If passing a weekday fishing or canoeing with your best buddies sounds like a far better way to spend your time than cold-calling strangers from a nondescript cubicle, well, you’re probably right. Yes, these activities are a font of great personal enjoyment. But experts note also that the people with whom you share popular pastimes are also among the most promising sources of new business.
“America is a fragmented society,” says Richard Weylman, founder and president, Weylman Center LLC, Boca Grande, Fla. “People group together based on what they do for a living, their special interests and how they recreate. If you’re not targeting these groups, then you’re trying to be all things to all people. America has rejected this approach.”
As a type of niche marketing strategy, sources say, prospecting to individuals who share one’s own hobbies can be highly rewarding–and profitable. What better way to generate business than by mixing it with pleasure, schmoozing with people who partake of your enthusiasm for a popular pastime, be it stamp-collecting, sky-diving, gardening or bird-watching. Engaging the prospect in a discussion about a mutual avocation can help build rapport, establish trust and transition the relationship from a personal to a professional footing.
“It opens doors,” says Mandy Ebert, an associate national director of American National Insurance, Galveston, Tex. “If you have a connection with a particular client by virtue of a shared hobby, you can use that as a springboard to develop new business.”
She should know. Ebert’s division, America’s Playground & Hobbyists, helps affiliated property-casualty and life insurance agents prospect to owners of motorcycles, recreational vehicles and cars, the last of which is served by a company unit dubbed CHROME (classics, hot-rods, replicas, originals, modified and exotics).
To help connect with these enthusiasts, American National offers policy discounts to groups the company endorses. For the Victory Motorcycle Club, for example, the insurer provides deals on motorcycle coverage, armored gear (such as helmets and jackets) and ancillary products. The company also avails agents of marketing literature, sales presentations and resources for sponsoring organization events.
Craig Meads, a national market coordinator who oversees the CHROME unit, says the business advisors generate at club gatherings can lead to spin-off sales. Those clients who collect antique cars, for instance, might refer business to owners of shops that manufacture replacement parts: tires, interior fabrics, engines and the like.
“One goal of all this activity is life insurance sales,” says Madelynn Innes, a national market coordinator of the insurer’s AmeriCycle division. “Our research shows that if the client has a [p-c policy] for a niche product, then the cross-selling of life insurance becomes an easier task.”
All well and good. But before heading off to the next Antiques Road Show, observers caution, advisors need to ascertain whether the hobby of interest is sizeable enough to justify devoting part or all of one’s marketing efforts to it. While there are many devotees of model railroads and cookware, collectors of hard-to-find or pricey artworks, for example, may be comparatively few in number.
Also, experts say, the passion for one or another pastime has to be genuine. Advisors who hobnob with buyers of rare, luxury autos valued in the millions of dollars in order to gain access to high net worth prospects may not get far if they themselves have no interest in a mint condition Rolls Royce, Pierce Arrow or Deusenberg.
“If I walk into a car club and I’m not a car person, the members will see right through me,” says Ebert. “You have to be both interested and active in the group if you’re going to build relationships. If you’re just there to sell insurance and hand out business cards, then you’re only wasting your time–and theirs.”
Adds Weylman: “Friend-raising must precede fund-raising in almost every niche, including the hobby market. In other words, you have to become known and trusted. Prospects have to see that you have an emotional connection to the hobby and that you can bring value to the relationship.”
To that end, he adds, advisors can position themselves as a resource to fellow hobbyists: getting answers to their questions, connecting them to other enthusiasts and otherwise providing useful information. This might take the form of a seminar to help hobbyists winterize their collections or ascertain the fair market value of potential acquisitions. During the get-together, the advisor might also touch on issues that draw on their insurance and financial expertise, such as how to pass on collectibles to heirs while minimizing gift or estate taxes.
Those advisors with a knack for writing can also produce written material to impart information of interest. A sure-fire way to grab the attention of prospects, says Rufina James, a principal of R. James Enterprises, Rockland, Calif., is to develop a press release or white paper on a topic, piquing the reader’s interest with a title like “The Top 10 Tips” or “Seven Secrets to…”
If the information goes out as an e-mail blast or electronic newsletter, she adds, it should include an e-signature with a tagline plugging the advisor’s expertise. Assuming the insurance or financial professional has a website, an online broadcast can also include a link to a “landing page” on the site where prospects can go to access additional info, such as a free report or blog posts on the topic. To subtly promote the advisor’s practice, the material could also invoke terminology that is unique to the hobby.
“If your message is for gardeners, then you might compare the untimely freezing of rose bushes before they were pruned to unexpected occurrences in people’s lives, such as the death or disability of a loved one” says James. “You want to use analogies and metaphors to connect your understanding of the hobby with your professional services. Sooner or later, those linkages will get people’s attention.”
A more direct way to transition the relationship is simply to arrange a meeting with the fellow hobbyist to introduce oneself professionally. This is an approach that too many advisors are averse to taking, says Weylman, because they don’t want to risk damaging the personal relationship.
“Most advisors have been taught, erroneously, that who they are is what they do,” says Weylman. “In fact, these are two separate things. Once you recognize this distinction, you can rest easy about keeping the relationship intact.”
“One pitch I advocate,” Weylman adds, “goes as follows: ‘Mr. Prospect, now that we’ve spent time together, I’d like the privilege of introducing myself professionally. After we have conversation, we can decide whether we ever need to bring it up again.’ What you’ve done here is to separate who you are from what you do.”
In situations, however, where the advisor and prospect are meeting each other for the first time, then the challenge becomes to establish a personal connection. With that objective in view, observers recommend that advisors fine-tune their fact-finding questionnaires to uncover assets (such as artworks and collectibles) that should be incorporated into an estate plan and that could serve as an ice-breaker in discussions if the assets concern a shared hobby.
Michael Mendelsohn, president of Bridge Art Strategies Ltd., Rye Brook, N.Y., says that advisors can enhance their value to clients by helping to organize, grade and dispose of at least part of their collections. The least valued tier of such acquisitions–usually the first items to be purchased, when the client is less experienced in the art of collecting–can be gifted to a local charity, museum or educational institution.
The benefit: The client secures an income tax deduction. Money that otherwise would have been paid to the government can be used to fund a life insurance policy with which to meet estate planning needs. The argument for this approach is all the more compelling, says Mendelsohn, when the advisor can speak from his or her own experience.
“When the advisor can talk to the client about an emotional asset from the vantage point of one who is also a collector, then the dialogue suddenly rises to another level,” says Mendelsohn. “That personal connection to a shared collection or hobby adds a whole new dimension of the relationship.”