'Click to Call' Technology Puts Customers on Lines

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By Leslie Walker
Thursday, June 23, 2005

Web sites that once pinched service pennies by hiding their phone numbers on hard-to-find Web pages are increasingly doing the opposite -- flashing prominent "click to call" buttons on their Web sites, inviting shoppers to pick up the phone and call them.

The telephone is insinuating itself more deeply into Web commerce, thanks to the way Internet telephony is lowering calling costs at a time when Web merchants are realizing they can boost sales by injecting a human voice into the sale of big-ticket items.

Click-to-talk is popping up not only as a customer service tool on Web sites, but as a sales lead generator in online ads. Some systems require customers to dial a special toll-free number and reach a call center.

Others invite people to type in their phone numbers online, and the company will call them back within seconds.

A bunch of advertising and telecom companies are racing to supply these click-to-talk systems to the leaders of Web commerce.

Run a search for "plumber" and "Fairfax County" on America Online, for instance, and you may see an ad with a toll-free phone number and a "call locally, toll free" message beside it. The ads are provided by Ingenio Inc., an ad network that partnered with AOL when it launched its new Local Search service this year.

Merchants placing the ads get assigned a special toll-free number by Ingenio, which allows Ingenio to keep track of who is calling the advertiser and where the caller saw the ad online. Advertisers pay only when a customer calls that number. Hence Ingenio calls its service a "pay per call" ad network.

Amazon.com offers a slightly different version in the Yellow Pages service it recently released in trial form. It is powered by Reston-based eStara Inc., a rival of Ingenio's. Instead of displaying special phone numbers, eStara pops up a box and invites visitors to type in their phone numbers.

EStara's technology automatically dials the customer seconds later, then patches the call through to the merchant's call center or, in the case of a smaller company, its place of business.

It remains to be seen how many merchants will pay for telephone leads online.

The Kelsey Group, a consulting firm that monitors the local ad market, predicts pay-per-call advertising will grow to become a major industry, generating between $1.4 billion and $4 billion in ad revenue by 2009.

Kelsey issued a report this week saying that even though business models around this fledgling ad system remain shaky, it expects the technology to become ubiquitous in the local marketplace.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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