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DRTV Marketers Should Not Dismiss Vanity Numbers

With all the discussion about toll-free vanity numbers and media tracking, it is easy to forget that the essence of DRTV is to get response, not merely track it. While tracking is a tool to improve ad placement and reduce cost, vanity numbers are used to create mindshare, build customer relationships and capture impulse buying.

The recommended practice of tracking ads by tagging them with dozens of individual 800 numbers is the triumph of a few tree counters who fail to see the health of the whole forest. Analysts of DRTV media buys love the seemingly precise information, while clients enjoy a false sense of certainty. Yet media tracking has never been an exact science and all methods are deficient in some fashion.

Almost everyone has sat through several airings of the same commercial before placing an order. Here, the 800 tracking method would credit the final airing with the response when it was only a contributing factor. The real issue cannot be measured: How many orders are lost when the client’s 800 number becomes a moving target?

The basic premise of direct response is to entice callers to bypass the retail channel to avoid exposure to competitive offerings. Flashing the viewer an unmemorable number ensures that callers will look to the phone book or revert to the retail channel if they ignore the call to action. Even when the decision is made to call immediately an unmemorable number is often gone from view before a viewer can find a pen and paper.

The real goal of DRTV is to make your brand and number memorable to consumers. The “action” in the call to action is a “call.” An immediate call is most desirable, but a later call is okay too – as long as consumers call you. Using dozens of 800 numbers guarantees only one thing: no one will ever know your number.

Creating a Virtual Relationship

It would be absurd to suggest that a corporation or retail store change its number with each advertisement just to track the “cost per lead.” Why then do we accept such nonsense in DRTV? Media tracking with 800 numbers creates a virtual customer relationship that exists only during the commercial and ends when you change call centers.

A well-designed vanity number lets customers call whenever the buying decision is made. Flower delivery service 800-Flowers, for example, was surprised and delighted to experience a lift in call volume whenever competitor FTD advertised. Satisfied consumers will refer your name and number to others (“Tickets? I just called 800-Tickets,” instead of “I just called TicketMaster.”)

Rather than obsess over cost-per-lead rates, DR marketers should be concerned about “cost per lost call.” With rare exception, revenue captured during a DRTV campaign vastly exceeds the raw cost of advertising. A 10-percent loss in revenue may actually exceed the entire advertising budget. Factor in the lost value of a potential lifetime customer and the elimination of all direct word-of-mouth value, and a well-designed vanity number is a much better way to go.

Granted, some callers will resist the few moments it takes to translate a vanity number. But there is no compelling reason that the numeric translation cannot be included on screen for immediate use. The vanity number should be boldly presented for a lasting impression.

Other Tracking Methods

To track a variety of media placements with a single vanity number, use tags that entice callers to participate, such as discount or promotional codes they enter on a telephone keypad. Avoid tags that suggest “extensions,” as callers have no real incentive to take note. If you call 800-Flowers, for example, the “promo code” takes a caller to the advertised discount.

Here are few guidelines to help you avoid some of the major pitfalls associated with vanity number design:

Make it memorable. Using a vanity number for the sake of having one is a big mistake. Even a numeric is better than a bad vanity, such as the United Airline’s commercial with the incomprehensible number 800-4-UA-CNXN. Meanwhile, every Chicago native knows the numeric for Empire Carpet, 800-588-2300, and Super 8 Motels has a the memorable 800-800-8000 number.

Make It compelling. The message delivered by a vanity number should be compelling or, at the very least, neutral. Such numbers as 800-Flowers, 800-Mattres or 800-USA-Rail convey meaning but numbers such as 800-Cable-Me, 800-Call-Now or 800-Get-Results are far more compelling.

Total recall. The essence of a vanity number is flawless recall. Once a consumer goes to the phone book or to a retailer, it’s over. Well-known words or idioms are best, such as 800-We-Deliver.

Beware of misdirected Calls. Vanity numbers are created by a message overlaid on all appropriate phone numbers. Misdirected calls can come from uncertainty in recall, spelling or dialing. 800-Collect, for example, is made up of the numerics that spell 800-Collect (correct spelling), 800-C0llect (with a zero) and 800-Call-Col (“Call Collect”).

Stake your claim. A few years back, 800 numbers were in abundance and free for the asking. Today, prime 800 numbers, are rarely released without a substantial enticement. Expecting to get a prime 800 number courtesy of your long-distance carrier is a thing of the past.

Beware of half-baked numbers. Viewers can remember vanity numbers like 800-909-Loan just long enough to find a pen and paper, but they quickly become 800-“something” Loan. A partial vanity number results in partial recall. Using this format invalidates all word-of-mouth and impulse buying potential.

Remember the good, bad and the ugly. The 800, 888 and 877 numbers are the good, bad and ugly of toll free. Recent experience proves consumers think “800” even when 888 or 877 numbers are clearly advertised. Motorola’s 888-StarTac ads, for example, drove more than 4,000 callers to the 800 version in the first 60 days of the campaign. In addition, many consumers are not even clear that these new numbers are toll free. For DRTV, forget anything but 800 numbers or expect to lose 10 percent to 20 percent of your intended callers.

Beware of sharks. If you know you need a certain 800 number, it is best to assume you have competitors, distributors, retailers, information providers, call centers, ordering services, marketing firms and others who all have a legitimate interest in acquiring the number before you do. Think of yourself as swimming with sharks. Just as Internet domains are being secured and held for ransom, there are people working full time to snag prime 800 numbers. Perhaps your desired number is already taken.

Hire an agent, not an arbitrageur. If you retain a vanity design specialist, make sure he is working for you and not himself. Your agent should provide strategy, creative, research and acquisition services at set rates, fees and incentives. Be cautious of anyone who offers to “find” numbers for you. Most are only skilled at buying low and selling high – to you.

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