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The Neuroscience behind Vanity Numbers

Posted on: November 28, 2020

Businesses want customers to remember them, but on today’s fiercely competitive market, memorability is not so easy. For years, vanity numbers have catered to this need, promising businesses toll-free phone numbers that increase brand recognition and ad response. The question remains, however, what proof exists that vanity numbers work?

Over the years, companies have researched that very question. As Craig Borowski, VoIP and Telecommunications researcher at Software Advice, explains, “It might seem a little odd that neuroscience is used in this discussion of toll-free telephone numbers. But, neuroscience, and its related field psychology, actually have a long history with the telephone industry.”

The Research

Rewind to 1952, when George Miller published The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, pioneering an era of academic telephony-related research. In this report, Miller expounds the “working memory,” a concept later referred to as the short-term memory. Essentially, his work partitioned the memory span of a young adult into chunks of seven elements (i.e. letters, digits, or words).

“When Bell Laboratories was redesigning the numbering system used by phones, and switching from letters and words to numbers, they consulted Miller and his work.” Borowski continues, “It was because of his research that they decided on the standard seven digit number format which we’re all used to today.” But much time elapsed between 1952 and 2014.

In 1994, DMMA Telephone Marketing TARP investigated the effectiveness of the seven-digit toll-free number, claiming that it increases product orders by 18-23% and raises the average value per order by 20-40%. Furthermore, their data suggests customers call 300-400% times more if a company advertises toll-free.

Nearly two decades later, another study emerged, commissioned by 800response , researching the recall rate of vanity numbers and URLs. Those involved discovered an average recall rate 75.4% higher with vanity 800 numbers over numeric toll-free numbers. As well, 57% of survey respondents preferred vanity 800 numbers to local numeric phone numbers.

Most recently, Mountain Marketing Group too broached this topic. Their report states that 90% of Americans have used toll-free numbers to contact a company, 84% of which could recall the number long after because of the ad’s use of letters and visual aids.


Reverting to Miller’s original theory, the act of seeing and recalling a business’ telephone number occurs within the working memory. Upon gazing at a number, the mind initiates a “phonological loop,” which, if interrupted, stops the mind from processing and storing the data – the number in this case. But even without interference, the phonological loop does little for the long-term memory. This is because long-term memory requires association – a link to something familiar.

Generally, people remember words more than they do numbers – not to mention, people tend to develop stronger associations with words over numbers. For this reason, vanity numbers help businesses create associations by leveraging a brand or message to tie things together. The number’s prefix even plays a part in retention. According to 800response’s 2011 survey, 90% of consumers recognize the “800” prefix as toll-free, meaning popular toll-free numbers elicit consumer action more than lesser-known variations. In that sense, get to know the formats available in your country.

For those interested in learning more, numerous studies exist in the realm of psychology and marketing. Such information may help you pick numbers that evoke stronger associations. Keep in mind how the spelling of a word might affect the reader’s response. Similarly, survey your audience and decide whether a product- or brand-oriented number would appeal more. Avoid hybrid numbers the best you can as these confuse and distract viewers.