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New management has taken over at 1-800-SAN-DIEGO, and they're determined to increase awareness in San Diego, boost sales channels, add a text messaging component and expand to other markets, possibly including Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland. 1-800-SAN-DIEGO was the nation's first free directory assistance service — at least in the modern VoIP era –when it launched eight years ago.

President Mick Noordewier, a computer scientist who created the company's original infrastructure, took over the service last March. He says the service, which has 50 home-based, “rural sourced” VoIP-based operators, currently breaks even with little promotion beyond word of mouth. He's currently got 250,000 unique callers, and they typically call in 3.8 times per month.

But he's in the business to expand in both San Diego and other cities. “We're doing this in two dimensions. We want much greater saturation in San Diego, and we want to work with partners in other markets.” Noordewier also wants to focus on additional capabilities, including merchant-specific information and local events. A service focused on local content will bring in a much deeper array of advertisers, he says. A Web-based directory and text messaging are also available, but these are considered to have relatively minor potential.

Noordewier readily concedes that awareness of the service could be higher. There has been a very small promotion budget. Nevertheless, the company currently has 500 advertisers, including a mixture of national ads from third parties, including Ingenio and MIVA, and local ads sold by Dick Larkin's team at Weblistic and several of his own dedicated local salespeople.

The average local advertising client pays $350 for category ad placement. But Noordewier says he is concentrating on raising the average by delivering more category-specific calls, which bring in higher amounts for lead generation. Currently, 90 percent of calls are directed to specific businesses, which don't provide as much opportunity for pay-per-call.

He also wants to leverage community information on the site, which he expects to generate higher call volumes and serve as a differentiator with other free DA services, such as Jingle Nets’ 1-800-FREE411. “In a way, the company is providing lots of local content,” says Noordewier. “We can do more with local events and things like that. It will give us a higher level of category search.”

Going forward, a major priority, surprisingly, is retail. “Consumers are looking up restaurants and department stores,” he says. Wal-Mart, for instance, makes up about 1 percent of the calls. Department stores and restaurants get the most calls, but also the most “unsold” call volume. The addition of advertisers in these categories “represents enormous potential” for increased revenues.

“Retail represents a huge opportunity at some point,” he says. “Callers can get information about store promotions and be directed to specific departments.”

There is a bit of irony in this, of course. The rise of big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and industry consolidation are often cited as major reasons for fewer calls to the Yellow Pages. People just show up at the store. But Noordewier is determined to add the value that will change that.

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