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Dial 't' for tempted

Published May 30, 2007


Advertising is the driving force behind a Philadelphia company expanding into Pinellas County. It wants to entice consumers to read its ads.

"We believe advertising is a nuisance, " said Derek Bailey, chief executive officer of Popa Media, which tested a free-phone concept at the Bamboo Beer Garden until the bar closed last month. "That's why we try to bring some redeeming value to it."

Popa, which stands for "point of purchase advertising, " sets up Internet-connected kiosks that double as billboards. People are drawn to the kiosk by free phone calls throughout the United States and select countries worldwide. While on the phone, they inevitably look at the ads.

"You get a four-minute impression time, " said Popa Media Tampa Bay chief operating officer Steve Truels. "That's phenomenal. With a billboard it's maybe three seconds."

Popa can give the calls away because it is using VOIP, or voice over Internet protocol, the same technology that companies like Skype or Vonage use to allow people to make phone calls from their computers. Popa extends the service to other countries through agreements with foreign phone companies. But Bailey said the dirty little secret of the phone business is that people overpay.

"Telephone calls really don't cost anything, " he said. "They should have been free a long time ago."

Popa got its start in 2000 using regular phone service but buying bulk minutes to cut costs. It focused on immigrant groups wanting to call home and pitched the ad space to companies wanting to reach those groups. Then VOIP came along and made the model cheaper.

Popa has hundreds of kiosks in Philadelphia, New York and surrounding areas. As the business has grown, Bailey said it's changing from a pure ethnic play to other communities of interest and highly targeted advertising.

In Pinellas, Truels said, part of the appeal will be to tourists who want to call friends and tell them what a great time they're having on Florida's sunny beaches. They'll do so from phones plastered with ads for restaurants or shops that appeal to tourists.

Truels plans to install about 50 kiosks in the next year or so. The phones may also have touch-screens that show video, connect to the Internet and let users look for a restaurant or a rental car.

Truels said Popa can even set up mobile units for special events and their targeted audiences.

"There are so many vertical markets to put in, " he said.

College students are a ripe market, and Truels talked about installing kiosks on campus. The University of South Florida already has VOIP for all its phones, including free long distance, but the appeal of the kiosks, Bailey said, is that they are placed where people might not readily find a desk or dorm phone.

"If there's a free phone in your path, we've found that people use it, " he said, adding that the prevalence of cell phones is no deterrent because people know their cells have a cost. "At the kiosks, they get something for free. That's nice and nice matters. It's the impression."

Popa also has offices overseas and is working on driving business to the United States. Truels is making arrangements with northern U.S. cities to place kiosks there that advertise vacations.

"Maybe we'll have a screen at Navy Pier in Chicago showing a live Florida sunset in December when those people are looking at a frozen lake, " he said. Users can make their own calls for free but also dial Pinellas and book a beach hotel.

Finding a place for a kiosk is easy, Truels said, because business owners see it as an amenity for their customers to make free calls or use a kiosk as a wireless Internet hot spot. The stumbling block is advertisers, who he says don't readily see the value proposition.

Cedar Hames, the president of Paradise Advertising and Marketing in St. Petersburg, said the Popa concept is interesting and could have some futuristic applications. He also said the demise of phone booths can make such kiosks attractive when someone's cell battery dies.

As someone who places ads for others, Hames said he's concerned the billboard might appear expensive to smaller advertisers.

"They're making a lot of assumptions about traffic, " he said. "We would want to make certain they can prove this exposure or guarantee it."

Bailey said he has a track record and happy clients.

"It works, " he said. "People get really excited about taking telephone capacity and turning it into an advertising product."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or or by participating in

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Popa Media

[Last modified May 29, 2007, 19:48:35]

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