Talkster says its free group calling will attract small business users

Talkster Inc. says its free long distance and conference call services are likely to be a big draw for small businesses looking to save on the bottom line.

The Toronto-based firm offers ad-driven free calling services using local access voice over IP (VoIP) numbers.

Small businesses will appreciate the new group calling feature that’s available for up to five people, says Talkster COO and co-founder James Wanless.

“They’re paying a lot of money for conference calling currently.”

The recent addition of China to Talkster’s service list and partnering with ad supplier VoodooVox will be other incentives for Canadian small businesses, and consumers to start using the free calling service, the company says.

China has been added to a list of more than 30 countries where Talkster users can make free phone calls, the Toronto-based company announced last week.

At least one Canadian analyst believes Talkster’s adding one-fifth of the world’s population to its free global dialing service would be a boon to Canadian companies that do business in China.

It makes the service more appealing to certain pockets of Canada that are doing a good deal of business with the country, says Roberta Fox, senior partner at Fox Group Telecom Consulting, a telecom analyst firm based in Markham, Ont.

Fox notes that China is expanding its role as an international exporter. “There’s been a big increase in Canada-China trade.”

China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the U.S.

More than 200 companies are members of the Canada China Business Council, either already active in the Chinese market or interested in becoming involved there.

Other industry observes, however, believes ad-driven “free calling” services provided by companies such as Talkster would have limited appeal to small businesses.

The multi-stage calling procedure presents too great a barrier for it to serve as a viable customer communications tool, they say.

Here’s the procedure: you type in your number and the number of the person you are calling and Talkster supplies you with two local numbers. You phone the person’s new local number and are given about 10 seconds to tell them to call you back at your Talkster local number that was sent to them by SMS. Both parties listen to a 10-second advertisement and then you’re connected.

At least one Canadian analyst says requiring a customer to hang-up, call you back and then listen to a commercial to do so is just too much for businesses to ask.

“Are small businesses going to get their clients to sign up to this?” asks Paul Edwards, Director of SMB and Channel Strategies Research at IDC. “That seems strange.”

Fox, howe4ver, notes that free call conferencing would appeal to small businesses that are looking to save every penny possible.

Calls connecting multiple ports are often the most costly phone-related expense for small businesses that don’t get corporate rates, she notes.

“The bridging factor has appeal, particularly for small business. You could save 18 to 23 cents a minute per port.”

Talkster’s service, meanwhile, evoked a great deal of interest among attendees at the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2007 conference in San Francisco last October.

What proved popular was the Toronto provider’s strategy of offering a multi-pronged approach to accessing free phone calls for customers and offering location-based delivery for advertisers.

The company also made a deal with VoodooVox last week to use their In-Call Network to deliver geo-targeted, interactive advertisements. The 10-second blurbs are location based so as to make them useful – rather than annoying – to users.

The interactive element comes in the form of an SMS sent to the caller. From there a user can surf the Web to get more product information, or be connected directly to the advertiser to ask further questions.

Talkster says it separates itself from other VoIP competitors such as Skype by offering multiple ways to access its service, and not piping its data over the Internet.

Instead Talkster relies on traditional land lines and their own managed network, which it says is better than standard phone quality.

Users can access Talkster via, using their mobile phone, iPhone, or a Facebook application. The idea is to be accessible to everyone, Wanless says.

“Skype is for when you’re sitting at the PC,” Wanless explains. “With Talkster, you can use it wherever you are.You want your grandmother to be able to use it just as easily as you can with your new iPhone.”

The Facebook application allows social networkers to add their contacts to a group that they can then conference call. Once the group is created, Facebook is no longer needed to connect with the users. An anonymous phone number feature also allows users the privacy of hiding their own phone number if talking with a dodgy contact.

Talkster’s moves indicate a growing trend for VoIP, say analysts. It’s moving out of the fringes of business communications and becoming a low-cost, and increasingly better quality alternative to traditional phone services.

VoIP is “adding new products and services and is changing the rules” when it comes to phone charges, Fox says. “It’s going to drive carriers to get more aggressive with their pricing.”


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