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Medicare information: Are online sites safe?

I noticed that a major national publication(1) that is widely read by affluent seniors published a sponsored links section under the heading “2015 Medicare Premium Cost” that raised my curiosity and made me a little suspicious(2). I decided to check it out. The simple benchmark I used was to ask myself “Would I be comfortable referring my father to this site?“. This is what I learned:

The sponsored links page contained 14 listings. I clicked through to each of them to see what information was available and whether the sites seemed safe, straightforward and reputable.

  • Only one of the 14 was actually an information resource that did not sell any product on its page. It did link to product sales but gave an on-screen warning that “You are now leaving the Medicare information section”.
  • One of the 14 was actually just the search engine About.com drawing traffic to its site under the search term “Medicare Information”. An interesting approach; I had forgotten that sometimes the search engines actually purchase web traffic for resale.
  • The other 12 of the 14 were actually data mining pages where you had to give personal information first (name, location, email and phone number in each case) in order to enter the site of access any meaningful information. It would be naive to not realize that these collected leads are heavy marketed in various formats, sold and resold. Personal information on seniors looking for Medicare information are likely to be among the most valuable types of sales leads for a range of other product sellers. These sites do not limit the use of consumer data once they collect it.
  • Two of the sites were obviously misleading in that they advertised “Medicare Plans” or “Medicare Insurance” in the title when they were actually selling Medicare supplement insurance. In my opinion, these violate insurance market conduct rules.

Overall, I was disappointed in the quality of the “resources” in this exercise. I conclude that the best online resource for information about Medicare is still the government’s official 160 page national handbook “2016 Medicare and You“.

Individuals who want personal assistance with Medicare issues seem to have two basic options:

1) Give their personal information and allow the product provider to enter them into a marketing campaign and have a sales representative contact them, or

2) Hire a personal adviser and have their adviser do the legwork for them. This second option is further limited since the number of financial advisers skilled in Medicare insurance issues are few and most of these, I suspect, receive compensation as commissioned sales agents. It is not that the commissioned agent approach is wrong (in fact I believe it is the best option for most people), but it is important to recognize from the start that this creates a conflict of interest situation to the client that should be disclosed by the seller and understood by the client. A relative few individuals will be able to have their fee-only financial adviser recommend options on Medicare and supplemental coverage.

The most common tradition sources may still be the most practical. Friends, magazines, print advertisements, etc. have been common sources of information on Medicare, Medicare replacement plans and supplemental insurance.

The federal government and state insurance departments have long held the position that seniors searching for Medicare-related insurance products are vulnerable to unscrupulous or misleading sales practices and sometimes outright fraud. It appears that there is plenty of evidence to support these concerns so it seems that this topic of online Medicare product marketing deserves more regulatory attention.

Footnotes

(1) The publication was The Wall Street Journal but I omitted the name in the article because I don’t want the post to be a criticism of them; it could likely have been any publication that takes a similar approach to online advertising.

(2) I recently completed an online professional continuing education course on the topic of ethics in the senior insurance market that expanded on these risks. The list of schemes discovered by regulators and the number of prosecuted cases is overwhelming.

Web traffic trends at TonyNovak.com

This is the mid-month report of all organic web traffic data for the 30 days ending 11/15/2015. TonyNovak.com is the largest single source of traffic but other sites and blogs contribute including those under the name Freedom Benefits.

Number of visitors

My total web user traffic including the web sites and blogs is 150-200 on weekends and 300-500 on weekdays. (The web site traffic monitor services I use are Sitemeter, Google Analytics and WordPress. Sitemeter and Google Analytics do not integrate with the WordPress blog traffic monitor so I make an arbitrary assumption that 50% of the traffic is overlap hitting both counters and so I my traffic reports are calculated on this adjusted basis).

Web Traffic trend

This level of user traffic has been stable for several years despite my efforts to boost traffic though more relevant and actionable content. It is puzzling that despite investment of time in improved and more relevant content for a broad-based audience traffic has not increased.

The most encouraging trend is that page views on my own websites have increased over the past 30 days indicating that visitors are looking at more content and/or I have fewer “bounces” after viewing a single page. The rolling average (this form of measurement converts the weekend/weekday variance into a smooth  sine wave to indicate the longer term trend) daily page views increased from about 430 per day to over 500 per day. This finding is significant and is consistent with the observation below related to changing source of traffic.

page views

Source

Throughout most of my online history Google organic search was the primary source of traffic but recent indications are that social media “click-through” from my posts on Facebook, NJCPA, Google+ and LinkedIn is a growing source of traffic that now contributes 15% to 20% of overall traffic. None of this traffic is purchased although I do use paid traffic promotions through social media accounts for unrelated web sites that are not included in this report.

Conversion rate

The “conversion rate” of visitors to any type of personal action (call, chat, email, web form inquiry) is about 1 in 100 but revenue-producing conversions are less than 1 in 1000.

About 1 in 15 visitors to an insurance-related web page request quotes but among these less than 1 in 100 actually purchases a policy that is reported as revenue.

My overall conclusion remains that I am better-skilled at drawing web traffic than using it.

Puzzling weekend politics by The Wall Street Journal

Over this past weekend the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and Time Magazine all published news stories saying that Bernie Sanders was a clear winner of Saturday’s (9/14) Democratic debate. According to the WSJ, “Mr. Sanders was declared the winner by 44% of Democratic primary voters who watched the nationally televised debate, with 32% choosing Mrs. Clinton…”. According to the Time online poll, an overwhelming 81% of the 91,000 online responders picked Sanders as the winner of the debate (as of the time this blog post was published). Washington Times said Clinton lost the debate.

