Want a Memorable Toll-Free Number? Ask a Neuroscientist

Note: This post was written in 2014. We’ve written more content with new research since then, including What Is A PBX System?

On your drive to work, you hear a radio advertisement for a mail-order company that delivers gift boxes of freshly baked cookies. Later in the day, you remember your niece has a birthday coming up. Cookies would be the perfect gift. All else being equal, which of the following numbers would you be most apt to remember and call: 1-800-443-8124, or 1-855-COOKIES? Probably the one that says “cookies.”

Businesses want memorable toll-free numbers, and it’s easy to see why. Writing a number down or looking one up online are barriers to a completed transaction. Removing barriers can add customers and increase sales. That’s a fundamental strategy for growing a business.

Vanity numbers—those including conversions to words, such as 1-855-COOKIES—are more memorable than numerical phone numbers. In fact, a 2011 study found that compared to numerical numbers, vanity numbers have a 75 percent higher rate of recall.

So, why are words so much easier to remember than numbers—and how can phone numbers be made more memorable? We brought these questions straight to those best equipped to answer them: cognitive neuroscientists. To learn how businesses choose and use memorable phone numbers, we also spoke with companies that help businesses get them. Here’s what we found.

Why Some Numbers Are So Easy to Forget

Whenever a person sees or hears a new telephone number and wants to remember it, they rely on something psychologists call “working memory.” Working memory is a core component of consciousness. It’s the realm where that “voice” inside our heads resides.

That voice has a specific tactic it uses when trying to remember a sequence of digits, such as a phone number. This tactic is known technically as a “phonological loop.” Most of us know it as, “Repeating a number over and over again in our heads hoping we’ll remember it.” For brevity’s sake, we’ll stick with the technical term.

As we all know, this is not a reliable tactic. If something—anything—grabs your attention and interrupts your working memory, that voice in your head will stop. The phonological loop stops with it, and there’s a very good chance it won’t start up again. It’s often replaced by whatever caused the interruption. This is often how we forget numbers, even when we’re trying very hard not to.

“The phonological loop is fine for [the] short term, but it won’t do much for [the] long term,” says Harvard University Professor of Psychology Daniel Schacter, PhD, a leading expert on memory and amnesia. For long-term memory to take hold, he explains, “you have to generate associations, link [the number] up with things you know, turn it into something meaningful—and then it can be retained over the long term.”

In other words, numbers alone, without context, are simply too abstract to remember for very long. Even repeating them again and again probably won’t help. However, numbers tied to words, which have inherent meaning, are much more memorable. This is thanks to the working memory’s second tactic, the one it uses whenever possible: association.

Why Some Numbers Are So Easy to Remember

Association occurs when the working memory can connect (or associate) new information with something which is already known. This is why the number 1776 is easier for Americans to remember than 4873. (Unless, of course, you never studied American history, or 4873 is somehow meaningful to you.)

Our working memory is generally good at remembering about four “chunks” of information. If no associations can be made, for example, with the number 4873, then the working memory’s phonological loop will be entirely occupied by repeating those four individual digits. But if an association can be made, as with 1776, then the phonological loop will handle them all as one chunk—and, therefore, will have the capacity to handle more.

Once new information has been associated with something, it typically doesn’t continue to occupy the working memory. Depending on the strength of the association and the strength of the memory to which it’s associated, the working memory may not need to concern itself anymore with trying to remember the new information. In this case, it’s handed off to long-term memory, leaving the working memory free to do other things.

This brings us to the magic of why vanity numbers work so well. They make use of what memory is very good at—association—and relieve it from doing what it’s very bad at: phonological looping. And so what’s the best way to make a vanity number stick in your audience’s heads the first time it’s seen or heard? Make the association for them.

Choosing a Vanity Number

Finding a toll-free number with an obvious association might seem straightforward… until you try to find one. Perfect associations and matches like 1-800-MATTRESS were claimed long ago, sometimes auctioned to the highest bidder or won in court battles. So if you want a vanity number for your business, how do you get one?

Look for the Number You Want

Calling your phone service provider should be your first step—but don’t let it be your last.

