Contact: Eric Granof, Chief Marketing Officer
Location: Calabasas, Calif.
Industry: Bail bonds
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: Confidential
Guilty by association. That's a tough place to start when you're trying to launch a new brand, particularly the first major brand in your category. But that's exactly where AIA, the nation's largest and oldest network of bail bond agents, found itself when it set out to differentiate its agents from the rest.
Though relatively unbranded in the traditional marketing sense, the bail bond industry is a long way away from being completely unbranded. Images of Dog the Bounty Hunter and other interesting characters have made certain of that. More than simply launching a new brand, the challenge for AIA became how to overhaul that perception.
Through an amusing online and offline campaign, consumer education, community events, strategic partnerships, personable content, and a healthy dose of search engine optimization (SEO), AIA is demonstrating how it is possible to rise above an undeserved reputation in a relatively short amount of time.
Quick—describe a bail bondsperson. Do the adjectives "friendly," "helpful," or "trustworthy" come to mind? Do you visualize a "family man" or "community advocate"? Is this someone you would want and choose to turn to in a time of need, and not because you have no other choice?
Horror stories and media portrayals have long plagued the reputation of the bail bond industry. But if you look at the real men and women who provide these services, some interesting trends emerge that challenge popular opinion. For example, in the AIA network, which comprises 6,000 bail agents across the United States, most are active members of their communities, and more than half are female.
"We have agents that are former schoolteachers, retired US Marshals, Fire Captains, restaurant owners, Big Brothers and Big Sisters supporters, and creators of nonprofits," said Eric Granof, AIA's chief marketing officer. "The problem is, no matter what the reality is of these individuals, everyone still sees bail agents as unsavory characters with tattoos, mullets, and bullet-proof vests running through the street with guns."
AIA is an alliance of Allegheny Casualty Company, International Fidelity Insurance Company, and Associated Bond; it partners with agents across the country to underwrite bail bonds. Since AIA's success is dependent on its agents' success in signing new bonds, the organization sought to alter that negative perception and differentiate its network from the dregs.
To achieve that goal, AIA needed to...
- Educate consumers on the bail bond process and what to expect from a decent agent
- Rank well in search so that the educational information could be easily found
- Foster trust among consumers, and condition them to associate its agent network with quality and reliability
- Create awareness outside of search to familiarize consumers with the brand before the moment of need
AIA introduced the ExpertBail brand in mid-2010 with a fully integrated approach.
1. Educate consumers about the bail bond process
Through consumer research, AIA discovered that people generally don't understand the bail process, nor regard it positively, so public education was in order. It established an informative website with a glossary, blog, FAQ section, industry news, and integrated video designed to educate Web visitors on what to look for and what to expect.
The core of the site is an online directory of "trusted members of the ExpertBail Network," searchable by city, county, ZIP code, and state. The thousands of agent profile pages highlight each agent's personal story, background, and business information.
"We put our agents front and center, so it isn't hard for people to find what they're after," Granof explained.
AIA also developed a mobile-optimized version of its site after learning that a high volume of bail-related search is performed via mobile devices. The mobile version uses the phone's GPS technology to display agents in the immediate area.
2. Rank well in search
Historically, people used the Yellow Pages to locate the closest bail bond agent, but Google has now become the tool of choice. To help the ExpertBail website appear higher in natural search results for important keywords, AIA used an XHTML site structure; search-friendly URLs; mega menus; and optimized title tags, H1 and H2 tags, meta descriptions, and geo-metatags.
It also uploaded keyword-rich content, such as press releases, articles, and video, placing certain emphasis on localized keywords (where appropriate) to align with individual markets. And it maximized this effect by enabling and encouraging its agent network to upload content, as well.
Social media and backlinks to complementary sites, such as bail directories, bail associations, legal directories, and law enforcement directories, were further used to boost ExpertBail's natural search rank.
3. Foster trust among consumers, and condition them to associate its agent network with quality and reliability
AIA partnered with select agents to host ExpertBail launch parties at their places of business. The events included catered "lunch and learn" sessions and aimed to reintroduce the agents to their communities in a new light. Invitations went out to local law enforcement personnel, community leaders, consumers, attorneys, and other local business owners.
In addition, AIA and ExpertBail developed an alliance with the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), the nation's leading victim advocacy group, to further signal the network's support for the communities it serves.
AIA next produced a television commercial that highlighted the community activism of real agents. Agent profiles and interviews, complete with personal stories and family photos, were also featured on the ExpertBail blog.
AIA also helped its agents forge trust by creating an ExpertBail badge widget (characteristic of the VeriSign certificate, for example) for agents to display on their websites, blogs, and other online properties.
4. Create awareness via means other than search
Few people put much thought into bail bonds until they or a loved one land behind bars, when the frantic Google search typically ensues. But AIA wanted consumers to be familiar with the ExpertBail brand before that point so that, at minimum, its search listing would stand out and direct searches for "ExpertBail" would increase.
Accordingly, AIA launched an integrated campaign that contrasted ExpertBail with "Amateur Bail Bonds," a mock competitor network of agents who epitomize the conventional stereotype. The tagline read, "Why rely on an Amateur when there's an Expert waiting to help?"
On Facebook, Amateur Bail agents were brought to life through seedy back-stories, funny JibJab videos, and frequent fan contests. An Amateur Bail Bonds microsite was also launched to encourage extra Facebook "likes," and a partnership was formed with The Jail Report, which already had over 35,000 fans, to increase visibility and trust via third-party posts.
Offline, the characters and brand were introduced via billboards and 250,000 humorous drink coasters delivered to 200 bars across the United States.
In the first three months, ExpertBail experienced double-digit growth in Web traffic and phone inquiries. The website now appears on the first page for all major search keywords having to do with bail bonds, and AIA receives close to 400 bail bond calls per month. It is also averaging more than 100 mobile calls and more than 250 mobile website visits per month. It has even received a few word-of-mouth referrals, both from inside the jails and from attorneys. Members of the agent network also report increased call volumes and referrals.
In addition, the ExpertBail Facebook page has attracted more than 3,000 fans, and AIA is now using the information it gathers from fan interactions to drive new content development and marketing plans.
- Acknowledge. Public perceptions are not easily altered or undone. Rather than attempting to completely dispel the myth, recognize those beliefs, side with the consumer, and then demonstrate that your solution is the better alternative.
- Humanize. People trust people—not companies, and certainly not "the system." Telling and showing the human story is a powerful way to connect on a deeper level, help people see past social stigmas, and make positive impressions that will surge back into consciousness the moment there's a need for your product or service.
- Optimize. More and more people are searching via their mobile phones. If yours is a localized business, it's worth the time and effort to develop a mobile-optimized site. For AIA, the mobile version generated the fastest growth in traffic, and it continues to provide a steady stream of referrals.
- Integrate. Even when a single channel, such as search, is responsible for the bulk of your business, it's important to use a combination of channels and tactics, to nurture brand familiarity and make the connection before the time of need.
- Partner. Consumers are more likely to trust you when they can see other respectable organizations do so, as well. By aligning with compatible organizations, such as the National Center for Victims of Crime and The Jail Report, AIA's message appears more legitimate and is better received.
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