 

Yet despite all the evidence, including the news story from his own publisher, WSJ political columnist Peter Nicholas put out an editorial titled “Bernie Sanders Fails to Blunt Hillary Clinton’s Momentum“. The editorial does not cite any evidence for the odd opinion. We are left with no idea as to why Mr. Nicholas believes that Sander’s strong debate performance did not strengthen his standing in the race against Clinton.

 

Sander’s explanation might have been stated in the debate itself: “Let’s not be naive about it. Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been a major, the major, campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so. … Why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions? They expect to get something! Everybody knows that!”. Some would have us believe that political ties bias some news reporting to favor Clinton and, in fact, some WSJ readers voiced this concern in reaction to the Nicholas editorial. I am personally not convinced; just puzzled.

 

Let’s be clear: Readers really don’t care that much who won the debate. What we do care about is integrity in major news sources. I am quite concerned by the mounting indications that some news publishers can’t be counted on to weigh the facts in their reporting and op/eds.

 

As a reader of the WSJ, I simply want to know: what’s going on? Don’t WSJ op-ed editors read what the news desk publishes? And when the facts differ from one writer’s opinion, why isn’t there any effort to reconcile the two before throwing the mess out to readers? Certainly I don’t deny the right of the WSJ editorial staff to have a political opinion. But should I really believe that WSJ is more intent on promoting a political interest than in reporting reliable information?

The gap in small business employee benefits advice

Yesterday I had a great telephone conversation with a guy I met on LinkedIn. His business sells a variety of innovative  employee health care solutions. I was impressed. The problem is that they focus on groups with 50 or more employees. I explained that my business is driven by incoming inquiries and that these are overwhelmingly NOT the owners of businesses with more than 50 employees. I could recall only one client over the past year that fit this category. When a reporter from The Wall Street Journal asked me to refer the owner of a business with more than 50 employees for a comment to his story in progress my one client in this category declined and I was unable to make any other referral. In fact the U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2010 only 3.6 percent of all firms fell into this category of having more than 50 employees.

Then later on the same day, I was motivated for the first time to remove comments from a blog post where I felt that a writer was using misleading comments to sell his own firm’s products and services. It strikes me that unfortunately small business owners and their advisers are not in a position to distinguish between good tax advice and bad advice, particularly in the field of implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In this case the only resource I have is to distance myself from what I consider to be bad advice.

By the end of the day yesterday I was left with a confirmation of something I knew already but it still worth repeating: There are great services and plenty of well-qualified  employee benefits professionals available to largest firms but a ‘black hole’ in qualified advice for smaller firms who need employee benefits advice. This service gap has been a problem for as long as I’ve been in practice and I don’t expect any significant improvement anytime soon.

Internal conflict about online content marketing

I feel annoyed by the array of email opt-in forms, popups, and widgets so widely used in online content sites today and I refuse to use these on sites that publish my own content. Yet I recognize that as a result of my choices, my content achieves significantly lower results than industry averages. This translates to  lower overall valuation of my business.

In the past the only way I could achieve anything near real value of content was to sell it to someone who would market it more aggressively using all of the available tools. I am considering this option and searching for any other options that may be available.

It is time for me to recognize that “the answer” to this dilemma that I presumed would come along naturally in the evolution of technology may in fact not be coming at all. In this case a different way of looking at the issue is needed. This realization comes at the same time that I recognize a total lifetime compilation of 30,000  pieces of published content over 35 years (if you count everything back to the pre-public-internet days of writing for my college newspaper).

Great marketing information for financial professionals

Great information for financial service marketers. I suspect that you won’t hear this from most sales managers. The PDF from Jackson Life is at https://goo.gl/8PMUrR

“Since the dawn of the financial advice industry, financial professionals have been creating value propositions centered on the intangible qualities they can provide to an investor. As you can imagine, the focus on these types of qualities, which can include frequent face-to-face interactions, the promise of a genuine personal relationship and emotional support
(or helping to take emotion out of the investing equation), has only grown stronger as the robo-advisor revolution has gathered steam. To counter the robo foothold, the industry has pegged these qualities as the key differentiator separating a human financial professional from a machine. As such, these intangibles are often defined as what investors are paying
for above and beyond the low-cost fee structure of a tech-based advice platform.

New data released by the Center for Financial Insight offers a distinct challenge to this line of thinking. Of the 2,774 respondents to the Center’s recent “Man vs. Machine” investor survey, more than 82 percent said they would not be willing to pay more for these intangible qualities. Perhaps even more concerning for the industry, the “No” results were consistently high for all age demographics represented. The highest percentage of “No” responses (88.51%) came from the 66+ range, while the lowest (77.92%) was attributed to the 46-55 age group. While the industry may be able
to explain away the 66+ results due to the large percentage of retired investors in the category, the pre-retiree age range (56-65) – supposedly the top target market for most human financial professionals – came in at 84.74% (the second-highest instance of “No” answers).”

(emphasis added)

“Experience is the best teacher—especially when it’s someone else’s experience.”

I often feel like the majority of the value I provide to clients is saying “watch out for this because I learned the hard way how it can be a problem”.