AT&T Calls On Yellow Pages for Mobile Search

SAN FRANCISCO As more on-the-go consumers look to their mobile phones for services, experts say simple, fast and free local search is the most likely area of growth. Ad-supported directory services to help callers find the closest restaurants, banks and markets are a natural fit for people who use cell phones regularly, but don’t consider themselves tech trendsetters, say forecasters. The Kelsey Group, for instance, predicts ad-sponsored directory assistance via phone will grow from 270 million calls in 2007 to 2.1 billion calls in 2012, with most of those being mobile calls.

Competition for mobile marketing and local search is heating up. In the last two years, Google introduced 877-520-FIND, followed by 800-GOOG411, and Microsoft acquired mobile directory service Tellme.

AT&T has also joined the fray, leveraging its Yellow Pages via mobile services that mimic the blend of local business ads and listings in the traditional directory. According to David S. Huntley, AT&T svp of customer information services, the company learned from consumer research that despite the bells and whistles of mobile devices and smart phones, “people still want the familiar Yellow Pages phone book that was in a drawer in their kitchen—but now they want it in the handset in their pocket.”

The marketer’s strategy is based on research suggesting the best way to serve mobile directory customers is to reject the notion that one-size-fits-all, instead focusing on an array of options to find and call, say, the nearest pizza joint. Huntley noted that all these options should ideally be simple to use, as AT&T found that many consumers want easy-to-use audio, graphic and text directory services to fit a variety of circumstances, such as while they’re walking, shopping or stuck in traffic.

The most recent addition to AT&T’s lineup of local directory programs for mobile phones is the free, ad-supported 1-800 Yellow Pages Directory service. (It joins three free, local online—vs. audio—directory programs developed early this year and found at yellowpages.com.) According to Huntley, AT&T research showed that people will listen to short sponsorship ads if it means they’ll receive free information. (Currently, 411 directory service costs anywhere from 25 cents to $3.49 per call, depending on the carrier, said AT&T.

The service enables a mobile (or landline) caller to receive a listing and, if they want, an automatic connection to a specific local home or business, or to get a list of nearby merchants by category and location. In exchange for the free information, the user must listen to a maximum of four ads that run 5-10 seconds each, beginning with a general sponsorship ad that comes on right after dialing; the other ads are heard after each interaction (e.g., after asking for the listing). If a caller asks for pizza restaurants in a certain area, for example, she might hear up to three ads for nearby pizza joints; if she asks for a restaurant by name, she might hear an ad for that restaurant or for another nearby spot. The number of ads per call depends on how many advertisers in that specific category have signed up for the service.

1-800 Yellow Pages was tested in California in July and introduced Sept. 10 in nine southern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Plans call for it to be rolled out nationwide in 2008, sources said.

The findings that led AT&T to develop its directory services serve as a guide for marketers learning how mass-market, information-hungry customers respond to marketing on their phones. For instance, the company found that cutting-edge services are far less compelling than a single, well-known brand with multiple paths of access.

The company was surprised to learn, said Janice Rohn, vp of consumer experience for AT&T’s yellowpages.com, that there were not clear-cut segments of audio directory callers and visual directory callers (those who read their phone screens). In at least half the cases, the same caller will use different ways of accessing local listings at different times, depending on the setting, she noted.

“A person will use text and graphics search on their mobile when they are in a meeting, a movie theater or any setting where they can’t talk, while the audio 800 service is used when they are traveling, walking or in a place where they can’t look at their phone’s screen,” added Huntley.

Also, callers want to type as little as possible when making a directory request. As a result, the program seeks to optimize the categories and subcategories so that minimal typing is required. For instance, if a user types “golf,” the program knows they probably want listings of golf courses rather than golf retailers or golf landscapers, and provides listings accordingly, said Rohn. She added that the company is also offering both advertised and free listings in order of distance from the caller’s location, as opposed to necessarily giving paid advertiser listings top billing.

Lastly, said Rohn, AT&T also learned that common categories for local business searches are restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and banks.

Of the programs that began earlier this year, one allows users to make directory requests and receive answers via text messages on handsets. The second provides a widget that users can download from yellowpages.com to certain mobile handsets and allows users to search listings and access maps and directions on their phone screens. The widget will be automatically loaded onto some phones sold by AT&T Wireless in November, said Rohn. The third program, called “Send to Mobile,” allows Internet users to send search results—including driving directions—from the Yellow Page site to their wireless phones in the form of text messages.

The company’s yellowpages.com network received more than 1 billion local searches in 2006—and the 1,250 AT&T Yellow Pages books are referenced more than 4 billion times annually—according to AT&T.

“Yellow pages companies such as AT&T are executing on a multi-channel ad business,” reported Kelsey’s “Mobile Advertising Forecast,” released Sept. 5. “Mobile represents a critical link in this multi-channel strategy where these companies will try to dominate ad share.”