Click-to-Pay, -to-Call, -to-Chat, or… Something

The other day, I found a small, family-owned resort hotel on the Web. I was interested but had questions. So I called the toll-free number on the site. A friendly woman immediately asked if I could hold. I did… for quite a while, until I had to hang up to take another call. Knowing it was a mom-and-pop, I called back an hour later. The nice lady still couldn’t talk but took my number and promised to call me back. When she finally did and answered my questions, I booked a long weekend in October.

The reservation experience was still top of mind when Google and eBay announced their click-to-call partnership this week. Phone calls are advantageous for many reasons, particularly for smaller marketers with a minimal or even no Web presence.

Yet the adoption curve will be steep on both sides of the equation as companies the size of Google, eBay, and Skype try to sell marketers and consumers alike on Web-to-voice advertising.

For marketers — and frankly, the journalists and editors who cover them — differentiating between click-to-call and pay-per-call can be as confusing as telling Tweedledum from Tweedledee. There is a difference and, often, disagreement on which does exactly what.

Wikipedia defines click-to-call as “a service which lets users click a button and immediately speak with a customer service representative. The call can either be carried over VoIP, or the customer may request an immediate call back by entering their phone number.”

Compare that with Google’s own conflicting descriptions of the service. The Google Talk FAQ and the click-to-call FAQ explain in similar language. The click-to-call FAQ says:

When you click the phone icon, you’ll be invited to enter your phone number. Once you click “Connect For Free,” Google calls the number you provided. When you pick up, you hear ringing on the other end as Google connects you to the other party. When they answer, you simply talk normally as you would with any other call.

OK, but here’s how Google describes the same service in the press release announcing the eBay partnership:

The click-to-call capability will allow a user to click on a link or icon within a product or service advertisement to initiate an Internet voice call to participating eBay merchants or Google advertisers directly from either company’s respective sites, using Skype or Google Talk.

Are you getting the really significant difference here? The click-to-call FAQ page is saying you can do this over your regular old telephone (POTS). The Google/eBay deal is all about VoIP (define), at least if you’re a consumer using Skype rather than Google Talk (leastwise until the interoperability issue is worked out). You probably are; Skype’s adoption rate is miles ahead of Google Talk’s (and the latter service, like so many of Google’s betas, is unavailable for non-Windows users — but things may be looking up).

Just for the record, what this deal is really all about is pay-per-call after all, because those calls sure won’t be free on the advertiser’s end. Pay-per-call is defined as:

A business model for ad listings in search engines and directories that allows publishers to charge local advertisers on a per-call basis for each lead (call) they generate. The term “pay per call” is sometimes confused with click-to-call. Click-to-call, along with call tracking, is a technology that enables the “pay-per-call” business model.

Hurdles for Consumers

All this calling calls for consumers to make some pretty big leaps. Specifics of the functionality remain in question until Skype/Google Talk interoperability issues are ironed out. But consumers will have to download one or the other software product. That barrier is obvious and will prove an exceptionally big obstacle during Internet primetime: many at-work users aren’t permitted by company IT staff to install anything on their work machines.

There’s also the capital investment issue. Unless all calls can be routed through landlines and cell phones, which at this point is by no means certain, it’s pretty darn impossible to make VoIP calls without an external headset and a microphone. So on top of the potential software download and installation, you’re asking users to shell out $30 to $40 for a peripheral. Unless the public can be sold on the benefits of VoIP beyond reaching out to advertisers, that’s going to be a problem. U.S. VoIP adoption, while growing, is relatively low. Of course, users need a broadband connection, too, but that curve is nowhere near as steep.

There’s also a reasonable amount of potential malicious mischief with this technology. What’s to stop someone from entering his ex’s landline number so she receives a series of merchant callbacks… at 3 a.m.? If I can concoct that scenario, others will come up with far worse. The ensuing ill will, negative PR, and call fraud allegations are issues the partners must plan for very carefully.

Hurdles for Advertisers

Two kinds of advertisers stand to benefit from click/pay calls in the near future: those selling techie or gearhead-type products and services because their target will be comfortable with a new use of technology, and businesses that can handle inbound calls without getting all out of joint. That upstate hotel had trouble making the time for my call, remember? Attorneys are reportedly doing well with this ad channel — but attorneys tend to have receptionists. I doubt that holds true for many eBay sellers or the small businesses without Web sites some have touted as major beneficiaries of pay-per-call. Calls cost more than clicks. Though callers convert at much higher rates than clickers, merchants who can’t handle call volume, or who aren’t so great on the phone (many smaller local merchants don’t speak English as a native language, for example.), won’t see the value in extra manpower for the phones.

Dayparting will be another essential aspect of this channel, and that’s a bit of a hurdle for the little guys. Shop-in-your-jammies surfing in the wee hours won’t coincide with business hours. Will advertisers know — or be able — to run call-me ads during operating hours? If not, the channel will be dominated by big companies with big call centers.

A Bold First Move

Although plenty of players are offering pay-per-call ads, including Ingenio, AOL, and Yahoo, the powerful Google/eBay/Skype triumvirate signals a new era in Web-to-phone selling. If it works, its rising tide will lift all the boats in the space. If you want to sell to all those potential callers in the meantime, make sure you have a Web site. Or a yellow pages listing.

Related reading

Digital marketing strategy for business
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