An insurance tech VC on why the continuing development of online/mobile-first agencies and incidental sales platforms will be particularly impactful in the coming years.
At American Family Ventures, we believe changes to insurance will happen in three ways – incrementally, discontinuously over the near term, and discontinuously over the long term. We reference each of these changes in the context of a ‘version’ of insurance, respectively, “Insurance 1.1,” “Insurance 2.0,” and “Insurance 3.0.”
The incremental changes of “Insurance 1.1” will improve the effectiveness or efficiency of existing workflows, or create new workflows that are substantially similar to existing ones.
In contrast, the long-term discontinuous changes of “Insurance 3.0” will happen in response to changes that one sees coming when peering far into the future, i.e. risk management in the age of commercial space travel, human genetic modification, and general AI.
Between those one finds “Insurance 2.0”, representing near term, step function advances and significant departures from existing insurance processes and workflows. These changes are a re-imagination or reinvention of some aspect of insurance as we know it.
We believe there are three broad categories of innovation driving the movement towards “Insurance 2.0”: distribution, structure and product. While each category leverages unique tactics to deliver value to the insurance customer, they are best understood as a Venn diagram, since many tactics within the categories overlap or are used in coordination.
In this post, we’ll look into at the first of these categories in more detail: distribution.
A.M. Best, the insurance rating agency, organizes insurance into two main distribution channels: agency writers and direct writers. Put simply, agency writers distribute products through third parties, and direct writers distribute through their own sales capabilities. For agency writers, these third-party channels include independent agencies/brokerages (terms we will use interchangeably for the purposes of this paper) and a variety of hybrid structures. In contrast, direct writer sales capabilities include company websites, their own sales teams, and exclusive agents. It is notable that this distinction is one based on corporate strategy rather than customer preference.
We believe a segment of customers will continue to prefer traditional channels, such as local agents who are valued for their accessibility, personal attention and expertise. However, we also believe there is an opportunity to redefine distribution strategies to better align with the needs of two developing states of the insurance customer – those who are intent-driven, and those who are opportunity-driven. For context, intent-driven customers seek out insurance because they know or have become aware they need it or want it. In contrast, opportunity-driven customers consider purchasing insurance because, in the course of other activities, they have completed some action or provided some information that allows a timely and unique offer of insurance to be presented to them.
There are two specific distribution trends we predict will be particularly impactful over the coming years, one for each state of the customer described above. These are: 1) the continuing development of online agencies, including “mobile-first” channels, and 2) incidental sales platforms.
Online Agencies and Mobile-First Products
Intent-driven customers will continue to be served by a number of response-focused channels, including online/digital agencies. Online insurance agencies operate much like traditional agencies, except they primarily leverage the Internet (instead of brick-and-mortar locations) for operations and customer engagement. Some, like our portfolio company CoverHound, integrate directly with carrier partners in order to acquire customers and bind policies entirely online.
In addition to moving more of the purchasing process online, we’ve also observed a push towards “mobile-first” agencies. By using a mobile device/OS as the primary mode of engagement, the distributor and carrier are able to meet potential customers where they are increasingly likely to be found. Further, mobile-first agencies leverage the smartphone as a platform to enable novel and valuable user experiences. These experiences could be in the application process, notice of loss, servicing of claims, payment and renewal, and a variety of other interactions. There are a number of startup companies, some of which we are currently partnered with, working on this mobile-first approach to agency.
To illustrate the power of a mobile-first platform, imagine a personal auto insurance mobile app that uses the smartphone camera in policy issuance, authorizes payments via a payment API, processes driving behavior via the phone’s GPS, accelerometer and a connection to the insured vehicle in order to influence or incentivize safe driving behavior, notifies the carrier of a driving signature indicative of an accident, and integrates third-party software into their own app that allows for emergency response and rapid payment of claims.
Moving to the latter of the two customer states, we believe a second major trend, which we call “incidental channels,” will increasingly serve opportunity-driven customers. In this approach, the customer acquisition engine (often a brokerage or agency) creates a product or service that delivers value independently of insurance/risk management, but uses the resulting relationship with the customer and data about the customer’s needs to make a timely and relevant offer of insurance. Zenefits is a well-known example of the incidental channel approach.
We spend quite a bit of our time thinking about incidental sales channels, and find three things about them particularly interesting:
- Reduced transactional friction. In many cases, customers using these third-party products/services are providing (or granting API access to) much of the information required to digitally quote or bind insurance. Even if these services were to monetize via lead generation referral fees rather than directly brokering policies, they could still remove purchase friction by plugging directly into other aggregators/online agencies.
- Dramatically lower customer acquisition costs. Insurance customers are expensive to acquire. Average per customer acquisition costs for the industry are estimated between $500-800, and insurance keywords are among the top keywords by paid search ad spend, often priced between $30-50 per click. Customer acquisition costs for carriers or brokers using an incidental model can be much lower, given naturally lower costs to acquire a customer with free/low cost SaaS and consumer apps. Network effects and virality, both difficult to create in the direct insurance business but often present in “consumerized” apps, enhance this delta in acquisition costs. Moreover, like Zenefits, a commercial SaaS-focused incidental channel can acquire many insurance customers through one sale to an organization.
- Improved customer engagement. Insurance can be a low-touch and poorly rated business. However, because most customers choose to use third-party products/services of their own volition (given the independent value they provide), incidental channels create new opportunities to support risk management without making the customer “actively” think about insurance. An analogue might be an eye care checkup that happens while shopping for a new pair of Warby Parker glasses. In addition, the use of third-party apps creates more frequent opportunities to engage with customers, which has positive effects on customer retention.
Additional Considerations and Questions
The digital customer acquisition diagram below presents how customers move through intent-driven and opportunity-driven states. Notice that the boundary between customer states is permeable. Opportunity-driven customers often turn into intent-driven customers once exposed to an offer to purchase. However, as these channels continue developing, strategists must recognize where the customer begins the purchase process – with intent or opportunistically. Recognizing this starting point creates clarity around the whole product and user experience required for success on each path.
Despite our confidence in the growth of mobile-first and incidental strategies, we are curious to see how numerous uncertainties around these approaches evolve. For example, how does a mobile-first brokerage create defensibility? How will carriers and their systems/APIs need to grow in order to work with mobile-first customers? With regard to incidental channels, which factors most influence success – the frequency of user engagement with the third-party app, the ability of data collected through the service to influence pricing, the extensibility of the incidental platform/service to multiple insurance products, some combination of these, or something else entirely?
Innovation in how insurance is distributed is an area of significant opportunity. We’re optimistic both insurers and startups will employ the strategies above with great success, but will also find other, equally interesting approaches to deliver insurance products to customers.
Kyle is a principal at American Family Ventures, the venture capital arm of American Family Insurance, where he is focused on identifying and supporting early-stage companies impacting the future of the insurance industry. Prior to working at American Family, Kyle was a corporate attorney focused on emerging company business matters, including financing transactions and M&A. Kyle has also worked in strategy, finance, and legal roles with a number of startup companies. Kyle holds a J.D. and M.B.A. from the University of Wisconsin Madison.