Dialing for Small-Biz Dollars

Pay-per-call ads are luring to the Web service-oriented businesses that don't have Web sites and prefer calls over clicks to rack up sales

Three-year-old Rhode Island-based roofing company AS Enterprises had a big, albeit common, problem: not enough customers. Owner Ann Marie Appleton had tried offering free estimates in local circulars and flyers, but her competitors were doing the same, and the resulting leads were lukewarm at best. She considered an ad in the SuperPages yellow pages, a division of Verizon (VZ) spin-off Idearc Media (IAR), because of its large distribution and solid reputation, but the next edition wouldn't be delivered to homes for eight months.

Most pay-per-call advertising services work like this: First, companies bid for placement on keyword searches. Then their ad is served to the user based on location, and the company is charged each time a user calls; the ad itself is placed for free. When companies register with most providers, their site is assigned a unique phone number that appears in the ad, so that the company can track how many calls actually come through the pay-per-call advertising system. Businesses only pay when someone searching for their product or service picks up the phone and calls them. When deciding with whom to advertise, small businesses try to keep in mind the eventual placement of their ads and the amount of traffic that will see it. SuperPages.com had 2.8 billion searches in 2006; Ingenio's network of AOL and MSN reached more than 1.1 billion searches. Says Robyn Rose, vice-president of Internet marketing for Idearc Media, "Having a heritage in the yellow-pages business, we know that about 70% of companies are service-based. Most want to conduct business over the phone."

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