Marketers Are Reluctantly Falling Back In Love With The Telephone

callcenterSome members of the advertising and marketing community are seeing a renewed interest in one of the oldest, least-loved marketing channels: the phone call.

Customer call centers and direct phone sales are parts of a consumer funnel that many brands still try to avoid, according to Peter Christothoulou, CEO of Marchex, which provides software for driving and tracking phone sales. Even for companies in the travel industry, where call centers are still crucial, “The focus is really on shifting customers online and away from the phone,” he said.

But even as commerce and customer service become simpler at users’ fingertips, direct customer calls are accelerating. Marchex expects Google’s Call Extensions product, which enables marketers to prompt a direct call on a mobile ad, to pass 100 million calls per month this year – doubling since mid-2014.

Call centers are hampered by systemic disadvantages – they’re expensive, calls are dropped, reliable customer service is more difficult to ensure – but there are considerable lures as well. According to Paul Dolan, GM of Light Reaction, a Xaxis subsidiary specializing in mobile performance, marketers are eyeing this space because there’s “higher cart value.” In other words, callers are more likely to bundle payments, and products sold over the phone tend to be pricier (plane tickets, insurance, reservations, etc.). Callers also speak to sales reps who earn commission.

The allure of upselling customers wouldn’t be enough to offset the additional costs of call centers and service reps, but this trend is being driven by user adoption, the only metric that counts. The past year has seen beta tests for “click-to-call” ads from the likes of Facebook and Twitter, because if it’s the channel consumers want, then platforms and marketers have to meet them there.

The increased use of the mobile phone as, well, a phone, means that marketers can no longer optimize away from direct calling or treat call centers like the channel of last resort.

For the home security firm ADT, which relies on phone calls to secure sales, “Consumer adoption of smartphones has created new ways to connect with current and prospective customers,” said Claudio Duran, the company’s digital director. “Click-to-call has proven to be an important channel.”

Visual IQ VP of product management Phil Gross said call center data is “often overlooked.”

Part of the problem is that fundamentally less data and specificity can be drawn from a mobile call than from a mobile ad. John Busby, SVP of consumer insights at Marchex, pointed out that while an online marketer can see a customer going seamlessly from keyword search to desktop ad to landing page to conversion, introducing a call center could draw the blinds on that data.

Gross sees partnerships as one important way around the problem, which is why the attribution firm has teamed up with call tracking vendors like ResponseTap to integrate data from call centers.

The importance of mobile calling is becoming evident to key media buyers as well. Light Reaction recently partnered with Marchex to launch M-Call, a product that is meant to generate click-to-call value out of in-app and mobile ads.

Dolan said that the recent partnership came about because brands want to be able to see ROI and performance guarantees before trying to convert on direct calls, which means they need data.

Light Reaction, Marchex and ResponseTap all assign unique phone numbers to their ads to attribute click-to-call, but there are still gaps. For instance, some users wait and eventually call customer service instead of hitting the number on the served ad.

That’s why vendors that deal narrowly in call tracking, like Marchex and ResponseTap, are also working on new ways to help clients optimize the call center itself. ResponseTap GM Stephen Russell said his company is leaning more on its analytics to re-inform marketers on how to improve everything from sales scripts to customer wait times.

But agencies and marketers still think call centers are riddled with inefficiencies. Jessica Romaniuk, who runs digital media for the Upshot Agency, said that for a performance marketer, a client call center is a drag. “It becomes a challenge to train store employees on a call tracking system or how to input purchase data and properly direct a call,” she said.

Lane George, co-founder and CEO at Lead Horse, a digital marketing agency, said that even after accounting for call center sophistication, there’s still the “laborious, intensive” process of tagging URLs and enabling a client to connect call center data with digital marketing. For instance, George said his company requires a partnership and custom service with Kenshoo, a marketing software provider, in order to make the call data actionable.

However, those executives and other agency leaders still see call tracking and attribution efforts as table stakes for anyone who deploys call centers. “When you consider what we’re starting to see for a call experience influencing a brand in indirect ways and just the lost sales, it’s clear that anybody who relies on phone calls at all should be using tracking and connecting that to paid search.”

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