they have, even if they purchased it several years ago.

Let’s assume you’re 100 percent organized and ready to go. What’s next? You need some leads. How do you get them? There are a few different ways to begin, and each comes with its own set of problems and opportunities.

I want it now
The fastest way to get started selling life insurance on the Internet is to find a company already marketing on the Internet and purchase leads from it. With this approach, you do not need to build your own Web site, nor do you need to worry about how to drive traffic to it once it has been created.

“This approach can save you lots of time and money,” says Greg Sabala, regional vice president for Boise, Idaho-based Mountain Financial. “We provide independent agents with all of the processes and tools that they need to be successful at doing business on the Internet. We provide the exclusive leads (leads that are only given to one agent), contact management (through our proprietary “oneEsystem”), as well as all of the underwriting support necessary to help agents focus on what they do best: helping prospects find the best possible coverage for the best possible price.”

Using an agency like Mountain Financial can be a great way to get your feet wet without having to become an Internet marketing expert. Mountain Financial, or another company like it, can get you started fairly quickly because it has already done the heavy lifting for you. All you need to do is sign up to purchase some leads and then make the phone calls once the leads arrive. However, not all lead companies are created equal, so you will need to be careful where you buy your leads. Prices can vary dramatically from company to company, and not all companies guarantee you are the only person they have sold the lead to. You should look for companies that generate their own Internet leads and sell them to one agent. In addition, companies that generate their own leads often are able to offer them to the agent at a reasonable price (between $16 and $20 per lead).

Statistics provided by Mountain Financial tell us that roughly 20 percent of leads will result in paid life insurance policies. If you purchase 100 leads for $2,000, and if the average premium is $500 per case, you are looking at roughly $10,000 of life insurance premium generated out of a $2,000 initial investment. That’s potentially a 5-to-1 return on investment. Actual results could be better or worse depending on many factors (not the least of which is the agent’s ability to build a relationship with someone over the phone), so it is recommended you start small – 10 or 20 leads per week – so you can see if this is something that is right for you.

Will they come?
You might want to try your hand at generating leads off a Web site of your own creation. However, if you try this, you need to be patient. This is not something you will be able to do overnight. Some approaches are faster than others, but a good rule of thumb is this: The quicker you want to be able to see leads, the more money you are going to have to pay to make that happen.

There are two ways to get yourself seen in search engines like Google and Yahoo! The first is through what is called organic placement, which means your Web site is deemed content-worthy by the search engine and is made eligible for display within the main body of the search results. The rules for what is considered content-worthy vary from search engine to search engine, but three important factors are:

  1. The way your Web site is built (the technology used)
  2. The amount of relevant content you provide
  3. The number of people who link to your site (in effect, giving your site a vote of confidence)

Why does the technology you use on your Web site matter? It matters because of the way the search engines find new content on the Internet. Search engines use computer programs called spiders to crawl around the Internet looking for content. When a spider encounters technology it doesn’t understand or like, it skips that page and moves on to the next. What is the technology that makes the spiders happy?

“If you are going to build a Web site so that it is easily seen by the search engines, then you need to build your site using HTML,” says Gary Savelli, president of Insurance Web Sales, a company that specializes in building search-engine-friendly Web sites for insurance professionals. “Why? Because spiders understand how to read text, so you want as much of your site built using text as you can.”

To help agents build their sites properly, Insurance Web Sales (www.insurance-web-sales.com) not only offers advice on how to do it, but for as little as $500 it will build your site for you so you can focusing on selling and not on learning how to build a Web site.

Once you have a Web site that can be read easily by the search engines, you then need to give the search engines something interesting and important to read. This is the easiest part of this entire process (which is why the search engines don’t rely exclusively on content to determine which sites are relevant).

Assuming you have a site with decent content, the biggest thing that influences the search engine is how many other people link to your Web site. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to get people to link to you in the kind of numbers necessary to have your site ranked above companies like MetLife, New York Life and Prudential. They’ve been playing this game since Internet commerce emerged, so they’ve got a huge head start on smaller agencies trying to make a living on the Internet. Is it possible? Yes. But you need to be patient and persistent.

Reading is the best way to learn more about this. A book by Renee Kennedy and Terry Kent called “Search Engine Optimization and Marketing for Beginners” can help. This should give you more than enough information to help you see that, if you choose this approach, you’ve got a long, bumpy road ahead of you.

Pay per click
The second – and fastest – way to attract the search engines is through what is commonly referred to as pay-per-click advertising. What does that mean? It means you are willing to pay the search engines every time someone clicks on your advertisement. How much does that cost? It depends completely on the phrases (also referred to as key words) you choose and how close to the top of the results list you want to be. For example, if you were to advertise for the No. 1 position on Yahoo! for people searching with the phrase “life insurance quote,” you can expect to pay roughly $6 per click. That may not sound like much, but there is something about Internet shoppers you need to know: They click around a lot. So you should expect that a vast majority of people who click on your advertisement will not give you the information you need to contact them to give them a quote. In fact, you should expect that only one out of 10 people who click on your advertisement will request information. So if each click costs you $6, you could pay upward of $60 or more per lead.

If you really want to do this and not break the bank on pay-per-click charges, find less frequently used phrases that will generate a significant number of leads. But the per-click cost will be much less, too. For example, you might advertise under the phrase “term life assurance” (yes, I intentionally spelled insurance as assurance). Clicks for this phrase only cost $1, but the number of clicks you will receive in any given month will be much smaller. The trick is to find enough of these types of phrases so you get a decent number of clicks while still paying the reduced per-click charge.

If you do this right, selling insurance on the Internet is a great way to increase the number of people you are able to help, decrease the number of hours you work and (best of all) increase the amount of money you make.