The New Dial-Up Media Model: Pay-Per-Call

Several years ago, a small travel company approached the interactive agency where I worked. The firm was interested in advertising online. This company was in the business of reselling vacation packages and accommodations at branded hotel chains. The company was housed in an unremarkable gray room crowded with cubicles where customer service people manned the phones. It was your stereotypical telemarketing firm at its worst.

The company’s business strategy was simple: wait for newspaper and Yellow Pages ads to take effect, then turn incoming consumer inquiries into sales. Business was slow and online advertising was booming, so naturally discussions turned to promoting the service online. The company had no Web site to speak of, but that was of little concern to them. They came to us to help them drive consumer phone calls.

At first, my fellow media buyers and I were rather at a loss. A campaign around a telephone number? What would banners link to? How would we track consumer response?

After setting up a unique phone number, creating ads that capitalized on the company’s branded packages and buying up some banner inventory for a test run, we realized what seemed like a harebrained scheme actually made good sense. Here was one of those very rare businesses for which having a Web site wasn’t critical to growth and success. Having an online presence, however, was.

Years later, those of us still immersed in this business have seen seemingly every trend in interactive advertising one could imagine. Yet the concept hatched by that little travel business has remained untouched. That is, until Ingenio, a search engine and directory monetization company, announced the introduction of its Pay-Per-Call Advertising Platform.

Pay-Per-Call, scheduled to launch this summer, was designed to bridge the gap between the Internet and telephony for businesses just like the one above. It’s based on search engine marketing and the concept of paid search, except the action the advertiser pays for is a call rather than a click. When an Internet user calls the toll-free number displayed in an advertiser’s paid search ad, Ingenio tracks the action and charges the advertiser according to the price bid for search engine placement. The process can be tracked in real time, so advertisers can easily monitor ROI.

The first engine to offer Ingenio’s Pay-Per-Call platform will be FindWhat (an agreement was inked in April). FindWhat supplies paid search results to portals such as Excite, NBCi, Search.com and MetaCrawler, along with Yellow Pages directory SuperPages.com.

For small businesses and companies whose bread and butter is sales acquired through inbound calls, the system is sure to prove highly popular. Many small and mid-sized companies don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle Web-initiated sales or customer service inquiries. Others cater only to local clients, or carry offers that change daily. Such variables make an involved consumer site both a complicated venture and an unnecessary expense.

When businesses such as these do have sites, they’re generally vehicles for driving phone calls anyway. This platform eliminates that extra step to steer consumers directly to a customer service or sales rep who can manage the caller and close the deal with a human touch. The Pay-Per-Call approach to advertising promises to give advertisers much more control over a sale.

The marriage between Ingenio’s service and self-serve, small-business-friendly paid search advertising also makes this media buy more accessible and manageable than most. What’s the level of consumer response that can be expected? Well, how many times have you, as a consumer, found yourself hunting online for phone numbers, or longed for personal interaction when inquiring about a product or service?

There’s already small business interest in the Pay-Per-Call product. Ingenio recently commissioned Jupiter Research (owned by this site’s corporate parent) to survey small business advertisers. Forty-eight percent expressed an interest in the ad solution, while another 40 percent said they would allocate new ad dollars to fund Pay-Per-Call advertising.

I know that travel client of mine would have been very interested in an ad platform that had consumers “dialing-up.”

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