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Direct Response Marketing

Support Services: The Right Numbers Add Up to Increased Profitability

15 Jan, 2010 By: Scott Richards Response


By Scott RichardsIt is commonly understood that toll-free numbers that start with an 800 prefix, versus other prefix alternatives — such as an 888, 877 or 866 — give marketers an advantage, but just how much? And why?

Toll-free 800 numbers were first introduced in 1967, and for nearly 30 years they were burned into the consciousness of American consumers through endless, “Call toll-free NOW!” pitches. With that three-decade head start, 1-800 simply became synonymous with toll-free, which was fine — until the nearly 7.9 million available numbers were scooped up by private sources.

According to SMS/800, the central administration system for the management of toll-free services, this remains true today as 99 percent of all such numbers are locked up. In 1996, the 888 toll-free prefix was introduced, and nearly all of those numbers were gone in two years. Other toll-free prefixes, such as 877 and 866, followed.

House of Clay?
The problem is, not all toll-free prefixes are created equally. Industry sources report that non-800 toll-free numbers routinely underperform by 10-20 percent when compared to 800-prefix numbers. One primary suspect: misdials. Perhaps the best illustration of the public’s penchant for dialing on autopilot is the Los Angeles Times exposé about the season-two voting debacle on “American Idol.”

“Idol” uses the 866 exchange because it can own vanity numbers, such as 866-IDOLS-01 to track votes. In fact, host Ryan Seacrest pleads with viewers each week to recognize that the numbers to dial and vote are 866 prefixes. However, in 2003 when the finale to crown the second “Idol” was a horserace between eventual winner Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken, only 130,000 votes separated them.

Yet there were 240,000 misdials to the 800 prefix, evidence of the audience’s Pavlovian-like conditioning to dial an 800 number first and address confusion later. In this light, any direct marketer can appreciate the advantages of an 800 number over other prefixes, especially since they must communicate with clarity and due speed to their consumer about how to order.

Not All Numbers Are Created Equal
If all toll-free prefixes aren’t created equal, then the actual numbers that comprise the 10-digit sequence of your phone number certainly are not. As acclaimed trend guru Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point,” “Blink”) outlines in his latest bestseller, “Outliers,” humans store sequences of numbers into a memory loop that lasts for only about two seconds.

Gladwell theorizes that one reason Asians excel in mathematics is that their native tongues, which employ shorter words for numbers than English, enable them to remember longer sequences of digits in a compressed period of time. In contrast, many native English speakers become disenchanted with mathematics by mid-elementary school, due in part because the words used to recite numbers are much lengthier and the English-speakers’ cultural conditioning hampers their ability to recall complicated sequences of numbers in brief windows of time. If you’ve ever sweated out a timed mathematics test, you know the problem.

So you can understand why a marketer employing an easy-to-recall repeater number such as 800-935-1000 has a decided advantage over one using a random sequence such as 800-218-6253. In a typical voiceover read for a direct response TV or radio ad, this nuance equals about a half-second. But contained within that seeming blink-of-an-eye may be the difference between success and failure when it comes to a buyer’s ability to recall a number and dial it into their phone or write it down.

This subtle distinction is yet another example of how incremental advantages can add up to double-digit sales hikes. Understanding the power inherent in numbers is insight savvy marketers can use to dial in their own profits.


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