Now holding on line 1: Pay-per-call

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Pay-per-call technology, in which advertisers pay every time a searcher calls a unique phone number, is gaining marketplace momentum. A number of companies have developed some variation of the service, ranging from eStara’s voice over Internet protocol-linked offering to Voicestar’s Pay Per Phone Call platform. The most notable provider to date is one of the earliest movers in the space, Ingenio Inc., which signed a distribution deal with MIVA-last fall and reportedly added in April.

Promoted as especially appealing to companies without a Web presence, numerous references to pay-per-call invoke the "next big thing" label, including Jupiter Research analyst Niki Scevak in a discussion with BtoB’s Hands-On: Search ["Scevak on trends in search marketing," April 6].

While representing an interesting alternative to pay-per-click advertising, the new technology is still young, and b-to-b marketers should temper their enthusiasm as trends around the technology evolve. Consider the following:

Pay-per-call costs are still a wild card.

The pricing model for pay-per-call technology is far from uniform. Some providers use a bid system, others charge flat fees and a few offer results-based billing. The consensus is that rates per ring will generally be pricier than pay-per-click fees, but proponents argue that a direct call is much more likely to lead to a closed sale. Within the b-to-b world, however, sometimes the most effective search engine marketing campaigns are based on organic search results, which incur relatively minimal costs.

Existing sales networks would require recalibration.

Many b-to-b companies collect sales leads centrally and have local or regional reps or distributors follow up. A pay-per-call campaign needs to be tailored to fit the demands of the folks in the field, who typically rely on building relationships with customers-not on one-off transactions.

What if you already have a Web site?

Most of the pay-per-call service providers acknowledge that they’re targeting the 14 million U.S. businesses that don’t currently have a Web presence. In addition to the unique phone number, advertisers are generally allowed to populate a generic page with some product, service and brand copy, but little else. For b-to-b marketers that have discovered that carefully crafted content and strategically designed microsites effectively educate, inform and prequalify prospects, the canned version could represent a step backward.

The pay-per-call buzz will likely grow louder during the coming months, and the technology may indeed prove quite effective in reaching the masses searching for a local real estate agent, florist or defense attorney. Marketers with pure b-to-b concerns, however, should patiently watch from the sidelines before buying into the hype.

Jim Grinney is a principal with 90octane, Denver. He can be reached at [email protected]

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