Is Pay Per Call the New Pay Per Click?

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One of last week's big advances in the search marketing world was AOL's announcement of pay-per-call advertising. In pay per call, advertisers post ads in the same way they would for pay per click. Rather than paying for a site visit, though, advertisers pay for an ensuing phone call.


Pay per call is more expensive than pay per click. But it's also stands to be a lot more effective, at least for certain kinds of conversions, because a phone call leads to sales more often than a site visit will. It's a new system that opens up a huge array of options for online advertisers.


And it also opens up a major new question: when do you want to use pay per call, and when do you want to use pay per click?


Bricks and Mortar vs. Online. As with any kind of traditional or online marketing, there are really two questions you have to ask:


· What are you offering?


· What are your potential customers looking for?


We'll deal with the first question first.


At one extreme of what you might have to offer is the Web site that functions entirely on the Web - an information site, for instance. Weather.com, Mapquest.com and many gaming sites are all sites whose entire offerings exist exclusively on-site.


On the other extreme are strictly bricks-and-mortar businesses with no Web presence at all.


There's a similar breakdown for question No. 2, the question of what searchers are looking for. Some searchers are looking to have an experience entirely online, while others seek offline conversions, and are just using the web as a way to get the information they need to do something else. A searcher using an online yellow pages would be the extreme example here.


The more you're running a bricks-and-mortar business, the more you stand to gain from pay per call. The more you're running a purely online business, the less pay per call makes sense, and the more you'll want to stick with traditional pay per click. After all, if you call a pizza shop because of an online local ad, you can order a pizza; if you called up eBay, what, exactly, would you talk about?


What gets fuzzy, though, is the half-online, half-offline Web presence. A classic example would be an online catalog. From the visitor side, visitors come to catalogs to make purchases and to research products and prices. And from the retailer side, businesses put up catalogs with the hopes that visitors who come to buy one specific product see several products on the site and end up buying a couple more than they had intended. Which means that, even if there would be a high conversion rate on a call, there's a reason you put up your Web site to begin with. And you want to bring people there.


So how to best manage the fuzzy area?


The Magic Pay-Per-Call/PPC Formula: Nervous, Clueless, Ready and Just Looking. One obvious question to ask is: What do you do best? What's better-equipped to handle high traffic and create conversions: your Web site or your call center? Whatever the answer to that question is will strongly influence where you put your advertising.


If your Web site and your call centers work equally well, you'll need to look to your searchers. One thing to look at is how far along your searcher is in his or her search. A searcher in the research phase might get a better experience over the phone; a searcher on the verge of a purchase might be ready for a phone call.


How to know who's at what stage? The first way is keywords: a searcher who types in "running shoes" is probably looking for something more general, and might be more interested in product research; a searcher looking for "New Balance 991 running shoes size 8 1/2 D mens" is probably looking to buy.


A second way to know is through searcher histories, developed through cookies and similar technologies. What kind of searches has she conducted in the past? That will hint at how to market to her in the future. If she's already looked for "running shoes" six times in the past two days, she might be more knowledgeable on the subject than her keywords would let on.


More important than how far along the searcher is might be what the searcher is looking for. For some kinds of products, even people who are just browsing might rather speak to someone than go to a Web site; for other kinds, both searcher and marketer would fare much better sending customers to a Web site. If you're selling art posters, a phone call won't do much good - the searcher has to see what you're selling.


And if you're selling something cheap and/or simple to understand - sneakers, for instance - there's not much need for human interaction. But pricey and/or complicated items or services might sell better if you add a human touch. If you're selling financial advice, debt consolidation, or life insurance, a searcher might feel nervous and overwhelmed by the topic, and really want to speak to a human being.


Similarly, if you're selling more expensive items (if you're FurnitureFind.com, for instance; or Neiman Marcus online), buyers might feel less comfortable going straight to a shopping cart, and would rather ask questions and place an order through a real person.


At the end of the day, though, it's impossible to know, with complete accuracy, whether pay per call or PPC will get the best conversions. But the upside is that you don't have to know.


Because AOL's pay-per-click ads are managed through Google, while its pay-per-call services are managed through Ingenio, you can actually use AOL to advertise with PPC and pay-per-call simultaneously. So you can play the different ad media against each other, until you find the solution (or combination) that works best for you.


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