A year ago, the Google ads team launched a new feature for mobile phones called Click-to-Call, which, as its name would suggest, lets advertisers include a phone number in their ad that users can click to place a call.
That’s creating a paradigm shift in online advertising. For over a decade, when you, as a consumer, saw an ad online, it's pointed you to a website. Now, with the advent of advertising on mobile phones, there's no reason ads can’t patch you straight to the advertiser, instead of requiring you to fumble about their website trying to find what you want to know.
"We see a lot of mobile queries coming in on the evenings and weekends," Google Director of Mobile Ads in the Americas, Michael Slinger, tells Fast Company. "Our hypothesis is that these are coming in when people are not in front of their work computers."
Another paradigm shift also seems to be taking place—and it's one reflected in which industries are using Click-to-Call with great success. It turns out it’s not just the neighborhood pizza shop capitalizing on your late-night cravings. (Though the majority many* clicks on such ads are, in fact, local, Google tells us.)
Many of the advertisers that are also seeing great response from Click-to-Call are those selling big-ticket items, like car insurance or cruises.
Why those industries would love the feature is intuitive. They do most of their sales over the phone. Any system that can bring them a warm lead—for cheap—is a system they want to use.
"Within the cruise industry, about 80-85 percent of transactions take place over the phone," Willie Fernandez, director of marketing for World Travel Holdings, parent company of Cruises.com, tells Fast Company. "Clearly we want to drive as many calls as we can."
But what about consumers? Isn't car insurance or a cruise too big of a ticket item for someone to be inquiring about on a device as casual as a mobile phone?
It turns out consumers aren't making these calls as a result of scrolling through their devices while hanging out at the neighborhood bar, seeing an ad, and saying to themselves, "Gosh darn it, I think I would like to go on a cruise!"
Instead, it turns out, consumers are no longer just using their phones for making Foursquare check-ins or playing Angry Birds. People are actually increasingly using their phones for the kinds of productivity tasks they used to do exclusively on computers, like researching major purchases.
Tolitha Kornweibel, director of online marketing for Esurance, said the lightbulb went off when she saw a Yahoo Nielsen study showing people are using their mobile phones inside the home almost as much as they do outside.
"We realized that people were on their couches, watching television, becoming exposed to advertising, and then doing things on their phones like making calls," she says.
Esurance is using Click-to-Call in their ads so they can be front and center when one of those users starts looking for car insurance.
While Click-to-Call is available for both search and display ads, Fernandez and Kornweibel both tell us they use it in search ads only because they want to get in front of people who’ve already demonstrated that "purchase intent."
Kornweibel suggests that, though it may seem counter-intuitive that the feature would work with expensive items, it’s in fact because the items are major purchases that they generate the calls. Choosing a bouquet to send to your mother for her birthday is easy enough to do though a website or app. But for more complicated purchases, Kornweibel says, "When I’m ready to ask tough questions, I want to talk to a licensed insurance agent."
Google said "millions" of calls are made through the feature every month, though they declined to be more specific. So far about 500,000 advertisers are using the feature.
[Images: Flickr user kiwanja, Google]
* After the publication of this article, Google got in touch to remind us they say said users "often" use Click-to-Call to contact local businesses, though they declined to be specific about what proportion of all Click-to-Call clicks were local.