September 7, 2020

How to kill response: The Bermuda Triangle of phone numbers


The old joke as I recall it, when your airplane was landing in Dayton (or Topeka/Knoxville/Boise/Bakersfield/Omaha) the flight attendant would announce impishly, “Please set your watch back 50 years.”

Probably apocryphal. A genuine time-rewind is needed when you see advertising where the call to action (CTA) is a phone number. Back in the day, the phrase was, “Operators are standing by!” voiced with optimistic retail urgency. (Spoiler: they were not.)

It is almost always ineffective to use a phone number as your CTA.

The worst-case example (where “ineffective” actually translates to “stupid”) is when an advertiser plasters their phone number on a highway billboard, as if a person travelling at speed will notice, read, then remember a ten-digit combination vividly enough to dial it. (Now, that’s the real gotcha question on the cognitive decline test. Pick out the elephant? Easy. Dredge up the 75 mph blur you glimpsed ten minutes ago on the interstate? Not so much.) 

BTW, we counsel clients that out-of-home (OOH) advertising is a reminder medium, a fine add-on – never to be the primary. It offers high frequency, not immediate action. We preach the value of a one-to-six-word billboard headline, never more than ten. If wishful-thinking advertisers run OOH ads with 15 words, an address, more than one image, and a phone number CTA, they're setting fire to money. 

TV and radio are not much better at making phones ring. Why do some tv spots (for walk-in tubs? Med sup? Reverse mortgage scams?) repeat their number three times at the end? They assume their fearful seniors are deaf, distracted and/or slow. (Pro tip: They’re statistically more likely to be pissed off at the assumption.) Frankly, any advertiser (not just the granny grifters) who repeats a phone number fantasizes you'll fetch a pad and pencil. Another passage into the Bermuda Triangle where ad budgets sink into the depths without a trace.

Face it. Every purchase decision involves some emotional input.

Yes, every one. Your web address, ideally, should have some meaning, some relevance, some opportunity to advance your story. Your 800 number is just cold, dead data.

Are there exceptions? Of course. If you’ve been singing your phone number to us, the melody will make it stickier. If you’ve sung that jingle for decades, persist. Don't throw away brand equity. You’ve invested in a chunk of unaided-recall mental real estate, a desirable neighborhood for your brand to live in.

To be sure, phone numbers can be acceptable and effective in print, especially for impulse purchases. Many considered purchases, however, where prospects need information, persuasion, and handholding? Better to guide them to your web address, which I repeat, is far more engaging and memorable than raw numbers. Isn’t it? Isn’t it? If not, you have work to do.  Let's get started.