“The phone companies haven’t made a business of selling vanity numbers. They provide a larger service.” explains Aaron Beals, president of Ring Ring LLC, a company that specializes in finding vanity numbers for businesses. “A great vanity number to [phone companies] is just another number. We developed a search tool to see what numbers are available. We made that our focus.”

And Ring Ring isn’t alone. These days, vanity toll-free numbers are big business in and of themselves. Many of the best numbers are found by companies such as Ring Ring, 800Response.com and others—then leased out to their customers. So don’t give up if the phone company tells you your first choice is unavailable.

“What it really comes down to is cost. Great numbers are always available, but it depends on how much you’re willing to pay,” Beals continues. “There are always going to be other numbers—alternatives that aren’t necessarily as good, but are still memorable.” And one of the first avenues to explore is alternate toll-free prefixes.

Look for Alternatives

The 1-800 prefix is the most widely recognized because it’s been in use the longest: since 1967. It has more or less been picked dry of great vanity numbers. So, most businesses need to search within some of the other toll-free prefixes, such as 888, 877, 866 and 855. But where should you begin?

At the top. A study 800Response.com provided us showed that while 97 percent of Americans recognize 1-800 as a toll-free number, only 69 percent recognize 888 as toll-free. That percentage goes down as you proceed down the list of prefixes beginning with “8.”

You can think of recognition as “automatic association.” If a number’s prefix is not immediately recognized by your audience’s working memories as toll-free, this fact is one additional chunk of information that their working memories will need to keep track of. For this reason, the toll-free prefixes have a hierarchy of desirability, with 1-800 being the most sought-after and 1-855, the newest toll-free prefix, being the least.

However, there are no hard and fast rules here. It will always be a bit of a judgement call. Businesses need to be flexible and consider how the number will fit into their overall business model. If it’s a startup that will rely heavily on phone sales and radio advertising, then the number’s prefix should be given more consideration. Well-established businesses, on the other hand, can take a different approach.

“Cookies by Design needed a vanity number to enable us to compete with other national gifting companies,” Cookies By Design CEO Jack Long explains. “We began using the number 855-COOKIES in 2013, after 30 years of business.”

Customers frequently mention to call-center staff how memorable the number is. Despite the seemingly undesirable “855” prefix, there’s clearly nothing wrong with the company’s choice.

Different Uses for Different Numbers

Not all toll-free numbers will serve the same function; they may be used differently within different business models. Further, individual businesses often have more than one way of implementing them. It’s common for businesses to have one main toll-free number, and several others for specific departments or campaigns.

These other toll-free numbers are commonly ones that are memorable, but don’t necessarily count as “vanity.” There are, for example, the “repeaters”: numbers with groups of repeating digits, such as 555-2288. Numbers with sequential series are also more memorable, such as 567-2468. A person’s working memory will associate these numbers, automatically, with known patterns—so they stand a better chance of being remembered.

Though clearly not as reliable as numbers that spell words, repeaters are good second choices if nothing else is available. They also work well as secondary toll-free numbers: these numbers can be assigned to different call-tracking campaigns, in order to gauge the response rates of individual or temporary marketing strategies.

“We recommend our clients use their vanity numbers in their traditional advertising like radio, TV and outdoor [print ads],” said Jeanne Landau, senior project manager at 800Response. In other words, the company recommends vanity numbers for advertising mediums in which it’s expected that customers won’t have time to write the number down. Conversely, Landau’s team suggests clients use repeater numbers for print and digital campaigns, where recalling the number is less important.

Shared Vanity Numbers

Though we usually associate vanity toll-free numbers with large companies that do business nationwide, they’re also used by small companies with limited presence. In fact, small, local companies sometimes have a better chance of getting a highly competitive vanity number. This is true thanks to something called “shared use routing.”

Shared use routing technology came about in the 1990s, in response to the shrinking supply of good toll-free vanity numbers and the fact that many were used by businesses only operating locally or regionally. Since the toll-free prefixes take the position of standard area codes (the first three digits of a ten-digit number), they are all essentially nationwide numbers. In other words, dialing 1-800-FLOWERS will connect you with the same company no matter where you dial from.

Shared use numbers, however, work differently. Shared use routing allows companies in different parts of the country to share the same toll-free number. Dialing, say, 1-800-TIRE-GUY might get you a different tire dealer depending on where you’re calling from. Landau explains, “We route the calls based on the calling party’s area code. This works under the assumption that they’re calling their local, for example, tire dealer, because they need new tires locally, in their [own] market.”

