China’s digital insurance landscape has been popularised by the success of Zhong An and followed by hundreds of startups working in the knowledge that a growing middle class and low insurance penetration will drive demand for insurance delivered through the internet. Yet despite a vibrant startup scene, several patterns of change have come into focus which are causing new entrants to rethink their distribution strategies in particular.
The first is the realisation that the agency channel, which has driven China’s life insurance industry, has maintained its premium contribution despite a shift in consumer behaviour towards the internet, with dozens of internet brokers in pursuit. Notwithstanding this resilience, the agency channel is currently locked in a cycle of high agent churn rate and low productivity, which is undermining the channel and presents a problem for life insurers, whereby their most important distribution channel is beset with challenges.
The second relates to the economics of internet insurers such as Zhong An and Taikang Online. Specifically, although Zhong An has succeeded with e-commerce return and short term health insurance, it also exhibits the classic internet model of high customer volume but low revenue per customer. In fact, the average revenue per user at Zhong An is less than $5 and similar results can be found at online brokers such as CrowdHealth or Shuidibao. The question of how internet insurers can ascend to the higher margin long term life/health policies has so far gone unanswered.
Finally, the inherent complexity of life/health policies has undermined the ability of Chinese InsurTechs to scale. This education gap has resulted in a low conversion rate and a 75% annual attrition rate.
Although both insurers and InsurTechs are working on these systemic challenges separately, InsurTechs are in closer pursuit and the specifics of each are worth considering in their own right.
Renewal of Agency Channel
Like so many Asian markets, tied agents created China’s life insurance market and now total over 8 million. However, in a bid to amass ‘offline armies’, many life insurers have overlooked the need for training and benchmarking to escape the agency attrition that is afflicting the channel.
This rush to assemble sales forces has meant many insurers have overlooked quality in a bid for quantity and are now plagued by a high churn rate, low agent productivity and rampant mis-selling.
Ping An addressed this by reducing its agency force whilst it implemented new operating standards for agents. Others including Met Life have installed vetting to minimise the risk of mis-selling and agent attrition.
Diminishing agent remuneration in top tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing means agent leaders now earn half the city’s average monthly income, and agent income has been lowered by 15%, in an environment where annual wage inflation has been increasing.
Although several agency management and lead generation apps have emerged as both standalone portals for agents and SAAS tools for life insurers, several startups are also developing agency management methods, including Iyunbao, Baoxianshi, Huokebao and Dajiabao.
Of these, Huokebao – 獲客宝, is arguably the most progressive. A Beijing based agency management startup that is equipping agents with WeChat based lead generation, and remote policy fulfilment features.
Through its agent entrepreneurship + platform model, which unites an insurers’ entire agency force on one platform, Huokebao is able to leverage WeChat’s timestamp function to identify end users that engage with content.
Other Huokebao features include:
- Agent on-boarding and benchmarking features
- Content generation for agents to share on WeChat for lead generation purposes
- Analysis of customer profiles to deliver tailored policies to agents
- Remote fulfilment of policies by agent (e-signature)
Ultimately, although optimising agency is a long-standing and complex problem, Zhong An, Taikang Life and Fosun Health have embraced Huokebao as part of their agency management efforts.
Unit economics of internet insurers
Another significant pattern to emerge from Chinese InsurTech is predictable but no less problematic.
Although internet insurers have excelled at cross-selling short term simple products, they still lack the agency and bancassurance network required to sell the longer term and higher margin lines. This struggle to improve the unit economics of internet insurers concerns their conversion rate, revenue per customer, first-time transaction value and cross-selling rate.
For example, Zhong An’s impressive operation relies on a small network of around 200 internet portals or ‘ecosystem partners’ which drive the lion’s share of premium and that ultimately delivered 87% of total 2016 GWP.
Facing this, 2018 saw many InsurTechs retreat as they struggled with traditional online distribution techniques. Hybrid digital insurers such as Ping An and Taikang Life (those with significant online operations but offline agency channels) have found more success. Ping An now boasts 4.4 active contracts per customer, outstripping traditional life insurers.
Elsewhere, several startups are re-imagining the pricing and product structure of health insurance policies. One of these is Zhongtuobang, a next-generation TPA which has embedded a direct debit approval within China’s most popular payment platform – Alipay. By doing so, it has removed a significant barrier for end users and amassed 22 million members in the process.
Although the first breed of Chinese InsurTechs sprang from browsers and search engines, and the next succeeded by cross-selling on third-party platforms such as flight aggregators, a new breed of online broker has turned to China’s ubiquitous messaging app, WeChat, to not only acquire customers but also leverage the communities at the heart of WeChat to re-invent the concept of mutual insurance.
Although WeChat based brokers such as Shuidibao, Trust Mutual and Crowd Health have succeeded in acquiring tens of millions of registered users, these models have struggled with monetisation, and a 75% user attrition rate reflects an inability to convey the value of protection orientated life insurance policies; namely financial planning addition to the protection, that reduces the need for large amounts of liquid assets.
Furthermore, it has become evident that a pure digital user journey doesn’t deliver the user experience required to distribute a complex product.
Again, several startups such as Beijing based Xiaobang, Bihubao and Shanghai based Dajiabao are in pursuit of this deficiency.
Of these, Bihubao is perhaps the most advanced, with its unique approach to user education that minimises user attrition and relies on an AI based educational user journey first and then scales the user base through B2B partnerships with some of China’s largest internet portals, including Sina and Suning.com.
The continued growth of digital insurance in China has been tempered by the acceptance that several systemic challenges face InsurTechs that have struggled with traditional online techniques. However, new entrants have found success by tackling systemic inefficiencies within China’s insurance market while leveraging unique features of WeChat such as location data and mini-apps. WeChat aside, broader patterns of change are coming into focus too, such as Allianz being awarded the first WOFE license in China, along with the deregulation of foreign broker restrictions, so it is now able to distribute individual lines online. Above all, 2018 compounded the need to persevere in the face of stiff competition, while more radical models are still in an early stage of development, optimising multi-channel interactions, accessing big data to develop more tailored propositions, and transforming processes on the front line and back office through automation will remain the immediate priorities.