Directory enquiries – what number, please?

The UK directory enquiries market is being deregulated, and ‘192’ will vanish. But can the public be persuaded that it matters?

The UK’s “192” directory enquiries (DQ) market will soon change out of all recognition. That famous number – and its international offshoot, 153 – will be replaced by a mass of competing six-digit numbers, all beginning with 118.

With big privatisations a receding memory and the dot-com bubble no longer around to provide easy money for hard-pressed ad agencies, the demise of 192 could be just what marketers need.

Certainly, big numbers are being talked about – in the region of £15m for each ad campaign to support the launch of the new DQ codes later this year. The launch date, however, has been slightly delayed, moving back from late October to early December after BT wanted more time to connect the 118 lines.

A bewildering array of numbers was handed out by Oftel in its recently staged DQ lottery. Some 86 companies applied for 302 118 numbers. Applicants ranged from usual suspects, such as BT and Cable & Wireless, to little-known organisations including a local council in Cheshire, not exactly well-known as a telecommunications provider.

Since the new codes have been handed out free of charge, only a small fraction of the new DQ providers are expected to become serious players. Most notable are Irish-based Conduit, German specialist Telegate and US contender Infonexx, all of which are dominant in their home markets.

Infonexx is holding a pitch for its ad account, with Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, HHCL & Partners and WCRS all in the running. Conduit is believed to be at a late stage in its own pitch and is understood to be considering Bates UK, Leo Burnett, McCann-Erickson and Partners BDDH, while Telegate is denying reports that it has already appointed Grey Worldwide.

The contenders will be playing a high-stakes game, since the future size and potential of the UK DQ market is unclear. It is estimated to be worth £300m at the moment, with more than 700 million enquiries a year charged at an average of 40p by BT. Approximately 100 million of those calls come via mobile phones, and the proportion is rising.

An added challenge to the 118 marketers is that the existing 192 number will continue to run in parallel with 118 for about a year. Consumer inertia is expected to be high. After all, 192 is regarded as a generic number – it was introduced more than 50 years ago – and the idea of choice and competition in this area is new.

The deregulated DQ market is expected to become polarised between cheap and cheerful, highly automated services offering basic telephone and address information and lifestyle services, hoping to jump on the personal organiser bandwagon.

These premium services would have live operators and a wide range of information, such as news, sports results, weather, share prices, cinema listings and restaurant bookings.

They would also seek to ape business directories such as Yell and Scoot (both of which have applied for 118 numbers) by recommending local businesses, shops and services, rather than merely responding to specific number enquiries.

Nick White, head of Virgin Xtras, which organises a range of WAP and voice-recognition services for Virgin Mobile customers, sees a “clear gap in the market” for a company such as Virgin to use DQ as a way to generate customer revenues and loyalty.

He says: “There is a new generation of companies, which are charging clients between £500 and £5,000 a year to act as ‘virtual butlers’, taking charge of almost every aspect of people’s lives. I don’t see why a company like Virgin Mobile couldn’t use 118 numbers as a portal to bring these services to a mass-market audience.”

Other companies from outside the traditional telecoms industry will be looking to leverage the 118 numbers. Major supermarket chains may wish to replicate their successful brand extensions into fields like banking, although none has yet made any definitive statement about DQ.

But Centrica Telecoms, which sells telephone services to British Gas customers and also owns the One.Tel phone brand, admits that 118 is “on the radar”.

A company spokesman comments: “We have no specific plans yet and don’t know if this is something we would do alone or in partnership, but it would clearly be another important step forward for us. It plugs the final gap in the call billing process. At the moment, 192 calls are billed alongside line rental – the network is still owned by BT. But this will soon be changing.”

Alongside all this enthusiasm for deregulation sits one big problem, according to Gary Purcell, sales and marketing director of Conduit – currently the second-largest provider of DQ services in the UK: “There is a limit to how many numbers people can carry round in their head – especially six-digit numbers.”

He notes that Ireland, where the DQ market has grown by 40 per cent since deregulation three years ago, had a relatively simple transition from a four-digit DQ number to a five-digit one.

Another headache for the non-telecom newcomers to DQ is the fact that this is “a low involvement category”, according to Purcell. He says: “It’s not high on people’s agenda and consciousness. It’s a very specialist discipline that requires a lot of focus. Getting consumers to look at DQ in a new way will be a very difficult sell.”

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