June 2007 - Ask the Expert

The Low-down on Vanity Numbers

By Timothy R. Hawthorne

Q: I see that some advertisers are using toll-free vanity numbers. Should I consider using one with my new DRTV campaign?

A: Our first instinct is to say, “Skip the vanity number.” Why? Vanity numbers defy the very goal of traditional DRTV, and that’s to create an accountable campaign where you can tell exactly how every call-and ultimately every sale-is generated. Vanity numbers inhibit traceability and thwart a company’s ability to track their media buys, successes and failures to specific telecasts and stations.

Vanity-styled “1-800-CALLNOW” numbers also present other challenges. The proliferation of 866 and 877 numbers, for example, confuse consumers, who forget they’re not supposed to be dialing “800″ and wind up calling elsewhere.

George Smith, of West Corporation in Omaha, Neb., has been working in the call center industry for 31 years, and sees few benefits to vanity phone numbers. In fact, he says that the memorability factor can often backfire on companies.

Take the company that used a dedicated vanity number to advertise a coupon giveaway. The campaign itself was a success, but when it went off the air, the volume of interest for the coupons kept building. A victim of its own success, the firm eventually learned that someone was enticing people to call in for the coupons, which were then bundled and taken to the stores to get the equivalent cash value. Smith blames the easy-to-remember vanity number for creating the chaos.

The issue is not black and white, though. The unforgettable qualities of a vanity number can often work in an advertiser’s favor.

The New York Mets’ baseball franchise is a good example. A few years ago when the team wasn’t performing up to snuff, it created a season ticket drive to not only sell tickets, but to generate inquiries from disenchanted fans. The campaign was a success, using the phone number 1-800-THEMETS.

But when Mets player Darryl Strawberry tripped and sprained his thumb two years later, guess what? The 1-800-THEMETS hotline started to light up again, despite the fact that the ticket drive hadn’t aired in more than 24 months. “The calls started blasting in, asking about Darryl Strawberry,” recalls Smith.

One vanity number that didn’t backfire was set up for the 1986 fundraising concert Farm Aid II. Through the number, the concert raised money for family farmers. Then a strange thing happened: the 1-800-FARMAID line started lighting up again a few days after the concert. “It seems Willie Nelson wore his Farm Aid t-shirt on ‘The Tonight Show,’” says Smith. “People remembered it, and started calling in to make donations.”

So when is it wise to use a vanity number? Rule of thumb: if you are running a national campaign and need absolute ROI measurement on every long-form telecast or short-form run, do not use a vanity number. When your accountability needs are “softer,” meaning you’re willing to review the return on media investment over an entire campaign, a vanity number is often preferred. There is no doubt that a truly memorable and appropriate vanity number (e.g., 1-800-FLOWERS) can provide valuable long-term lift to response.

Timothy R. Hawthorne is chairman and executive creative director of hawthorne direct inc. He is a 33-year television producer/writer/director and can be reached at [email protected].


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