The Death of Phone Numbers?

“To receive this once in a life-time offer, just visit us online at 198 dot 74 dot 54 dot 27.  That address again:  198 dot 74 dot 54 dot 27.”  Imagine if there were no website domain names, but rather, only IP addresses.  It’s safe to say virtually no one would make it to a website in reaction to direct response radio or TV advertising.  Yet, radio advertisers are essentially doing the same thing when they use random toll-free numbers or 10 digit local numbers in their calls-to-action (CTA).  Certainly some phone numbers are memorable, but is response optimized?  Not likely.

Recognizing that phone numbers are hard to remember, advertisers have adapted their CTA’s in several ways.  But while these adaptations have improved response, they have not solved the problem completely – creating a large opportunity cost (missed sales, additional marketing expenditure required to reach the same sales levels). Let’s examine these methods, and see if they are all they are cracked up to be.

The most common solution to the phone number problem is utilizing a “vanity” phone number, one that replaces some or all numerals of a phone number with a word (e.g. 1-800-PROGRESSIVE).  The advantage is that, just like a website URL, the word is easier to remember than a string of numbers.  However, having to hunt & peck to spell a word on a telephone dial pad is nettlesome, especially while driving.  Additionally, in-car Bluetooth dialers are incapable of translating the words into numbers.  In other words, you cannot ask your Bluetooth to “call one eight hundred flowers”.

Consider non-vanity toll-free numbers and regular local phone numbers.  Once upon a time, when all toll-free numbers began with “800”, that was helpful, both as a signifier that there would be no long distance charges if you dialed it, and because it reduced the “memory load” to seven digits.  But then, due to the proliferation of devices (first fax machines, then pagers, then mobile phones), the set of available numbers with an 800 prefix became exhausted, requiring the introduction of the “888” prefix, which has been followed by “877” and so on, through “844” currently.  For the same reasons, major cities that had a single area code found themselves having to add “overlay” area codes; and now many urban areas have multiple valid “local” area codes.  So for both toll-free and local numbers, the memory load is back up to 10, mostly random digits.

Within the last decade, some marketers resorted to “text marketing”, meaning their CTA asked consumers to “text (keyword) to (SMS shortcode)”, such as “text PIZZA to 50499”.  While effective in many cases, this method still has the two flaws of “hunting & pecking” to spell the keyword, and the requirement of remembering another random number.  Perhaps for these reasons, text marketing seems to have declined since its peak.

Many marketers have given up on phone numbers in radio advertising altogether.  In its place, they ask listeners to visit their websites, by citing the domain names.  Of course, this is not ideal for products or services that benefit from an interactive conversation with a human representative.  It is also well-established that online conversion rates are dwarfed by that of telephone sales channels (by at least a 10 to 1 ratio).  Additionally a majority of radio advertising is consumed while consumers are away from home, meaning they don’t have ready access to a PC, and may not be in a position to go web-surfing on their smartphone.  The chances of that consumer remembering to go to a specific website later, once they reach home or work, are greatly reduced with each passing minute.  At best, the advertiser might retain one of ten of those momentarily motivated prospects.

Okay, let’s say the consumer that heard the motivating radio ad forgets the URL.  Even if they Google the advertiser’s name, what do they see?  Competitive providers!  So it’s possible that an advertiser’s radio ads might end up driving at least some traffic to their competitors.  Not good.

Let’s go back to toll-free numbers for a moment, to attempt to quantify the extent of lost business.  A 2011 study by a provider of 800 numbers found that in audio advertisements (e.g. radio), 72% correctly recalled a vanity 800 number after hearing one 30 second advertisement.  By contrast, only 5% remembered a fully numeric toll-free number.  Putting that in context, advertisers using vanity numbers might (at best) receive 14 calls out of 20 motivated listeners, while numeric-only phone numbers might only receive calls from only one caller (even though twenty were interested!).


Okay, vanity numbers can be better than pure numeric numbers.  But there are relatively few vanity phone numbers available with an “800” prefix plus seven digits that form a word.  So in practice, direct response advertisers have to resort to non-vanity numbers, at least some of the time.  There are “partial vanity” numbers, such as 888-342-RIDE, which are probably more confusing than memorable.  The next best thing are “repeater” numbers, which repeat certain numbers or a number sequence (e.g. 877-777-7070 or 888-324-4000).  Let’s say that logically those perform better than pure numeric, but not as well as pure vanity, so they capture perhaps six of twenty interested listeners.

The next best thing are “repeater” numbers, which repeat certain numbers or a number sequence (e.g. 877-777-7070 or 888-324-4000).  Let’s say that logically those perform better than pure numeric, but not as well as pure vanity, so they capture perhaps six of twenty interested listeners.

Once again, we have some issues, since there may not be enough “decent” toll-free repeater numbers available if tens or hundreds are needed, and caller confusion about 800 vs. 888, 877, etc. will result in some amount of misdials.  And we know from the outset that we are consciously not capturing anywhere near 100% of those consumer that we succeeded in motivating with our advertising.  Given the flaws in all these response methods, what is a direct response advertiser to do!?


Remember the difference between website domain names and their underlying IP addresses?  The inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, recognized the value of using words over numeric strings for allowing humans to get where they want to go on the Web.  A perfect analogy of this “words rather than numbers” addressing scheme has been created for the telephone system by a company called Mobile Direct Response, dba #250 – America’s Mobile Speed Dial.

#250 is a universal speed dial that works right now on virtually all mobile phones in the US and Canada.  It connects to an IVR system that asks the caller to “please say the keyword”.  Speech recognition software matches the caller’s utterance to an advertiser’s phone number and automatically connects the caller to the advertiser at that number.   Since words are easier to remember than number strings (especially if they are well-known brand names), we posit that #250 Spoken Keywords will perform better than any form of regular phone number – and capture the highest percentage of interested prospects:

#250 is the only short dialing code that works on all major mobile carriers in the US and Canada, as well as many small regional carriers.  Another advantage over traditional toll-free numbers is that it enables the opportunity to offer callers a text message reply (after the live voice conversation is over), which allows the delivery of contact information, digital content (links to video or landing pages), and the option for a “double opt-in” to receive alerts and offers by text in the future.

iHeart Media is rolling out #250 to its local radio advertisers nationwide, and other national radio networks such as Westwood One, Salem, and Sirius XM are beginning to utilize #250 Spoken Keywords® with their advertisers as well.  In most cases, the ease of use and memorability of the speed dial results in substantial lift in call volume, compared to regular phone numbers.

Vertical markets where #250 keywords have been particularly effective include:

  • Non-Profit Live Radiothons (Save The Children, Food For The Poor, UNICEF)
  • Political Advocacy campaigns (“Call your congressman about Issue X”)
  • Home mortgage and Business Loans
  • Pain Relief
  • Cosmetic Treatments and Spas
  • Tax Reduction Consulting
  • Clinical Trial Recruiting
  • Tourism and Event Promotion
  • Sleep Apnea / Snoring treatments
  • Personal Investing & Trading
  • Lasik Eye Surgeons
  • Home Healthcare
  • Home Security

Could Spoken Keywords® someday replace all advertiser phone numbers, in the same way URLs replaced visibility to IP addresses?  Time will tell.  But in the meantime, a growing number of savvy direct response advertisers are increasing their inbound call volume and sales, by using this exciting innovation.

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