Toll-Free Phone Lines: Does the Prefix Matter?

The first toll-free phone lines, called WATS lines (for Wide Area Telephone Service), were introduced in the United States nearly 50 years ago. For years thereafter, all toll-free numbers used the prefix “800,” so that many consumers came to refer to toll-free lines as “800 numbers.” And they were very popular with consumers because of the then-relatively high cost of long-distance calling.

But just as the rise of cell phone popularity caused a proliferation of new area codes, the growing popularity of toll-free phone numbers meant a dwindling supply of lines within the “800” prefix. Hence, the introduction of “888,” “877” and “866” toll-free prefixes have been made over the past 13 years to expand the supply of available lines.

But old habits die hard. Even today, many consumers reflexively refer to all toll-free lines as “800 numbers.” And indeed, a study conducted earlier this year by Engine Ready, a California-based search marketing software and service firm, finds that “800” lines actually outperform the other prefixes when it comes to phone conversions.

For the study, Engine Ready sampled ~18,000 visits to a single lead-generation web site. The visits were driven by a Google AdWords search engine marketing campaign, producing ~2,600 call-in and online conversions. Visits were split evenly among four web landing pages that were identical save for the call-in response action that contained distinct phone numbers featuring the four different toll-free prefixes.

While little difference was observed between the four prefixes in online conversion behavior (form fills), the “800” prefix clearly performed best of the four toll-free lines for call-in responses. Its conversion performance ranged from 20% to 60% better than the three other phone lines — that despite the fact that there was no practical difference at all between the phone numbers except for the different prefixes.

Moral of the story: Even in today’s “the only thing that’s constant is change” environment, sticking with the “tried-and-true” when it’s possible to do so can be a pretty smart move. And if it’s inbound telephone sales you’re doing, make sure you insist on getting one of those old-fashioned “800 numbers.”

Searching for effective lead generation and conversion.

In the current business climate, companies are relying more than ever on new sales opportunities to replace business that has been lost with current customers. And it’s pretty clear by now that “search” has emerged as the form of online promotion that generates the best lead generation and conversion results — outstripping other e-promotional tactics such as online display advertising and newsletter sponsorships.

This isn’t surprising, of course. Search advertising captures the interest of online viewers precisely when they’re in “search mode” for specific products and services, rather than when they’re just surfing the ‘net for news and updates.

(In fact, some advertisers have come to believe that even print advertising outperforms online display advertising. That’s because readers are more likely to browse all the way through print publications. Compare that to visiting informational web sites where viewers are far more prone to selectively pick and choose the pages that they open. A well-placed display ad on a “new technology news” page, for example, might be invisible to the vast majority of viewers who come to the home page and then decide to click through to only one or two additional pages on the site.)

But back to search. Many advertisers wonder which is most effective: gaining high “natural search” rankings that occur based on the content of the web site, or opting for pay-per-click search listings such as Google’s AdWords program with their entries on the right side of the screen.

As it turns out, both tactics have their pluses.

In fact, a new year-long study that ended June 30, 2009 of more than 25 e-tail web sites by Engine Ready, Inc., a search engine software development firm, found that visitors who clicked through to the sites from paid search ads were ~50% more likely to make a purchase, compared to visitors who came to the same sites via clicking on a natural search link.

Specifically, Engine Ready discovered that the conversion rate from pay-per-click links measured 2.03%, while the conversion rate was only 1.26% from organic search clickthroughs.

On the other hand, various research studies conducted over the past few years demonstrate the clear popularity of natural search listings over paid search listings. It’s been shown pretty consistently that around two thirds of total clicks are made on natural search listings, compared to just one-third on pay-per-click listings.

So the key takeaway is that any marketing program worth its salt incorporates search marketing as a key component. And in most cases, that effort should encompass search engine optimization for natural search rankings along with a pay-per-click advertising program.