[Updated 3/16/17, 9:44 a.m. See below.] Facebook Messenger is no longer just an app for messaging friends. The latest capability? It’s now a personal assistant for car insurance shopping.
Thanks to a new product launched today by Insurify, a Cambridge, MA-based software startup, consumers can quickly compare car insurance quotes from dozens of carriers within the Messenger app.
Users can upload pictures of their license plates and share other key information with Insurify’s chatbot, which is powered by natural language processing and machine learning technologies. The virtual agent will then serve up a batch of insurance policy quotes and make recommendations, according to Insurify. Users can also sign up for notifications when rates drop or new policies are added.
To help push its service to more consumers, Insurify has just raised a $4.6 million funding round led by MassMutual Ventures and Nationwide Ventures. Past backers also contributed, including Rationalwave Capital Partners, former Bit9 CEO George Kassabgi, and Kayak chief technology officer Giorgos Zacharia.
That brings Insurify’s total venture capital haul to $6.6 million. The 15-person company says more than 1.5 million people have used its insurance-search services since its public launch in January of last year.
“We have done a lot with very small capital and a relatively small team,” says founder and CEO Snejina Zacharia (pictured above). Now, the goal is to “step on the pedal and dramatically expand.” (Investor and board member Giorgos Zacharia is her husband.)
Consumers in all 50 U.S. states can use Insurify to shop for auto insurance policies from more than 100 carriers, the company has said. The options come from Progressive, Farmers Insurance, Esurance, Nationwide, The General, and more, according to Insurify’s website.
Over the next year or so, Insurify intends to expand its offerings to other types of policies, including home, rental, and life insurance, Zacharia says. The new funding, along with the expertise and connections of the venture capital arms of MassMutual and Nationwide, should help with those efforts, she says.
“Our goal is to be the one-stop shop for insurance shopping,” Zacharia says. “We’re very excited about having them as key investors.”
Zacharia started the company in 2013 to try and make the process of car insurance shopping faster, more convenient, and more transparent. So far, Insurify has primarily offered its services through its website, where visitors enter personal information that has a bearing on their coverage—such as if they are over the age of 25, single or married, own a home, or have children who drive. Insurify’s software analyzes the person’s “risk profile” and serves up a list of the most affordable policies tailored to the user, along with user reviews of insurers and explanations of plan features, like 24/7 roadside assistance.
The company has tested making its conversational virtual agent available via SMS text messaging, but will now focus on deploying the technology through Facebook Messenger. If that’s successful, Insurify intends to expand to other messaging apps and “voice platforms,” says director of product Tod Kiryazov. (He didn’t elaborate, but one could imagine Insurify making the service available on voice-powered devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.)
It’s not surprising Insurify is starting with Facebook Messenger. The use of messaging apps is growing faster than SMS, Zacharia says. And rather than fight for users’ attention with its own mobile app, Insurify can tap into Facebook Messenger’s base of over 1 billion users. “We want to ‘live’ within the environment people use,” Zacharia says.
For the past couple of years, Facebook has been pushing Messenger as a means of communication between consumers and businesses. And last year it added the ability for companies to conduct those conversations via chatbots. Businesses are deploying these bot programs to automate (at least partially) customer service interactions, deliver news stories, provide health information, help users shop, and more.
Insurify is one of the first companies in the insurance industry to interact with customers on Facebook Messenger, and it claims to be the first U.S. car insurance comparison service available on Messenger.
Kiryazov says that some businesses might view chatbots as “now we have a hammer, let’s look for all the nails possible.” But he and Zacharia argue that Insurify’s chatbot makes sense because it allows people to shop for insurance online in a more customized and specific way, as opposed to filling out a Web form, which is better suited to displaying a long list of options.
What’s more, Insurify is trying to advance the technology behind its virtual agent to the point that it’s sophisticated enough to one day pass the licensing exam for insurance agents. “This is our north star,” Kiryazov says.
It’s an ambitious aim, and it’s too early to tell if Insurify has what it takes to pull it off. But the idea isn’t farfetched, considering the advances in computing power and machine learning that have led to artificial intelligence achievements like IBM Watson winning Jeopardy and Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo program beating the Go world champion.
Kiryazov says Insurify has work to do on its system’s deep learning capabilities, so that it can reliably understand the “intrinsic complexities of conversational questions of the insurance exam” and accurately respond. Insurify needs to feed its system a lot more information and real-world examples; the more consumers the company serves, the better the system will learn.
“We basically need more volume,” Kiryazov says. “As people use it more, we’ll be able to gather more variations, gather more patterns, and then also bring those patterns to the neural network so it can self-learn and start to identify … what is the best route to respond to a question.”
If such technology is successful, it could even threaten the jobs of human insurance agents; this is a topic of increasing debate. Zacharia declined to say much about that prospect, but she thinks there are still opportunities for human agents to adapt to advances in technology and find ways to serve consumers.
Insurify doesn’t employ any insurance agents who sell policies to consumers (although Zacharia says she has passed the insurance agent licensing exam). In most cases, after Insurify users choose a quote, they connect by phone with an insurance agent at a partner firm to complete the transaction, Zacharia says. (Insurance companies pay Insurify a fee when one of its users buys an insurance policy.) [An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly stated that Insurify has no licensed insurance agents on staff. We regret the error.]
Some purchases can also be completed online, either within Facebook Messenger or on the insurance carrier’s website. An initial group of 10 carriers on Insurify’s platform currently offer the ability to purchase policies online, and Insurify plans to expand it, Zacharia says.
Still, there is a “subset of users that will always prefer” working with a human insurance agent, at least when finalizing the purchase, Zacharia says.
“The customers that want to be served digitally, we want to provide that experience,” she says. “If they want to have an experience with an agent, we’ll still give them that option. The way we are working on building this product is we don’t want to force people to have an experience that they don’t like.”