Michael Z. Stahl: A Visionary Insurance Marketer

In June 2019, IMCA introduced its Icon Award to recognize insurance marketing leaders. These are people whose strategy, energy, and strong performance provides an inspiring example of how marketing and communications can advance an insurance organization’s business and elevate the standard for exceptional work through innovation, creativity, and impact in the marketplace. 

In just six years, Mike Stahl turned a field-based agency into one of the largest independent health insurance agencies in the United States. Much of Mike’s success stems from his decision to strategically integrate data and technology into sales and marketing. Equally important, rather than steering clear of a controversial industry issue—health care reform—Mike embraced it, creating an innovative program that gives consumers a voice in the health care debate. His leadership, entrepreneurial thinking, and intense customer focus are what earned him IMCA’s inaugural Icon Award.

Challenging times
When Mike joined what was then Insphere Insurance Solutions in April 2013, the company faced two significant challenges: 1) The future of the health insurance industry was uncertain due to potential government reform, and 2) Insphere was recovering from negative public opinion following resolved regulatory issues and litigation. Due to these issues, consumer confidence and customer satisfaction scores were at an all-time low.

While other insurance agencies were taking a wait-and-see approach to health care reform, Mike saw the opportunity in a market on the cusp of transformation and expansion. The Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which required most Americans to have health insurance meeting certain requirements, went into effect in 2013. In addition, the Medicare market was just starting to see the impact of approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers aging into eligibility every day. Mike recognized that these two factors would increase the number of consumers looking to purchase individual coverage.     

Mike moved quickly to reposition the company so it could take advantage of these opportunities. He began by creating a new corporate identity. In October 2013, Insphere was rebranded as HealthMarkets, a clear and simple name that made it easy to understand what the agency sold. He identified a new brand promise—Choice, Convenience and Counsel—and relaunched the company’s website to focus on consumers, rather than corporate investors and employees, who had been the company’s previous audience. To counter negative impressions of the agency, Mike implemented a robust digital reputation management program.

To deliver on the company’s new brand promise, Mike built out a branded, multi-channel marketing campaign and integrated it seamlessly into the agency’s field operations. This gave consumers a choice in how, where, and when they purchased coverage. After conducting research and getting a quote online, consumers could either complete the transaction or meet with a HealthMarkets agent in person or over the phone.

Opportunities were also created for agents through a new storefront program that provided agents, who traditionally worked from home, the ability to open a HealthMarkets branded office without the expense of purchasing a franchise. Not only did this program provide agents with more opportunities for lead generation and increased earning potential, it also gave consumers another way to connect with a local agent as well as help expand HealthMarkets’ footprint and promote the brand in local communities.

Strategic use of technology
Mike’s visionary use of data and technology propelled the company to even greater success. In his second year at HealthMarkets, he led the development of proprietary solutions that deliver consumer calls to local field agents in real time, matching consumers with the nearest agent, based on their area and ZIP code. This technology also delivers lead alerts to agents that include the consumers’ digital behaviors and populate the agent’s lead database with third-party life event data, which has led to dramatically increased marketing-attributable sales.

Another agent-focused innovation is AgentConnect, a mobile app that manages the agent’s prospects and customers in a secure, HIPAA-compliant environment. Agents can use the tool to compare real-time quotes and create proposals. The app also allows them to share a virtual business card with consumers. Since the recipient can easily forward the card to friends and family, the tool can increase agent referrals as well.

When Mike identified yet another opportunity within the health care market turmoil, his impact as HealthMarkets’ CMO went beyond his company, extending to the entire health insurance industry. He believed that HealthMarkets should develop an unbiased platform to serve as a bridge between both sides of the health care reform debate. Under his direction, the company created a nonpartisan forum for consumers to engage in a positive discussion about health care insurance and potential marketplace solutions.

The center of the program, which launched in early 2017, is the OurCare website.[AH2]  The site lets consumers draft their own health care reform bill using the site’s Build Your Own Bill (BYOB) tool. The first of its kind, the tool allows consumers—regardless of their political view—to have a say in health care legislation. Through a straightforward questionnaire, consumers input their preferences regarding the U.S. health care system, which creates a sample “bill.” They can then share their bill with their social networks and with legislators—or even tweet it to the President. A Facebook page and Twitter feed complement the website.

To date, U.S. consumers have built more than 6,000 health care bills through OurCareBill.org, with many taking additional action to share their completed bills directly with congressional representatives or President Trump. The #OurCare Call to Action video has been seen more than 63,000 times.

#OurCare has been featured in more than 240 news outlets, including national and regional broadcast, print, and online media outlets. Mike and other #OurCare representatives were interviewed as experts in the health care industry by outlets such as the Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Larry Elder Radio Show, and the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

As the health care insurance market evolves, Mike will continue to respond with customer-centric, innovative solutions. He has set the bar high for future Icon Award winners.