Search marketing agencies that cater to local SMBs are often faced with some issues that are quite unique to these kinds of clients. They're small businesses with small budgets. They have expectations. They're becoming more and more aware about concepts such as "keywords".
One such issue is these local businesses value in-store visits and phone calls, not online leads or conversions. In other words, they're interested in using search to drive in-store activity - and naturally the issue is, how does one track that their search campaigns, ad groups, ads and keywords are performing well when we can't simply use online conversions to measure success?
The solution to these issues, it turns out, comes from a completely different world.
The Yellow Pages – Ancestor to Search
The problem isn't unique to search marketing. In fact it has been around for many years in the world of local print publishing.
A great example: Yellow Pages (YP). An advertiser is offered to upgrade their ad to a half page, which costs a fortune. But such a large ad is sure to draw more attention, and more phone calls. How does the advertiser make sure that this significant investment yields more profit than their previous standard ad?
The solution was quite simple. The YP company would offer the client a call tracking service. This means that for each ad, there would be a unique phone number which, when dialed, would simply "redirect" to the actual business number.
Using this service, the advertiser would then know that for $60,000 invested in Yellow Pages for the year, there were 4,000 phone calls, which means a cost per call of $15. This is better than nothing, but that alone does not make a business profitable.
There is a need to dig deeper, and the more sophisticated SMBs will push this crude measurement further and add a wealth of call information to their internal systems as well, which enables them to see how much revenue and margin these ads actually generate.
Tracking phone calls became, in fact, a small industry. A large number of companies provide call tracking technology and many of them have made the transition to support digital marketers in their efforts to deliver measurable results to SMBs.
Call Tracking in Your PPC Ads
How does this translate to PPC?
First, Google AdWords and Bing Ads advertisers can take advantage of call extensions for mobile. This means if someone is on a mobile phone and sees your ad, they can click the ad to call your business directly (click-to-call) and you'll only be charge the price of an ad click. There are no additional charges.
If you're interested in having more details about the call, or if you'd also like to track calls from ads on the laptops and desktops, then you can use Google's call extensions with forwarding numbers. This feature allows you to access call details information such as phone impressions, phone calls, phone-through-rate and phone call conversion (i.e., the number of calls that lasted longer than the time set as "call conversion duration" for that extension). Other metrics such as call start time and end time for example are available in reports.
Call Tracking on Your Landing Pages
Those solutions work great to track activity when users call directly from the ad. But often times, the user clicks on the ad and visits the site.
What happens then if the user decides to call from the website? That's where working with call tracking specialists becomes important.
The U.S. call tracking industry is made up of dozens of companies with technology designed to track calls, some were built to support the needs of Yellow Page advertisers, others were built for search marketers first. Some are large, some are very small. One thing's for sure – there is no lack of options.
My goal isn't to evaluate the various offerings, but rather to point out that call tracking has evolved to support the needs of PPC marketers, and that the accuracy provided by these solutions is really quite good today.
Most notably among those are Marchex, ResponseTap, TelMetrics, Mongoose Metrics, Bionic Click, IfByPhone, Century Interactive, Call Source and many more.
There are at least 27 call tracking solutionswhich are integrated with Google Analytics (i.e., they can track your phone calls as goals in Google Analytics, providing you with the ability to evaluate the performance of your marketing efforts more effectively than ever possible before).
Not only do these solutions track phone calls, but most offer complete solutions to slice and dice call data, all have reporting capabilities, many even let you listen to the calls in an interface that tells you where they came from, at what time, how long they lasted, some even go so far as to transcribe the calls to text and even analyze the words to try to derive the purpose of the call, such as a direct sale, asking for directions, asking about availability, requesting help or support, etc.
Call Tracking is Important, but There are Costs
When working with SMBs, keeping costs down to a minimum is critical, and while tracking calls is necessary to determine what's working and to optimize, there is a cost to doing this. All call tracking companies need to rent phone numbers and pay for minutes. This means this cost is passed on to the end user.
In a world where we're used to having access to free tracking tools from Google and Microsoft, for example, call tracking is still lagging behind, and this means adoption is hampered because despite the rumors that it's "coming soon" or "in beta", nobody is offering free call tracking to their advertisers yet.
As SMBs become more familiar with the possibilities afforded by PPC, more and more of them want to know that the clicks they've been buying for years are somewhat meaningful in business terms. Selling PPC to SMBs is much easier with call tracking built-in, so until things change, the costs are usually paid by the agency or service provider, and they are then usually embedded into the monthly fees that are then passed down to the SMB.
The Future of Call Tracking
This is where I look into my crystal ball and come up with predictions for call tracking over the next 2-3 years. I believe Google and Microsoft will eventually offer free call tracking services to their advertisers, beyond their ad extensions and onto the landing page.
This will create pressure on margins for those companies currently offering call tracking services, and they will need to create more value to continue to grow, and indeed for many, to survive.
Further, there are too many undifferentiated technology providers in this space, many come from the world of print and are trying to make the digital transition, while others were born to support digital efforts. It would seem that those companies that are dedicated to measure digital marketing would have an advantage, but if indeed free options become available, it may be that those more mature companies from the print era will benefit from deeper pockets to fund innovation and acquisitions.
A tsunami of change is coming to the call tracking industry, but it may take years to happen.
Just Do It Already
In the meantime, I strongly suggest that if you're a provider to the SMB local space, you find yourself a good reliable call tracking partner that you can afford and that will work well with your PPC platform.
The benefits far outweigh the cost. Not only will you be able to sell more effectively, but your clients will have much more clarity on the impact your efforts have on their business, they will know that you are measuring the right activity (clicks are lame), you will be able to optimize correctly, and your clients will stay with you longer.
Churn in the local PPC space is extremely high, because advertisers see no reason to buy clicks any more. As they say "the party is over". Time to get with the program and start selling services that deliver calls and leads.