Guidance on Website Compliance

Are websites and emails a form of advertising? In the state of Utah, the answer is a clear “Yes.” While it may seem like an obvious question, it is not clearly laid out in all states that these are actually forms of advertising.

Effective September 11, 2012, websites and emails are now a clearly defined media type for advertisements under Utah Administrative Rule R590-130. As regulators look more and more to third party marketing organizations’ and producers’ communications with the public, the need to make sure all forms of advertising media are in compliance becomes a necessary (yet possibly daunting) task.

This is especially true for those media types that are accessible by anyone, anywhere – things like radio shows and websites. Websites can also change and grow on a daily, perhaps even hourly, rate. Some of the most effective sites dedicate their content and work to SEO – search engine optimization – with the goal of improving the visibility of a website in a search engine’s unpaid search results. Think about it – when you run a Google search, you’re much more likely to explore one of the pages that show up on the first page, probably at the top, than you are to venture on to page 2, 3, 4…or 107. Who knows what is even on those pages? So it’s only natural companies are constantly striving to get into that top spot without having to pay for ad space. However, this poses some unique compliance challenges – how can you stay on top of all that changing content? How can you create effective marketing, using words and phrases that link you to the top of Google’s search, while remaining compliant? How can you know who is accessing your site and if its content is appropriate for them to see?

There are no quick answers to these questions and it’s likely that as regulations change and evolve, so will our approach for compliance. Still, there are some guidelines to keep in mind when creating your website and its shared content.

First, websites are accessible to anyone. Since insurance is regulated at the state level, there isn’t just one blanket set of regulations to apply. There should be reminders to producers to check their state’s specific regulations before utilizing any sales tools or techniques to help ensure they are not putting their license at risk. Illustrations are one example of where we are seeing this type of compliance issue arise. With the NAIC Annuity Disclosure Model regulation, which has been adopted by a growing number of states, producers should be put on notice before using any software available from an insurer or FMO’s site since it may not comply with their state’s regulations anymore.

Another thing to consider is the audience. Again, because access isn’t limited, it may not be enough to add a disclosure to the bottom of the page stating that the contents of the website are for “producers only.” The change to Utah’s regulations show that websites are recognized as a form of advertising and content that is public facing may be viewed by regulators as appropriate for general public viewing. To help protect against the risk of distributing agent content to the general public, material that is truly for agent eyes only should be placed behind a password.

When creating content to increase SEO, it’s important to avoid promissory and other problematic wording. There needs to be a balance between creating content that uses words that enhance website visibility (but are risky) and using words that are accurate (but perhaps less advantageous). Yes, using the words “retirement investment” may be a way to increase your visibility, but if this is used in a misleading manner (i.e., sounds like it’s about investments and not insurance products), then this can increase your compliance risk. In the long run, it could also impact the reputation and longevity of your business.

Finally, just because content isn’t on your home page doesn’t mean it isn’t a compliance risk. Any content that is available on your website can be considered “in use” and therefore must be compliant. If there are old sales systems or outdated marketing systems, they must be removed. If you still want to make these available, they must be revised and brought into compliance.

As technology continues to advance and information becomes more easily accessible, regulations will be adapted to meet these changes. Compliance may feel like something that is impossible at first, but with just a few guidelines, you can see that reducing risk is within reach and truly a valuable component in ensuring the sustainability of your business.