While digital media is often scapegoated as a major impediment to human interaction, the mobile device arguably is demonstrating how technology actually augments one-to-one exchanges. Too often acolytes of new technologies yearn to change human behavior. But history suggests that a technology is adopted more readily when it is clearly augmenting behaviors that are already familiar and valued. Parents of teens found SMS has turned into an invaluable lifeline to their kids because it is a more comfortable channel for them. Without texting, we might never hear from our kids at all. Mobile is the new channel for the texted, three-word responses any parent is already used to getting from a teen face to face.
And in an interesting way the mobilized Web has helped reiterate, not undermine, the unique value and efficiency of a phone call. Click-to-call has always been a quiet giant in the mobile space. As Google entered the mobile market (yeah, I recall a time when the carriers were doing everything to keep them out) it saw the potential here right away. And now the company is touting the feature in part because it raises the value of the search ad significantly, for the consumer, for the merchant and certainly for Google’s bottom line.
So take the latest UK research from Google and Ipsos with the ever-ready grain of salt. The questions posed to the 1500 m-searchers in late 2013 is largely self-serving, to be sure. We get the usual barely veiled warning about the consequences of not using the feature, because more than a third of respondents say the lack of a phone number in a search result would lead them to explore other brands. Yadda, yadda. And of course the feature is deemed most important when the consumer is closer to the point of purchase. Yadda.
But we can extract from research like this some relatively impartial and directional data worth exploring. Google claims that having a phone number in a listing increases click-throughs 8% over all. And almost a third (32%) of respondents say they always or frequently need to make a direct call to a merchant they are searching for on devices, although 62% also say this is only sometimes or rarely the case.
A lot of it comes down to the vertical. There is a wide variance in the value of click-to-call, with local services obviously leading the pack. 63% of those surveyed said they would be likely to call merchants in this category if the feature is present in the ad. In fact, the value of the click-to-call drops significantly outside of local service, down to 42% for auto, 38% for tech and 36% for travel.
But the most revealing part of the Google/Ipsos survey comes in asking people why they value the old-fashioned call. The answer turns out to be a blend of both humanity and efficiency. More than half (53%) said the main reason for calling a service is “to talk to a real person.” But right behind it at (48%) was “to quickly get an answer/accomplish my goal.” Most of the reasons people cite for needing to make a call are associated with the limits of a Web site to handle their questions. This is a case where technology is solving for, even calling attention to, its own limitations.
Still, the actual tasks associated with the call suggest where companies need to rethink the information they do make available or more apparent on their mobile sites. Among caller, 40% say they are asking about inventory or availability, strongest in the travel, restaurant, retail and tech segments. About as many (39%) are calling to book something, but this is much higher (65%) in local services. But oddly, 35% are calling to get business hours, especially for auto, something that probably could be surfaced easily in both a landing page and even a search ad. Generally, however, the majority of mobile searchers say that calling is most important closer to the purchase phase.
The click-to-call market understandably aims digital providers like Google at local merchants who have been traditionally averse to digital advertising. The call is something every service
owner understands probably a lot more readily than a landing page, let alone a mobile-optimized landing page.
But click-to-call is also part of the opening up of search on devices beyond the Google desktop monopoly. The feature has been a mainstay of task-specific apps like shopping/retail apps and especially restaurant discovery apps. Many mobile apps are, after all, vertical search engines of the sort Google easily dominated on the desktop. But app engagement on mobile decks far outpaces mobile Web. Google knows a rival when it sees one.