Did Apple Just Transform Pay-Per-Call (Without Anyone Noticing)?

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Call monetization is one of the most exciting areas of local advertising I’m watching. For those unfamiliar, this is like search advertising but instead of clicks, the lead form is a phone call. As I’ve written in the past, the call is no longer the unsexy cousin of the click.

This has taken off in the smartphone era where the search device and the phone are fused. And lots of local advertisers want phone calls according to BIA/Kelsey data. This has been covered in a few past columns, but recently took an intriguing step in the unlikeliest of places.

I’m referring to OSX Yosemite’s “Continuity” feature. Announced at WWDC in June and launched last month, it has received surprisingly little media attention in general and zero coverage for its implications for call monetization. But it could be a glimpse into the sector’s future.

In short, Continuity lets you answer an incoming call to your iphone on your Mac. More importantly, it lets you launch a phone call from the desktop. Your mobile minutes are used and it’s treated just like an iPhone call but through FaceTime, using the computer’s mic for voice input.

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Why would you want to make a call from the desktop? In many cases it’s extraneous; Apple appeals to our inner sloth in highlighting its selling point as not having to get up to answer your iPhone on the other side of the room. But the real play could be desktop local search.

In other words, when web searching (compatible on Safari only), any phone number that shows up — in local search results, Yelp reviews, etc. — is now linked to make a phone call in this fashion. Just click the number, agree that you want to call the business, and it will start dialing.

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What this essentially does is hyperlink phone numbers in desktop web search the same way smartphones do. And just like smartphones have boosted search-initiated call volume to businesses — due to an easier handoff from search to call — Continuity could do the same on the desktop.

As background, the physical separation of PC and phone has long been a gating factor in desktop pay-per-call ad models. Not only is Continuity a possible way to get over that hump, but it opens up an entirely new world of monetizable ad inventory on the desktop web, at least within Safari.

Put another way, wherever a phone number shows up, it’s now an opportunity to drive a trackable call to a local business (or national call center). The question is, who will own that ad inventory. The scary thought is that it could be Apple, and thus potentially could be iAd’s unintended killer app.

That could involve Apple driving calls to businesses for free, with premium upsells such as highlighting phone numbers, or call analytics. Or could that inventory ownership more complicated (sounds familiar)? Can Apple monetize Continuity-based calls launched from within Yelp or Google?

Speaking of Google, I predict it will put more muscle behind a Continuity-like feature that will link the Chrome browser and Android smartphones. It has more users on both platforms than Safari and iOS respectively. And it’s a company that’s already well-established in the pay-per-call world.

The bottom line is that Continuity and its implications for pay-per-call are my speculation alone, and hardly a silver bullet. It would need to scale beyond Safari/iOS, and it there would need be more of a cultural acclimation — which is already somewhat underway — to speak into the nebulous glow of your laptop.

Personally, I don’t believe Apple will monetize this. Just like I argued for its mapping moves, it’s not a play at local ad dollars, but to embolden positioning in the much larger game of selling iThings. That’s its core (and massively profitable) business where all other roads lead.

Either way, what Continuity does accomplish is a model and a glimpse into the future of telephony. And with that, the future of pay-per-call, call tracking, call analytics and all the components of the unsexy but vastly lucrative ($65B) call monetization space. Okay, that is sexy.

speaker_MichaelBolandMichael Boland is chief analyst and VP of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.



Related white paper, from Soleo:
Pay-Per-Call’s Role in Improving Marketing ROI

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at Localogy.com