Google Ad Model Comes To 411

If Tyra Banks is a fan, what’s not to like? A startup offering free directory assistance—a rarity in these days of wireless networks charging hefty 411 fees—won the heart of the supermodel and daytime TV host, and now hopes to do the same with advertisers.

1-800-Free-411 provides free directory assistance for anyone willing to listen to a brief ad before hearing the desired listing. The model assumes that callers requesting, say, Hertz’s number won’t mind first receiving a short pitch from a rival rental-car company, and might even choose to connect to that company instead. Advertisers can place their spots based on keywords or category, similar to search advertising. Free411 reports response rates of up to 10 percent to 15 percent for what it calls “switch pitches” that cost an advertiser $2 to $10 for each caller redirected.

The company, which in April received $26 million in venture backing, sees directory assistance as a large untapped media market, generating 18 million calls a day for which consumers are charged up to $3 per inquiry. “It’s the only channel left where consumers are paying to find businesses,” said George Garrick, CEO of parent company Jingle Networks.

The service is attracting fans. Since its September debut, daily call volume has risen to 400,000 through word-of-mouth. The company said it received a boost with an effusive endorsement in February on The Tyra Banks Show. By the end of the year, helped by an outdoor and radio campaign launching in October, Free411 expects to handle 1 million calls a day. By the end of 2008, the company estimates it will produce 1.4 billion ad impressions a year.

National Locksmith is one advertiser finding success with Free411. In May, its ad was played 1,600 times and attracted 250 phone leads, diverting many calls from rival Pop-A-Lock. “A locksmith’s a locksmith,” said Garrick. “People really don’t care about brands when they call a locksmith.”