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A guy walks into an airport bar and asks the bartender if he can just take a look at the phone.  “You don’t want to make a call?”  “Nope, just want to look at the phone.”  I know it sounds like the beginning of one, but this is not a joke, and I actually did this a while back.  Why?  Well, I needed to call Southwest Airlines to reschedule a flight – and I knew the number was 1-800 -I-FLY-SWA.  Which is great, except for the fact that at the time, I didn’t know how to figure out what numbers all those letters mapped to, and I was staring at a Blackberry dialpad full of numbers – not a letter in sight.

Fast forward a few years…

I spend a fair amount of time on airplanes, and every once in a while a past occupant of the seat I happen to be in leaves something interesting to look at between the all-electronics-better-be-off phase until 10,000 feet.  Recently, I picked up a copy of the in-flight duty free magazine and found this little gem:

image of macys alphanumeric phone number on duty free magazine page

See what’s going on here?  The person who scribbled this out on the in-flight magazine was desperately trying to figure out what the phone number for Macy’s shop by phone service was.  Yes, they knew it was “1-800-45-MACYS”, but without a phone that actually *has* the letters over the numbers of the dial pad, that phone number is pretty useless.  This person actually drew out a telephone dial pad and tried to put the letters where they thought they should be…and incorrectly at that (the “ABC” starts over the “2”, not the “1”).

Alphanumeric phone numbers are great in 30 second TV spots or 60 second radio ads – they’re easier to remember than a string of numbers, and since the ad will likely be over by the time you reach the telephone, these are helpful for getting the phone call response to the ad itself.  But if you’ve ever tried to actually call one, well, we all have to admit alphanumerics are just plain harder to dial than numbers.

The web is a different animal

If you’re looking at an ad or a website that entices you to call a phone number, it doesn’t just “end” after a matter of seconds.  You don’t have to engrain an alphanumeric phone number into someone’s head with a catchy jingle, because odds are they’re going to punch those numbers into the phone while those numbers are right in front of them…and it will be easier for them to dial without having to look for letters.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of abandoning alphanumeric phone numbers for your online marketing pursuits is that you can use either dedicated phone numbers or pools of phone numbers to track the performance of virtually any advertising campaigns you use to drive traffic or phone leads.  If a goal of your website or your online marketing strategy is to get your phone ringing, then you need to be able to source an offline conversion (like a phone call) back to the click, the ad, the keyword, the email, the site, the content, the version, or the campaign in order to focus your advertising dollars on profitable advertising efforts with measurable ROI.

Many phone tracking solutions out there integrate directly with your web analytics solution.  One very nice solution is Mongoose Metrics, which integrates with Google Analytics, Yahoo! Web Analytics, Omniture SiteCatalyst, WebTrends, Coremetrics, Unica, and more.  You can even use phone tracking with your conversion testing strategy – here’s a case study from a while back showing an integration between a phone tracking solution and Google Website Optimizer.

Summing it all up

Those easy-to-remember alphanumeric phone numbers do have their place, and they can provide some really nice advantages, especially in the offline world.  But online, not having to rely on a single, hard to dial number lets us gain so much from a measurability standpoint that you might want to think about leaving your alphanumerics off of your online initiatives.

So back to the in-flight magazine scribbles… even if Macy’s did eventually get that phone call, I’ll bet they’ll never know what ad campaign was responsible for it!

By the way, if YOU were the one who drew that picture in the airplane magazine, I’d love to hear from you in the comments 😉