November 4, 2003 5:01 PM PST

This VoIP call brought to you by beer

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Thanks to cheaper Internet phone dialing, Labatt Brewery was able to offer a free long-distance phone service to thousands of residents of Ontario, Canada.

There was just one catch: every time any of the 1,000 new subscribers a day dialed out, they had to listen to a 10-second Labatt commercial. "It's not as cheesy as 'This call brought to you by Labatt,'" a company spokesman said.

In the past, offering free long distance to potentially hundreds of thousands of people would have been a ludicrous way to promote a company, product or brand. The cost of the airtime to support the program would far outweigh the increased sales or marketing data a company might get in return. But Labatt BlueLine, launched last summer, used voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to dramatically lower costs by sending calls out on the Internet rather than a telephone company's privately owned network.

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Meant just as a summer promotion when it began in July 2002, BlueLine took on a life of its own. It finally was put to rest on Oct. 31 after Ontarians made about 40 million calls and used a half billion minutes of airtime.

Will it ever be resurrected? Labatt isn't telling. Its official line is: "Tons of exciting promotions are planned for the upcoming year."

Companies that provided the technology that made BlueLine possible say this is only the beginning. More retailers and progressive marketing companies are embracing VoIP dialing as another avenue to reach customers.

Canadian VoIP carrier Onlinetel says it's talking with other retailers to somehow use VoIP to reach their customers. It already uses free VoIP dialing to beef up its own local and long-distance calling plans, and it provided the technology behind Blue Line.

Another Internet phone marketing ploy involves a VoIP link, a concept similar to a hyperlink, which is a Web site staple that lets browsers click a specially coded word or photo and instantly jump to another area of the Internet. Similarly, a VoIP link would let users click an icon to make a call to a preprogrammed VoIP number.


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