Commentary

I Like You -- Talk to Me

As anyone knows who suffers through video pre-rolls on every damn clip on most news sites, or clicks aggressively through the maddening takeover units on too many sites, marketer have a lot of trouble knowing when to shut up. So I was happy to see one marketing pro take seriously the level of user discomfort he sees with some of his own ad units.

Randy Haldeman is the CMO of Apptera, the voice ad company behind many of the free-411 services. When the company runs focus groups to test all kinds of audio ad inserts on these free calls, "you can see the people's faces cringe at anything over 12 seconds," he says. And the ads that are not related to the user or to the voice-activated query in the directory assistance call get an even worse response. "When they put down the phone on untargeted ads, they ask us 'What the hell was that?'"

Lesson learned. Even for free directory services, voice ads still are coming through a highly personal medium where rudeness and irrelevance are unacceptable. Untargeted and long ads become spam of the worst sort.

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But when the audio ad is targeted to the end user's specific needs, they tend to find it kind of neat. If a caller asks for a local plumber, they will get listings but also an ad for an alternative plumber.

"So that is our religion," says Haldeman. "We will only do relevancy."

And that relevancy can be found outside of the free-411 business. In a recent campaign with the Ignited agency and its Universal client, Apptera grabbed MovieTickets.com callers who were looking for show times to competitor Paramount's "Iron Man." Saying the words "Iron Man" into the IVR system triggered an offer for the caller to receive a text message reminder when the Universal film "The Hulk" was going to premiere on June 13. Pressing "1" sent a confirmation SMS to the phone, which helped brand the film. And the follow-up text message in early June will include an offer to order tickets from a direct dial link.

In this pilot program, 100,000 people called the system and 30% of them were for "Iron Man." Apptera's system also can use caller phone number prefixes to distinguish landline from wireless callers. It discovered that roughly half of callers were mobile. So 15,000 landline callers got a general branding message about the upcoming film, and only the 15,000 mobile users got the SMS prompt. The campaign received a 3% click-through rate, which thrilled Ignite and Universal, who are now trying to figure out other ways to slip other film offers into future calls on a broader scale. The final number of callers who got the text message in this test was relatively small, but Haldmean says the potential for scale here is huge, since over 80 million calls are placed into systems like MovieTickets and Fandango every year. About 95% of those are just checking times, but 5% actually click through to buy the ticket over the phone.

The approach is very clever and clearly effective. But the most interesting part is how the test suggested ways to improve the technique. Haldeman admits that at 3% CTRs this test campaign actually underperformed the 7% and 8% CTRs they often get from other directory-oriented IVR systems. I can only guess the cause, but user need is most obvious. When offered a simple reminder of the upcoming "Hulk" film, how many sentient, media-absorbing beings actually feel they need a tickler? Any blockbuster fan, clearly the target here, knows full well that Universal will carpet-bomb our consciousness for two weeks before the otherwise waif-like Edward Norton gets all green and angry in theaters.

So the next stage is to pump up the creative a bit. Make the user a more enticing and special offer, like a sweepstakes entry for attending the premiere. If the advertiser knows the audience is mobile-centric, then you could use the IVR system to promise a WAP link, a free video or anything that can come back to them in the SMS confirmation. "We should double or triple our CTR," says Haldeman.

The potential here is wide-open, if potentially tricky for database-driven marketers and personal privacy. IVR systems are the phone-search engines that mobile search wishes it could be when it grows up. You have an audience self-targeting itself with declared preferences, and without input hurdles of a multi-tap keypad. And imagine layering into the mix geo and demo targeting, offers for text coupons to a nearby restaurant or watering hole. Because the system is a voice call with caller ID, the marketer can build a database of callers, past preferences, offer responsiveness, etc. What you have over time is a behaviorally targeted ad engine without a carrier having had to give up a single user data point. If the marketer is smart and respectful, he establishes trust and a fair value exchange with the return user, so that the offers are a reasonable trade-off for being profiled.

Press "1" for true one-to-one marketing.

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