Dynamic Number Insertion (DNI) - Is it Ethical or even Legal?

Have you ever noticed a website with a phone number that frequently changes? Surely the website owner isn't changing phone providers daily, right? Perhaps it's an attempt to distribute phone calls across several operators, to lighten the workload for someone who's currently tied up at the moment? Maybe it allows 24-hour service by utilizing different call centers around the world.
Unlikely, since major phone and VoIP (Voice over IP) providers and even PBX (Private Branch eXchange) systems can accommodate this internally without keeping a main line occupied. Not to mention the cost of maintaining several different phone numbers. So why does that site's phone number keep changing?

A type of service called Dynamic Number Insertion, or DNI for short, has been around for years but now with the popularity and cost-effectiveness of VoIP is catching on in the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) community. So what's DNI? DNI is a technique for determining who saw your website and ultimately called your phone number. Put another way, it's a way to track conversions, or potential customers from their first page view to their last phone call. A phone number is dynamically inserted onto a website and can be used to determine the effectiveness or particular web pages or ad campaigns.

How is this handled server-side? Perhaps, per unique visitor to a site, a different phone number is displayed. Cycling through a predetermined list may be tricky; you may not be able to track very many people at one time because there are only so many phone numbers available in one area code. Maybe it changes hourly, daily, or maybe particular users or sources are singled out. It can vary from one service or need to the next. Thanks to scripts and plugins for web publishing tools such as WordPress, an SEO service now has the ability to dynamically insert phone numbers into your web page and can tell you when someone saw your website and actually made the leap and called your phone number. A daily, weekly, or monthly report can be generated and a phone number and a cost-per-ad click monetary value could actually be determined. Useful stuff, right? What else can DNI do?

DNI can be used to identify whether a person is a repeat customer or a first-timer. How? Perhaps just by the way the information is collected. Query strings, cookies, individual phone numbers called, the caller phone number, that kind of stuff. But since DNI uses VoIP, the calls can also be easily recorded. By playing back a recording of the conversation, an employee at a DNI service can further refine the reporting; by listening to the conversation, even more metrics can be gained. You can get a person's name, glean by the conversation whether the caller is a new or existing customer, their level of satisfaction, even the demeanor of the person who answered the phone. Or if anyone bothered to answer the phone call at all! All facets of the customer acquisition process can be measured: who clicked on which ad from which ad campaign, who called your phone number, and who ultimately made a purchase? Forget about "cost per click", we're talking "cost per conversion" spanning not just the Web, but through voice calls as well.

Here's where the ethics of the matter get a little... rough to say the least. Many US states require consent from both parties (called "two-party consent") to record a phone conversation and many others require at least one-party consent. Basically one-party consent means that at least one person on the call needs to know it's being recorded. Meaning no wiretapping. But what happens if the call is made across state lines? Did you remember to tell all of your employees (even the part-time ones who occasionally answer the phone) that you've hired a new SEO company that uses a service to record his or her phone calls? Now what was intended to better report on return on investment just became a legal issue as well.

There is also the concern about HIPAA, or patient privacy. What if this isn't just a client-vendor relationship, but a patient-provider one: what if it's a patient calling their doctor or their dentist or even their OBGYN? There are DNI services that promise to take HIPAA into consideration, have safeguards in place, and may provide a business associate agreement to ensure they will properly handle the personally identifiable information that they'll hear on a daily basis. If there's a breach, they'll take the responsibility. But surely the fact the call is being recorded must be disclosed during the phone call, right? Maybe common sense would dictate this, but it may not happen in real-life practice. As a patient, wouldn't you want to know if you're having a private conversation with your doctor, or if he or she is paying someone to listen in on their calls?

Customers, patients, and employees deserve to know their phone calls are being recorded. They trust that they're having a private, confidential conversation with you, or at least you would disclose this practice. At the very least, this has to be included in the website's privacy policy. But when is the last time you read a website's privacy policy? Do you expect your visitors to click on it and read it?

Dynamic Number Insertion promises to be a powerful tool for putting the name and the voice of a visitor to your website. Unfortunately, it's easy to forget that your website visitors are real people who trust that you're not treating them like numbers and statistics on a chart. People who trust you to look out for their interests as much as your own.

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