Phone calls are dead. Online sales and marketing have replaced everything else, and if you need to know something, you can Google it.
Bruno Tabbi’s business flies directly in the face of these modern assumptions. In 2009, Tabbi co-founded Ignition Toll-Free, a Michigan-based company that leases vanity phone numbers to small businesses across the U.S. and Canada. (Think 1-800-DRYWALL, 1-800-MORE-SLEEP, or that jingle you still can’t get out of your head.)
So how is a decades-old marketing tactic still effective in the year 2015? Credibly interviewed Bruno Tabbi to learn more about how vanity phone numbers work, and why they’re a great marketing investment for small businesses.
Credibly: What’s your business background, and how did Ignition Toll-Free get off the ground?
BRUNO TABBI: I went to school for finance, and then I became an attorney, working with a family member in a development company. I met a business owner who had a couple of toll-free numbers for his companies, and he noticed that when he advertised with those numbers, he got a much higher response compared to direct mail or anything else he did. That’s where the idea started.
At first we ran [Ignition Toll-Free] part-time to see if there was any appeal to it. I was out of law school for only about a year, and I was like, “Toll free numbers? Are people really dialing these?” It made sense to me, but when you start a business, you never know if people are going to want your product. It turned out that there was definitely an appeal. For almost every service industry — be it doctors or contractors — these numbers are important.
Our first numbers were vein treatment numbers like 1-800-VARICOSE, and it just snowballed from there. That was the first time when I thought, “We can make a business out of this. This thing could actually work.” I had sold stuff before — I worked in commercial real estate and I did other things — but those were traditional brick-and-mortar type of businesses. To get people interested in something like this was a really cool feeling.
So how do these vanity numbers work, exactly? Where do you find them?
Think of what happens when you call 911. If you dial it in New York, you’d get the NYPD. But if you dial it in Troy, Michigan, you’d get the Troy PD. We use the same “shared use” technology for our numbers, so we can isolate them, regionalize them, and then license them to clients in different areas of the country.
We try to go after terms that capture an industry, like 1-800-ROOF-ALL, 1-800-DRY-WALL, or 1-888-FENCING. The way we find our numbers is partly proprietary, but there’s a lot of grunt-work involved, and the numbers themselves are extremely expensive. 1-800-MATTRESS sold a couple years ago for about $13 million. And there are maintenance costs as well.
One of the common misconceptions I hear when I’m trying to sell to people is, “Well, didn’t you just go to the phone company for this number?” No, I didn’t. We speculate on these numbers, and we’ve gotten burned on a couple of them.
At a time when companies are being told to focus on their online presences and mobile experiences, how do vanity numbers remain relevant?
There was a time when vanity numbers were the new technology, like the Internet is now. And then people thought the Internet was going to change everything. I think people are starting to find out that it’s not “us versus the Internet.” In reality, there are certain applications where vanity numbers just make more sense. You’re spending a lot of money on marketing, whether it’s online or on TV and radio, and you need to make sure that every single piece of marketing you do has the highest return. You simply can’t do that with a random phone number, or even a URL.
When was the last time you typed in a URL to learn more about a business? Usually you Google it, and then that company will hopefully pop up, if they’re optimized — but all of their competitors and the pay-per-click ad listings pop up too. Giving customers a direct means of communication helps a business rise above the noise.
Our clients get about 33% more calls, using our numbers. But what’s really important is that getting people on the phone results in a quicker sale. One of our clients — a vein treatment practice based out of Pittsburgh, with about 32 locations — did some pretty exhaustive studies, because they’ve put a lot of money behind their phone numbers. And what they found was that when people called, versus going online, they came into the office 14 times faster. The business was able to turn that phone call into an actual body in the office 14 times quicker. Callers were much more likely to book an appointment, and more likely to keep their appointments as well.
How do you explain the impact of vanity phone numbers?
People on the phone are ready to act. When you want something, you’re only going to send so many emails, or have a conversation with the chat-box in the corner of the screen, before you’re like, “I’m going to pick up the phone because I’m interested and I want to do something now.” Those are the people you want.
Compare that to an online lead: A prospect fills out a form, then someone from the office contacts them, they may or may not pick up, you play phone tag. People are trying to reduce their costs by going digital on everything, but that’s not always as effective as a customer just picking up the phone and having that conversation when they want to. There’s a time and a place for it.
And I think there are certain tendencies and human behaviors that are just going to stay consistent. The radio is still here, and television and newspapers still exist. We always think something’s going to come along and wipe something else out. But the Internet didn’t get rid of everything else, it just made the playing field bigger.
What makes for an ideal vanity phone number?
When your number tells people what you do and how to reach you at the same time, it’s the most valuable and easiest way to convey who you are. If you have 1-800-DRY-WALL or 1-800-MORE-SLEEP if you’re a sleep physician, I instantly know what you do. We have the fifth-largest auto retailer in the country using 1-800-CHEVY-CARS, and we have attorney and law firm numbers like 888-SENIOR-LAW and 800-BEST-FIRM. But let’s say you were Johnson’s Plumbing, and your number is 1-800-JOHNSONS, for example — no one’s going to know what that is.
People need plumbers, they need roofers, they need doctors, and you need to make it easy to contact them, because there’s a lot of competition out there. There are like 70,000 carpet cleaning services, and these guys live and die by each job. So how can you stand out? Excellent service? Everyone says that. Been in business for a while? Everyone says that. You can only spend so much on blasting people with TV and radio ads. But if you have 888-CARPET-CARE, you have an advantage. It actually works, and it makes me feel good to help small companies stand out in the crowd.
Do vanity numbers offer any other advantages besides being easy to remember?
They allow businesses to stay consistent with their brand. I was talking to a client in Los Angeles, and he said, “I’ve had to change my area code three times, and I’m getting a toll-free number because I’m done with this.” Local area codes don’t have the same significance that they used to, especially to our generation, and everyone knows 800, 888, and 877. It’s not about who’s paying for the call anymore. It’s about looking more professional, trustworthy, and established.
Speaking of generational shifts, are you worried that this business can go away, as fewer and fewer people are using their phones to make phone calls?
No, because the technology is adapting. There’s toll-free texting now, and call tracking systems, and the routing is so sophisticated. They say that people in our generation aren’t calling, but they do when they want something. I just talked to a client who owns 24 orthodontic practices in Atlanta, and she was running a radio spot using their URL. We switched it to 866-GET-BRACES, and she said the difference was immediate — it just lit up.
Brick-and-mortar businesses need their phones to ring. It’s nice to have a Facebook presence and a website, but that’s just part of the overall strategy. It’s not one or the other; you have to do it all. But you need something that people can remember and refer to their friends. Let’s say we’re talking, and I say, “Oh, yeah. I know this great guy for window treatments.” Well, what’s his name? “Uh, I don’t know. Just look them up.”
That doesn’t work. Instead, I could just say, “Call 1-800-DRAPERIES if you need window treatments.” It’s that simple. Sometimes, people are skeptical because it seems too simple. “I need to be optimizing my keywords. What’s my metadata look like?” Really, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.