Your Content Is Calling

It goes without saying that the voice channel is the under-utilized and under-appreciated piece of the mobile content and marketing puzzle. I say that it goes without saying because so many companies have been saying precisely that for a couple of years now.

I have covered and tried a number of schemes: radio stations rebroadcasting via voice, mobile podcasting, and even in-venue programming like sending the live chatter between NASCAR drivers and their pit crews to phones. I have no idea how many consumers may have adopted any of these models in a habitual way. I know that I tend to drop off from using them pretty quickly. Sometimes the initiation procedure is awkward, or I just forget the service is available. There is also the issue of content quality (usually grainy) and the convenience factor. You have to hold the phone to your ear in most cases to listen passively to a program, and have little control over fast-forwarding or jumping through an index. From a publisher and marketer’s perspective, voice may seem like an unexplored channel, but from a user’s perspective (well, this user) voice-over-phone is not ideal for content consumption.

Unwired Nation is an interesting attempt to leverage voice. First, it is an ad-supported publishing platform. The company announced deals with RSS feed aggregator Pheedo and others to vocalize their content, shape it into interactive calls to an opt-in user, and wrap it in ads that can contextually target the user. In Pheedo’s case, its standard digest e-mails of a feed will be turned into a narrated pre-scheduled call. A decision tree in the call lets users select from the headlines they want to drill into for more of the story. “You do it in the form of a content-based alert, so every story might have a contextual promotion,” says  Stacey Zuniga, Unwired’s co-founder. About half a dozen publishers are integrating the solution now for formal launches in coming weeks. Pricing is in the $70 CPM range.

In the demo I tried, the opt-in call had the advantage of being brief and interactive. Rather than having to sit back and listen to radio on your phone (which is a special kind of torture), you can punch a key to get the full story or a deeper blurb after reading the concise headlines.

The ad spots are interesting, too, because they are relatively non-interruptive. The very brief spot lets you hit a key to get more information via email or SMS rather than hijacking the voice content. Brevity seems to be a key to making voice content work, because having to sit with the phone to your ear through content you don’t really want is much like sitting through the Gatling gun prattle of a telemarketer before you can step in and say “not interested.” Adding options and interactivity to the voice flow seems to undercut the tedium.

Unwired Nation is making available to a wider range of publishers and advertisers a platform it has been deploying on eBay for years. EBay bidders have the option to get phone alerts on their auction to monitor and make final bids as the auction closes. Unwired calls bidders about three-and-a-half minutes before the bidding closes, and key presses let them enter final bids.

Since the end of last year, Unwired Nation has been selling contextual ads into this space, mainly to other eBay Power Sellers who can target categories of interest with additional sale offers. The 8- to 10-second ads run in the beginning of the call while the bidding information is being retrieved. Zuniga claims a click-through rate of up to 14% on these spots. For eBay, Unwired Nation already does between 600,000 and 1 million calls a month, he says.

Of course the question becomes whether an opt-in voice content platform works in the long run for a range of information. The success of this approach at eBay may have a lot to do with the nature of the content and the audience. For the rabid bidder, having real-time access to the last moments of an auction is part of the eBay sport, and getting called by your content is not an annoyance but a service that enhances the drama. For a fantasy sports nut, getting voice notifications of a player injury or trade may be appealing, although I am not sure why a text message wouldn’t be better. For content that invites high levels of involvement and passion, where we crave a sense of closeness to a breaking event or moment, then voice content delivery can be welcome.

But that level of intimacy also makes voice a risky and unpredictable channel for any kind of automated delivery.  For an RSS feed? Well, I don’t know if I want my headlines calling me. Just as consumers loathe the idea of telemarketers accessing them in the special private zone of a cell phone, I am not so sure I will want a daily call from my news alerts service, even if I did opt into it. Any channel that a consumer also uses for high-value, highly personal relationships holds tremendous promise and danger for a publisher or marketer. In order to get into that zone, you need to have a service that is of real value and importance to the user. I think voice alerts are different from SMS or email messages. It is a channel that could and should be used, but I suspect it will require careful programming.

After all, if I wanted to tap my foot impatiently while waiting for a voice on the other end of the line to get to the point, well, I would just call my mom.





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