Why vanity phone numbers can kill your ad copy

September 11, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

Vanity phone numbers give businesses a powerful marketing tool. But despite what you might think, it’s not always a great idea to use them in written copy.

Just to make sure you understand what a vanity number is, here’s an example. Let’s say you run a lawn care business. When you’re setting up your phone line, you could accept the random number the phone company assigns to you, or you could search for a number that “spells” a word or phrase when it’s entered on a phone keypad. Example: 1-800-876-5296 is 1-800-TOP-LAWN.

Great idea, right? Sort of. It’s a great idea if you want people to remember a number. If you’re writing a radio ad, a vanity number will probably increase¬† phone calls because it’s easy to remember. But what if you’re writing a print ad or a brochure?

Have you ever tried to dial a vanity number? Grab your phone and pretend to dial 1-800-TOP-LAWN. (Don’t actually dial it. I just made it up and who knows who you’ll call.) You have to hunt for the letters. Sure, you can dial it, but it takes some time, doesn’t it?

Now mock dial the numerical version of the same phone number, 1-800-876-5296. It’s a snap. You didn’t have to think at all, did you?

That’s the problem with vanity numbers. They’re good for memory, but not so good for dialing. And if dialing is hard, you’re going to lose callers. You’ll get calls, but not as many as you would if calling were easier. Vanity numbers are ad killers.

That means when you’re using a phone number in copy for print, you should always give the numerical version of the number. Since it’s printed, no one has to remember it and it’s easy to dial.

But what if you want to make it easy to dial and want people to remember the number? Simple. Use both the vanity number and the numerical number. Just instruct the designer to show the actual numerals above or below the letters in the vanity portion of the phone number.

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Smart Comments

10 Comments on Why vanity phone numbers can kill your ad copy

  1. Antti Kokkonen - Zemalf.com on Sep 13th, 2009 2:11 am
  2. I don’t pay attention to phone numbers unless I specifically need to make a phone call to someone and then I’d go and look for a number from their website — if the number was only in the “vanity format” I’d probably curse it as I’d had to look up what the heck the actual number is (what the letters goes in what number is not an universal standard).

    Also note that those 1-800 numbers don’t mean anything (or very little) to the non-US customers, something which many US-based businesses forget. Online business? There’s a great chance that the customers are located somewhere else.
    .-= Antti Kokkonen – Zemalf.com’s last blog … 3 Ways To Use Google Reader Like a Pro =-.

    [...] numbers against ordinary toll-free numbers and says ordinary numbers work better. It could be that vanity numbers are easy to remember, but hard to dial. Or it may be that if a number seems easy to remember, there’s a temptation to put off [...]

  3. Jeanne on Feb 23rd, 2010 1:19 pm
  4. Dialing a vanity 800 number is really not that hard! If it takes longer for a person to dial 1-800-TOP-LAWN, it’s probably just milli-seconds. And, the phone pad is in fact universal in the United States, and other countries have adopted it as well.

    Independent consumer research studies have shown that consumers have a much higher recall rate of vanity 800 numbers versus toll-free numeric numbers, and even over URLs.

    And, from another perspective, business case studies have shown that people recall a vanity 800 number months after they see an advertisement, and they make the call! So, a company’s advertising dollars pay off even after a campaign ends. You cannot measure response rates or results only during the life span of a campaign, you have to consider that residual calls are going to come in as a result of the campaign and it’s memorability factor!

  5. Dean Rieck on Feb 23rd, 2010 1:33 pm
  6. Jeanne:
    This wasn’t a knock against vanity numbers. I’m simply pointing out that are designed for memory, not for easy dialing.

  7. Brad Coopersmith on Apr 16th, 2010 8:47 am
  8. The era of difficulty dialing vanity numbers is over. Here is why, BB can automatically covert the words into numbers and the other major phone manufacturers are starting to do this too. Also, skype, googletalk and all the other VOIP providers will automatically convert the letters into numbers as well.

  9. gavin scholes on Aug 26th, 2010 3:24 pm
  10. I think we are missing the point, just might be mili seconds difference in dialling times however your assumption is based on the customer dialling the number as they read the print ad. My assumption is the client dialling the number a day later and actually remembering the word as they wont remember the number. Easiest solution is show both in a print ad then everyone is happy. As for Vanity Numbers not being used outside the USA as we are aware they are huge in Canada, Now also in the UK and Australia, NZ, and other parts of Europe the keypad standardization globally has really assisted their global growth.

  11. Dean Rieck on Aug 26th, 2010 3:41 pm
  12. @Gavin: Why would you assume the caller is dialing a day later? Generally speaking, if someone doesn’t dial immediately, they won’t dial at all. And I mentioned in the article that including both is the best solution.

    I wrote this to point out that advertisers who choose to include ONLY the vanity number are making a mistake, especially in direct marketing … depending on the context. Some research shows that vanity numbers are good for radio, for example, because of easy recall. However, other research shows that when someone thinks they’ll remember the number, they actually end up forgetting it because they made no effort to write it down and they don’t call immediately.

    Things are not always what they seem.

  13. Nic on Jun 5th, 2011 2:34 am
  14. Thank you!!!

    I have always thought that these numbers are a product that are pervasive more because of their promised value proposition than their usefulness. Like those hand dryers in toilets that don’t work; really easy to sell (saves costs on paper etc) but, very often, they don’t work so well.

  15. Dean Rieck on Jun 5th, 2011 12:21 pm
  16. Nic: To be clear, I didn’t say vanity numbers aren’t useful. I simply said they make dialing harder. In a printed piece, it’s best to show the numerals of the phone number.

  17. Gavin Scholes on Jun 5th, 2011 5:36 pm
  18. Dean don’t agree people only dial then and there when they see a print ad, however as mentioned the simple way around this is to show the word and the number.
    VANITY NUMBERS, are about building brand and keeping customers out of directories, when l search for a lawn mowing service on google or Yellow Pages what l see is all of your competitors, by having a Vanity number it makes it simple for these customers to remember how to contact you.

    Nic in regard to your comment likening them to hand dryers that don’t work I would be surprised then why 39 out of the top 50 above the line advertisers in Australia, Dominos, Pizza Hut, Telstra now use PhoneWords as we refer to them in Australia. Last time l checked an extremely large number of Fortune 500 companies in the US also use Vanity Numbers, maybe you are right Nic and collectively some of the best Marketers in the World are all wrong, however I doubt it very much.