AT&T is making a move to head off the recent onslaught of free directory assistance providers by launching its own ad-supported offering.
The "1-800-YellowPages" service is being rolled out in three test markets: Bakersfield, Calif.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; and Columbus, Ohio. It will provide free directory assistance for callers, with short audio ads targeted to the category of the number being requested.
AT&T will sell the ads and handle billing, and it has partnered with technology provider Apptera to do the targeting and ad serving through its MobileAd platform.
"There have been several free directory assistance companies launching this year. AT&T and the other phone companies are beginning to realize that those companies are going to cut into profits if they don't do something about it," Randy Haldeman, Apptera's VP of marketing, told ClickZ.
Apptera previously applied its technology to enterprise applications for things like adaptive personalization and caller profile management. It's strength is identifying where a customer fits and then serving relevant content -- in this case ads -- to that customer.
For example, its technology is in use by catalog companies to target cross-sell and up-sell opportunities to shoppers over the phone. For the MobileAd platform, Apptera is in talks with an online movie ticket provider to sell local ads targeted to the vicinity of the theater where the tickets are purchased, Haldeman said.
For AT&T, Apptera will manage the ad targeting, based on the category of the number a caller is looking up. So if a user is looking for "pizza," they may hear an ad for a local pizza parlor. If the caller is looking for a specific business, they could hear an ad for that business, if they are an AT&T advertiser, or from a competing business. In that case, the caller would be given the choice of connecting to the original number they asked for, or to the competitor featured in the ad.
Other ads could be a broad "this call sponsored by" message. If no relevant ads are available, the caller will not hear an ad. Ads can also be targeted by time-of-day, day-of-week, call-from locality, and call-to locality.
Most of the ads will be less than 10 seconds long. Advertisers can either provide their own audio files, or have AT&T create one with another partner, VoltDelta, from a script the advertiser provides.
Apptera's platform has the capability to automate the entire process, and to sell keywords via an auction model, but AT&T has not implemented those capabilities, at least during this limited launch phase.
"We want to help businesses reach consumers at a key moment -- when consumers are in need of a service and are ready to make a purchasing decision," David Huntley, senior VP of AT&T Diversified Businesses, said in a statement. "This trial period will allow us to later roll out a service that best meets our consumer and business customer needs."
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Kevin Newcomb joined ClickZ in August 2004, covering search marketing and other online marketing topics. He has been reporting on web-based businesses since 2000.
Before the bubble burst, Kevin was a marketing manager for an online computer reseller, handling copywriting, e-mail marketing, search marketing and running the affiliate program.
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