We’re seeing tech and media worlds finally come around to what we’ve been saying for years: phone calls are what businesses want. That’s especially true in high-value categories like professional services, autos, travel and insurance. Clicks and impressions, despite a sexier image, aren’t as valued in lots of cases.
This notion is getting more attention in the age of smartphones, where the search device itself also makes the phone calls. So calling a business post-engagement is intuitive for users, in addition to being valuable for businesses. That’s compounded by smartphone users’ high local commercial intent.
These were key inputs in a forecast we did last year (update in progress) that shows $68 billion is spent annually across media on localized ads to generate calls to businesses. Meanwhile, BIA/Kelsey data indicate that 61 percent of SMBs consider phone calls the most valuable form of incoming leads.
But call monetization and its many flavors collide with local beyond just the SMB segment. Like the overall local media opportunity, we can’t forget about national brands and agencies (included in the $68M figure) that target specific local markets. This is also where most mobile-local ad spend comes from.
Many of the leading call-monetization firms are zeroing in on this national-local opportunity, given the sector’s spending power and evolving localized ad strategies. This is one place Marchex hangs its hat, and is doing very cool things with deep analytics on 300 million annual calls to better derive meaning and ROI.
“Examples are helping a group of hundreds of auto service shops understand how to better close consumer appointments,” Marchex SVP John Busby told me, “or letting a national home-services brand know which products consumers are calling about; and helping a national travel company understand their return on ad spend from call-based advertising.”
Other key players in various areas of call monetization include ResponseTap and CallFire. Telmetrics brings call tracking to its growing focus on the “path to purchase.” LogMyCalls has a strong emphasis on analytics and tracking, and Invoca is tackling the enterprise opportunity, such as call centers.
Further evidence of the sector’s growth comes in a set of funding announcements this week. The first is Ifbyphone, which received $9 million led by River Cities Capital, bringing its total funding to $30 million. The second announcement is embargoed (tomorrow) so I can’t disclose, but it’s a $20 million sum.
“Historically we’ve been selling to early adopters that find us,” Ifbyphone CEO Irv Shapiro told me of the call monetization suite. ” That worked well, reaching 4,000 organizations and hundreds of thousands of customer end points. With funding we’ll deploy a sales force to push the message.”
Ifbyphone’s product suite is emblematic of a holistic approach meeting today’s enterprise demand, a la Salesforce’s model. Invoca addresses a similar opportunity and Marchex has firm enterprise footing. The idea is that it’s not just about pay-per-call, but all kinds of call analytics, routing and management.
“Tracking the call is not enough,” says Shapiro. “You need tools to route that call to the optimal party to close a sale; and a third set of tools manage the call once it’s routed. The last leg is outbound customer notification. If you’re running a business engaging customers by phone, we think you need all four.”
Call routing is one area quickly developing in step with things like location targeting. Busby posits that a customer calling a rental car agency can be better served if the agent knows they’re at the airport. And are they in the terminal, or in the lot waiting for a shuttle (cue scene from Planes Trains & Automobiles)?
We’re still early in the evolution of monetizing incoming phone leads. And it will be a major force in the multi-headed beast that we all call “local.” Meanwhile, phone calls are becoming sexy again, or at least getting more respect. That’s good news to Shapiro who playfully asserts that it’s about time.
“We’ve looked at calls for a while as the Rodney Dangerfield of the technology world,” he says.
Michael Boland is senior analyst at BIA/Kelsey, where he heads up the firm’s mobile local coverage. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.