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Vonage makes big marketing push online

Published on .

Under assault from the biggest names in telephone and cable networks, Internet phone service pioneer Vonage Holdings Corp. is putting its marketing money where its business is: on the Web.

And Vonage expects to continue focusing on the Internet, even in the face of an onslaught of competition. AT&T Corp., for instance, made a $25 million Olympics push on TV, while regional phone companies and cable operators, which have started marketing voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP), are expected to bombard the sector in a variety of media channels.

Dean Harris, chief marketing officer, said Vonage has been spending more than 50% of its marketing budget on Internet advertising. Marketers typically spent just 3.4% of their overall advertising budgets online in 2003, according to an eMarketer study.

Vonage, in the midst of an agency review, indicated its ad account is in the $50 million to $75 million range. However, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, Vonage spent $2.7 million in 2003 and $831,000 for the first five months of 2004. Media measured does not include online spending.

"The online medium works very well for us," Harris said, adding Vonage plans to use the medium when it begins selling a new WiFi phone that will allow users to access Vonage service at WiFi hot spots, as well as at home and at the office. The WiFi set, scheduled for release in the fourth quarter, signals the opening of a "tremendous new market for us." (WiFi is a radio-based connectivity system that works like a telephone or cable connection without the jacks or wires.)

Harris said a strong Web presence is a natural for the Internet phone company. "We embrace online advertising to a much greater extent than others because to use Vonage, you need broadband," he said.

But that's only part of it. Because the cost of customer acquisition is easier to track online than off, Harris found that as he refined buys, the cost of acquiring an individual subscriber has dropped. He said that simultaneous advertising on- and offline brought the best results, but he declined to discuss specifics on acquisition costs.

There are two ways to buy online media: targeted media that carry a high cost-per-thousand viewers (CPM), and lower-CPM, non-targeted buys on places like a portal's home page. "In certain cases, one cannot assume targeting is the way to go," Harris said. "That large premium is not always justified."

Harris said the same holds true for fancy online ads using rich media. "In some cases it's efficient and in some cases it's inefficient," he said. Search works well for the Edison, N.J.-based marketer, which deals with large portals such as MSN and Yahoo! and has partnerships with Advertising.com and Fastclick, he said.

One of Vonage's better-performing spots, he said, was produced for Unicast's Video Commercial test earlier this year, which featured TV-quality ads on the Web, including audio. "It did well with brand metrics, and it did well with the cost of customer acquisition," Harris said.

High stakes

Vonage's formula needs to be right because the stakes are high. A new Yankee Group report expects the U.S. VoIP market to grow from 131,000 subscribers at the end of 2003 to more than 1 million subscribers by the end of this year and 17.5 million U.S. households four years from now. The study noted that although Vonage now dominates the market with almost a quarter-million subscribers, cable operations are predicted to have 56% of the U.S. VoIP market by the end of next year. Share for the alternative providers, such as Vonage, will drop to 19% in 2005, according to the study.

Harris is bullish on the prospects for Vonage to remain an important player in a category it helped pioneer, in part by turning around VoIP's perception, built in the 1990s as a cumbersome technological innovation applicable only to techno-geeks. He pointed out that Vonage's DNA doesn't have the baggage of an AT&T brand, which he described as a "heritage of business built on something else." Meanwhile, Vonage benefits from AT&T ads educating the public about the promise of VoIP service.

"I think we can move faster and be more innovative and entrepreneurial," he said. M

Alice Z. Cuneo is West Coast editor for BtoB sibling publication Advertising Age.

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