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MENDOZA IN THE NEWS

Memorable messaging

Company uses celebrity voices to pitch products

by Tom Spalding
Publication: Indianapolis Star

January 24, 2007

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John Wechsler could have sent a cell-phone text message to 15 loved ones to thank them for attending his daughter Grace's second birthday party. Instead, they heard Grace say it.

The NBA's Memphis Grizzlies could have sent e-mails to thousands of fans, urging them to buy tickets and attend a tribute to player Rudy Gay. Instead, fans heard Gay make the pitch himself.

Vontoo, a 12-employee startup at 1311 W. 96th St., aims to yak its way into profitability using permission-based voice messaging.

Unlike robo-dialing telemarketers and spam-faxers, Vontoo could work because the target audience usually enjoys hearing the message.

"There is nothing like the thrill of hearing the voice of someone you admire," said Wechsler,
president of the company.

"We have found that calls from celebrities become 'viral' as people forward the messages on to other fans. Many of Vontoo's most successful campaigns involve celebrity voices."

Vontoo, the brainchild of owner Robert Compton and chief technology officer Dustin Sapp, already has helped politicians and preachers.

It costs 10 to 15 cents per successfully completed call, more than e-mail.

Vontoo creates a report showing who heard the message, when it was heard, how long the phone contact was maintained and other details.

Those who have used it say it allows them to seize on the success of e-mail marketing with a tool that provides the emotion of voice.

Mass-telephoning-with-a-message is not a new concept. And a few companies operate in the same space as Vontoo, such as Massachusetts-based Media Distribution Services.

However, Vontoo, Wechsler said, is truly "Web-based and on demand."

Country singer Dierks Bentley used Vontoo to connect with 15,000 fans, helping his album "Long Trip Alone" reach No. 1 on Billboard's Country Album chart.

When Rudy Gay made his pitch for the Grizzlies, the team sold 1,500 tickets, ringing up $33,000 in sales from a mass phone call that cost $650.

"To be honest, we were a little leery of it," said Dennis O'Connor, a Grizzlies vice president. "And it was around election time, and a lot of politicians used voice messaging, so I was a little afraid we'd be intimidating.

"But people were really happy. It wasn't you or me calling: It was Rudy Gay."

Wechsler predicts tighter regulation, in general, of automated-voice solicitations delivered via telephone. But he also expects marketers to shoot for a young, mobile audience with timely, tailored sound bites sent to cell phones.

"It's a little different (approach), and the difference will get people listening to the message,"
said Michael Etzel, a professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. "They are hearing something they are not used to hearing."

His one point of caution: The novelty could wear off. "By the time you heard the 15th message this way, you'll recognize it for what it is and pay less attention."

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