Voice Portals Aim to Provide Targeted Marketing Vehicles

Two voice-portal companies that unveiled national expansion plans this week are taking tentative steps into an emerging segment of direct marketing via telephone.

Tellme Networks, Mountain View, CA, and Quack.com, Sunnyvale, CA, both offer services that allow people to use spoken commands to access basic information such as sports scores, stock market data, weather and traffic updates and movie listings and reviews from any phone for free by dialing a toll-free number. The companies, which provide the information through content-supply agreements with Internet companies, can play brief advertising messages to consumers based on the types of services consumers request and some personal data that the consumers provide.

Although both companies say their services eventually will allow marketers to place highly targeted advertisements directly in consumers' ears, both are moving gradually into the personalized-advertising arena.

“We did a lot of research, and what we found was that [consumers] liked the fact that it was a free service. But they were a little concerned that they had to listen to a whole bunch of ads,” said Randy Corke, vice president of marketing at Quack.com. “So at first we're really trying to minimize the number of ads, then we will be bringing in more sponsorship ads.”

Neither company is collecting detailed demographic information about its users yet, but Corke said Quack gradually would build profiles of consumers that call the service so that marketers can target them more precisely.

Consumers can access the system by calling 1-800-73-Quack, and — by using voice commands — store their preferences in the MyQuack database so that each time they call they can be routed directly to what they want to hear. Quack will obtain additional information during the development of these profiles that will help it further target its advertising messages, according to Corke.

That data can be combined with other information in the Quack database, such as how often consumers call and what areas of the service they use, in order to better target the ads to consumers.

“If they set up an account with us, we know some basic information, such as name and age bracket, but we're not getting too invasive as far as personal information,” Corke said.

The ads will be played to consumers during the 10 to 15 seconds that elapse between when a user speaks a command and when the information actually is retrieved from the Internet. Advertisers will have the option of playing interactive messages, Corke said. Consumers can simply say “yes” or “no” when asked if they would like to hear additional information about an advertised product or service.

Quack now uses the advertising space to play promotions for its own services, which sound similar to radio spots promoting a station's other shows.

In most respects, however, the services of Quack, Tellme and the handful of other voice-portal start-ups will operate more like Internet portals. Advertisers can purchase keywords so that their promotions will be played when consumers speak certain commands, just as certain banners can be programmed to appear when Internet users search for certain topics.

In the Minneapolis/St. Paul market, where Quack launched its service three weeks ago before making it available nationwide April 10, the company is hosting ads for the Minnesota Twins baseball team. On the national level, movie listings are sponsored by IMDB, the Internet Movie Database.

Marci Gottlieb, a spokeswoman for Tellme, said the company “had a couple of deals” but hadn't yet announced the names of any advertisers. She said advertisers would be able to sponsor certain areas of the services, such as the movie listings, but she was not sure how specifically they would be able to focus their messages.

“At this point, we're not targeting based on demographics,” she said. “The information we collect is pretty minimal. “Right now, we're just going to see what the traffic looks like.”

The service is expected to become available within a few weeks. This week, the company said it had begun accepting registrations, but it is only collecting a minimal amount of information from users.

Tellme will target two basic types of Internet users, Gottlieb said: those who are used to using the Internet occasionally at home and are now also using cell phones and those people who are heavy Internet users who want constant access to their stock portfolios and other data.

Quack, which stands for quick ubiquitous access to consumer knowledge, has been promoting the site through billboards and radio ads in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. The company plans to expand to four to five major markets every few months and eventually promote the service nationwide.

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