Wireless results easy as #3-2-1 (or #3-3-3)

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high-tech version of "Call in now and order" direct-marketing commercials may help companies achieve that elusive goal of accountability in radio advertising.

At least two companies are taking a stab at marrying the widespread use of wireless phones and "call to action" campaigns in a fresh format that gives advertisers solid feedback on whether listeners actually respond to their ads. By tapping simple three-number hits on a cellphone, radio listeners can follow the cues at the end of a commercial and become active shoppers from the (dis)comfort of their gridlocked cars.

Zing Interactive Media is testing its Zing321 system at two radio stations in its hometown of Philadelphia. In Chicago, wireless entrepreneur Dean Becker has scrapped his first foray, using #333, but plans to re-enter the race via his company, ewireless.

The target audience is huge-80 million-plus Americans are wireless users. But the services are particularly targeting those cooped up in their cars with the radio on and a cellphone at their side. Some 42.1% of radio listeners over 12 are getting their daily dose of radio in the car, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau.

Advertisers generally are keen on the idea of giving radio listeners an immediate opportunity to buy a product or learn more about the marketer, media buyers say, and the simplicity of a three-digit response at no charge to listeners' wireless phones is appealing. Accountability is built into the strategy through computerized logging of all calls.

"The trend toward making marketing accountable for sales is irreversible," said Jim Nail, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "But so far it's been very hard to get any good data around radio audiences."

Even if these services for radio ads provide some useful information, it's still unclear just how much advertisers are willing to pay for that commercial add-on, analysts and media buyers say.

"It's a great idea, but I don't think anybody has found a way to make money at it yet," said Ralph Guild, chairman-CEO of Interep, New York, the largest radio-ad-sales rep in the U.S.

Eastern retail chain Robbins Diamonds is one of the advertisers trying out Zing321 in Philadelphia, where the service is available on Clear Channel Communications stations WJJZ-FM and WLCE-FM. Robbins is using a radio spot that offers a $200 discount coupon to listeners who hit #321 on their cellphones after hearing the ad.

Callers are connected to a voice-activated computer system that directs them to the right advertiser, said Zing CEO Chris Claus. Zing pays for the cellphone user's airtime, and listeners can call up to 1 1/2 hours after hearing the ad. Zing tracks caller responses and reports to advertisers the number of calls by radio station.

Ewireless a year ago began offering #333 cellphone response to radio advertisers in about 15 markets in the U.S. and Canada. But by late spring 2001, it had retreated from the marketplace for unexplained reasons. The company is working on a revised business model, said Mr. Becker, ewireless chairman and founder. An ad service using #333 will debut this fall, said Mr. Becker.

The potential success of any direct-marketing effort in radio hinges on the ability to make it simple and user-friendly for listeners, said Natalie Swed Stone, managing partner-director of national radio services at Omnicom Group's OMD USA, New York.

"Just because the technology excites the developer doesn't automatically mean the consumer has a need for it," Ms. Swed Stone said.

Station owners are excited by a marketing strategy that could include many of their advertisers and potentially strengthen listener loyalty to the station, said Drew Hilles, senior VP-sales in the Philadelphia market for Clear Channel, the U.S.' largest radio company.

However, radio stations need to be watchful that advertisers don't try to link the rates they pay for their spots to the number of phone calls generated by the ads, warned Interep's Mr. Guild, contending that radio ads with direct-marketing offers could then degenerate into the radio equivalent of clickthrough rates used to calculate the cost for some banner ads on the Internet.

Said Mr. Guild: "That would be a disaster for radio stations."

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