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All is Vanity, or, A Reminder from Ryan Seacrest

A client recently asked for our team's opinion on using vanity numbers for integrated marketing campaigns.

It's funny how much and how quickly things have changed in the world of vanity URLs and toll-free numbers. I studied a POV written by Marc Enger, our account director and DRTV subject matter expert, on the subject a few years ago. While some of the basic rules have held steady, other rules have bent as a result of the proliferation of smart phones and other shifts in consumer behavior. Media that used to be strictly for brand support - outdoor, for example - are now used for DR, whether it's inviting a phone call from passersby (of course, you and I would never dial while driving) or featuring a 2D barcode to shoot. One hard-and-fast rule of DRTV was to always use unique response numbers for immediate tracking. But these days Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Allstate, Progressive and other big DRTV players prefer to use their brand-steeped 800 numbers over non-branded numbers across all media. Like so many other questions in this business, the answer is, "It depends."

Memorability Versus Measurability
In years past we would create proxy models by selecting test markets whose conditions were reasonably close to each other in key variables (market share and other elements related to the competitive set), economic conditions, media availability and cost. We'd plan the media in each market, withholding a medium in Market A to assess the impact of the withheld media by comparing the net sales within the test period against Market B, which featured that medium in that mix. Fat chance of having a clean test these days, considering the barrage of non-traditional media. We need to first decide if our priority is measurability or memorability. Measurability is key to learning the impact of one variable over another, such as two different creative concepts or one cable station's DRTV performance over another station's. But if we treat every advertising tactic as a discrete, precisely measurable medium, we lose every opportunity for creating momentum with a campaign, and limit (some would say suppress) the lift we achieve from the halo effect that frequency provides. Not to mention the fact that every medium has a specific job to do in the marketplace ecosystem. One lifts an eyebrow. Another lifts the phone.

800 Number Versus Other Prefixes  
Whether you're using a vanity or non-vanity number, use one with an 800 prefix. Despite the fact that other prefixes were introduced in 1996, people still are programmed to see, hear and dial "800" instead of "866" or "888." Says something about our stubborn nature, don't you think?  But the DMA reps tell us that when other prefixes are used, 20% of callers dial the 800 version of the number, and most of them don't call the correct number back. I'm reminded of this every time Ryan Seacrest announces, "Remember, these are 888 numbers, not 800 numbers, so please call 888" when he serves up the phone number for American Idol voting. Imagine being the unfortunate company who owns the "800" versions of the American Idol numbers and getting hundreds of thousands of wrong number calls.

Response Expectation by Medium
The need for memorable vanity numbers varies by how fleeting the media impression is. Broadcast media disappears instantly, so unless the consumer is poised to dial along with his radio or TV, or unless we're saying "Call Progressive today," we're not going to create calls. (This explains why we see calls spike in DRTV in the third or fourth impression when tight compression is used. By the second or third time a person sees the spot while sobbing over "Days of Our Lives," they realize they should have their phones handy for the next time Ron Popeil appears.) Depending on the market, section, reader, day of week and advertiser, DR in newsprint can be either utterly disposable or longer lasting. In any case, according to the experts, a vanity number outperforms a non-vanity.

Wireless Versus Wired Devices
Most wireless devices don't have the same letters on the keys used for wired phones, so one is unable to do alphabetic dialing without some other cross-reference to the actual numeric phone number. As with so many other problems I've faced in life, I look to "Dancing with the Stars" for my inspiration. They overcome the alpha/numeric muddle by showing the numeric number alongside the vanity version. This way, I'm able to vote my limit for Chaz on my wired phone, then do the same on my wireless without breaking a nail.

Other Elements Give Loft to Vanity Numbers
•    Words are significantly more memorable than numbers
•    The word(s) must be easy to spell and by easy, I mean really easy.
•    Other mnemonic devices such as signature sounds, rhymes, etc. add to memorability.  I still hear the Empire Carpet jingle in my sleep: "800-588-2300, EM-PIIIIIIRE."

In the spirit of "best, not perfect," we seek to make the most of every opportunity to connect with customers and prospects. And where art wins out over science, we'll choose probable memorability over possible measurability if we can't prove one over the other.