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Insurers Re-Examine the Mobile Web

As the ways insurers' customers and employees use mobile devices is better understood, and as the number of devices proliferates, some carriers are turning back to the mobile web rather than apps to bring next-generation mobile capabilities to the marketplace.

Related: Mobile Advancements Lead to Rise in Usage-based Insurance

Much of the talk in mobile insurance over the past couple of years has been concentrated on app development. Creating a downloadable policyholder services app for the major mobile consumer platforms -- Apple's iOS and Google's Android -- has become practically table stakes for competitive carriers. In addition, many insurers have been looking at ways to bring mobile technology into the enterprise, most notably in the claims and distribution areas. Just getting up to speed with these basic capabilities, says Matt Josefowicz, managing director, Novarica (New York), is keeping carriers busy.

"The major roadblock for insurers is bandwidth," Josefowicz explains. "Core systems modernization, business intelligence capabilities and other things are taking priority, and the immediate value-add in mobile is less well-defined. Just getting up to par in terms of mobile capabilities -- the sales and marketing info for distributors, wholesalers and distribution management; field data capture for claims; and the e-app for sales and marketing -- is keeping them busy."

But some insurance companies, as they look to add capabilities to their mobile applications -- either for the consumer or for the enterprise -- are taking a step back from the app model and exploring what might sound like a relatively primitive solution: the mobile web. As mobile handsets and operating systems continue to proliferate, developing apps that only run on one system can actually hold back carriers from getting capabilities to market quickly. And with tablets becoming an increasingly important part of the mix, mobile web apps can spread out and become more robust, as they're not confined to a small mobile phone screen.

What's the Big Deal?

"I don't know that the [mobile] OS is such a big deal because a lot of mobile apps are going to be delivered via mobile browser," Josefowicz says. "I don't think the app OS is richer than what's available on a desktop."

David Berkowitz, senior director of emerging media and innovation at New York-based digital agency 360i, notes that some prominent web properties already are drifting away from the app model for tablets. And as developers get more adept at designing web pages for the unique user experience of a tablet, he adds, there's less pressure to create downloadable and installable apps.

"Both [apps and mobile web] will have a place, but there's a level of universality for the mobile web," Berkowitz says. "So much is made over Facebook having an iPad app or not -- but look at how well its regular site works on the iPad. Google has generally just created the best HTML5 experience and hasn't released many apps. It's telling that two of the most trafficked web properties there are haven't been so app-focused."

Los Angeles-based Farmers ($16 billion in gross premium income) is among the insurers taking the mobile web approach. The carrier is looking to broaden its mobile payments capabilities and allow policyholders more flexibility in what they can do via mobile, according to manager of e-business projects Michael Leek.

"What our downloadable app supports today is a one-time payment feature only. It's not fully integrated with our account billing system," he says. "But what we're working on now is mobile web rather than an app, and the payment features on the mobile web will mimic what we have on the desktop."

Farmers discovered that a "sizable" amount of traffic to its web site was coming from mobile devices anyway, Leek reports, adding that the company decided that if that's what its existing customers were already using to interact with the carrier, it would be prudent to increase investment there. "People are less likely to download an app related to insurance because the transaction rate is so low," he explains.

"And if you think about it, you're trying to give potential customers an experience as well," Leek continues. "They're not going to download your app. If they Google search and find your mobile site, having those capabilities there can be helpful."

Novarica's Josefowicz says that as insurance companies look to add to their mobile capabilities, they should leverage the three major strengths of the channel -- ubiquity, cameras and GPS -- in their projects. In addition to e-payments, Farmers is exploring ways to bring these traditionally app-only functionalities to the mobile web in order to build an industry-leading mobile site, the carrier's Leek notes.

"Right now, taking a picture and uploading it directly is an app function, but that's one of the things that's going to come to the web," Leek says. "You can use your GPS on the web as well, if you want to locate agents. That feature is something relatively new, but it allows us to not maintain multiple downloadable applications."

Apps for Building the Brand

This strategy shift, however, doesn't mean insurance companies are going to eschew app development completely. A trend is emerging in which transactional capabilities are built out on the mobile web for those consumers who don't want to hold an app on their phones or tablets for the limited interaction they require. But new app development could come from other departments, such as sales and marketing, as a way of building brand awareness.

"We're not necessarily making an aggressive move away from apps, but we want to concentrate on where our strength is right now," Leek says. "A company that sells financial services can release apps as a marketing opportunity. We have the Farmers Balloon Ride -- it has nothing to do with insurance other than it's Farmers-branded. You can put something out there, promote it through your own web site and build an affinity for the brand."

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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