Great Vanity Numbers in Action

As mentioned above, the rules for choosing great vanity numbers are not set in stone. Sometimes, the perfect vanity number for a business is obvious. Sometimes, it’s both obvious and available. But for many businesses, it’s neither of those things. Finding it may require a great deal of thought, research and creativity. Here are some great examples of vanity numbers that other companies are using:

1-855-LAWYERS This online attorney referral service has a number that states exactly what they provide.
1-866-4ZIPCAR Dial this number for a ZipCar. Using the number four to suggest that’s what the number is “for” is a clever use of a homophone (which is a great way to create an association).
1-800-GO-FEDEX This includes both the company’s name and a clear call to action.
1-800-MICROSOFT Using the company name can be a good choice, but only if the company’s name is already widely recognized.
1-800-FLOWERS Flora Plenty’s name was not widely recognized when it acquired this number. It leveraged the number well by renaming the business to match it.
1-800-GOT-JUNK This company also began under a different name, which it changed upon getting this number. The number also asks a question—an especially effective technique that causes people to automatically think about the answer, and associate it with the number.
1-800-NEW-ROOM This number is shared by many regional businesses, so it doesn’t contain the business name. It does, however, explain exactly what each of the remodeling businesses that share the number offers.
1-888-PAIN-CENTER Another shared number, this one is used in local advertising for various different pain-management centers. It’s a simple description of the business.

You might have noticed that some of these have more letters than they should have digits. These numbers are using the practice of “overdial.” When the vanity word is longer than the actual number of digits, the extra letters at the end don’t actually do any dialing. They just help make words that people will remember.

Overdial is noteworthy in that it illustrates the previous point about working memory. The added letters seem on the surface like more to remember, but their inclusion makes a complete word—which makes a clear association possible. Thus, more letters are easier to remember than fewer. It’s a little counterintuitive, but that’s what makes it a good trick.

Leveraging Your Vanity Number in Advertising

For as much as we know about how the mind works, much of what it does in practice still seems very strange. Our brains have very strong natural tendencies that can be extremely difficult to override, even when overriding them could save us a lot of time and effort. (For an example, see this demonstration of the Stroop Effect.)

Great advertising doesn’t fight these natural tendencies—it works with them. In visual advertisements, for example, imagery is often used to strengthen or lead the mind towards whatever association is the goal. We spoke with Craig Stark, Ph.D, director of the University of California at Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, to learn more.

“The goal in advertising is to use images that would help you reconstruct the actual number,” he says. He provides the example of an 800 number that also contains the digits 1212. “If you put up the 800 part, everybody knows that’s a toll-free number, so that’s not hard to remember. And then [you could] have a clock face showing noon and another clock face showing noon.” Images like these, he explains, lead to automatic associations, making the numbers themselves difficult to forget.

Of course, two clock faces would seem out of place in many ads. However, out-of-place things are actually more apt to create memories. So while that example might seem more logical for a store that sells clocks, it could actually be more memorable when used by a business that doesn’t. It takes creativity to strike the right balance.

Radio ads will often repeat a phone number several times. The hope is that even if the listener is trying to ignore the number, each time it’s spoken, working memory hears it and may make an association—even if it’s unintentional. Numbers set to songs and melodies use the same strategy: they try to get the number associated into long-term memory, even without the listener’s active cooperation. There are many good examples of this, such as Empire Today’s 1-800-588-2300, Em-pire!

Repeating a number with time in between each repetition is another strategy.

“When advertisers… give a number, they’ll repeat it a couple of times, they’ll say something else for a little bit [and] then they’ll come back to it,” says Stark. By spacing it out, Stark explains, working memory might hear it anew: in this case, it will make another attempt at association, if the number wasn’t associated the first time it was heard.

Numbers are abstract concepts: without a context, they don’t have meaning. And without meaning, they’re next to impossible to remember. Our brains are simply not good at forming memories from meaningless information. Vanity telephone numbers address this problem by incorporating meaning directly into the number. Though your vanity number may not be perfect, by simply using a little creativity in selecting the number and in advertising it, your business can find one that your customers will remember—and dial more often.

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