Fast Forward to the Past


The more I watch the evolution of new (online) media, the more convinced I become that it's simply the rules of old (print) media re-invented by people who never spent any time in the old media business. As just one example of this, consider the current and heated attention being paid to call tracking. Call tracking?

Yes, the "most measurable medium" appears to be coming to grips with the fact that people continue to use the telephone to transact business, so counting click-throughs doesn't tell the whole story in terms of advertising performance. Hence, the sudden interest in what used to be called "key phone" programs. Advertisers are issued dedicated phone numbers to run in their online advertising, allowing them to measure the number of calls generated by their online ads. It's a simple, powerful concept, but it's hardly new.

I got my first look at key phone programs at Thomas Publishing in the early 1980's. At that time, Thomas routinely offered to pay for a dedicated phone number any time a prospective advertiser expressed doubt about the value of advertising with Thomas. It was a powerful sales tool for the Thomas salesperson, effectively saying to prospects "let us put our money where our mouth is." Few prospects turned them down. When renewal time came around and the salesperson heard the all-too-common objection "I didn't get any calls," the Thomas salesperson would pull out the telephone company records for the dedicated phone number. Faced with concrete proof of performance, the advertiser almost always shifted from whether to renew to the size of his renewal program.

Key phone programs were incredibly powerful. With over 1,000 key phones in use at one point, Thomas Publishing even talked Columbia University into doing a study of them. One particularly stunning result: key phone numbers would continue to generate significant numbers of calls, sometimes for years after the advertisements associated with the phone numbers stopped appearing.

So why all the heat around call tracking? It seems that some online pundits are proclaiming it a bad move for advertisers because if advertisers don't consistently use the same phone number, they won't be correctly captured by automated harvesting software, which apparently relies heavily on matching records based on telephone numbers. If true, this sounds like one more place where new media can learn a lot from old media, which has long been successfully matching records even when there are -- gasp -- no phone numbers present at all!

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