The Local Phone Number in the Mobile Era: Engaging Local Communities in your Marketing Strategies

According to business writers John A. Quelch and Katherine E. Jocz, "all business is local." As they argue in their book by the same name, the more global economics and commerce become, the more important it is for businesses to be minutely localized in their marketing, advertising and planning. From Starbucks to IBM, they argue, the most successful global brands are also the most successful local brands. As businesses of all sizes come to the same realization as the global corporate juggernauts regarding the importance of marketing at the neighborhood level, the conventional wisdom that toll-free numbers are always better is being challenged.

The Dwindling Relevance of Toll-Free Numbers

The proliferation of toll-free numbers as the status quo for businesses began with a very basic appeal to the wallets of customers. Toll-free numbers encouraged customers to contact businesses by letting them call without incurring charges in a time when arbitrary and expensive long-distance fees were the norm in landline-based telephony.

Now, nearly 40 percent of all households don't even have a landline, and more than 100 percent of the American population has a mobile phone, if you factor in those with more than one cell phone. Mobile phones — and VoIP networks, as well — operate on flat, minutes-based plans, meaning it costs exactly the same to call a "toll-free" number as it does to call a local number — or any number at all. The most basic reason for having a toll-free number is quickly disappearing.

Call Forwarding

One of the primary arguments against having a local number has historically been that they shackle businesses to a single line. With call-forwarding services, however, businesses can turn their local number into a virtual call center, routing incoming calls to any number, group of numbers, a messaging service or mobile phone, essentially guaranteeing that callers won't reach a busy signal or a voicemail.

Engaging the Community with a Local Number

So, as call forwarding and minutes-based mobile plans negate two of the primary arguments for having a toll-free number, businesses are less hesitant to reach for the many benefits that come with having a local number. Conventional wisdom dictates that toll-free numbers can make small businesses appear more professional.

The reality is, however, that they can also create the perception that the business behind the 800 number is a distant, global, mega-corporation, turning off customers who want their individual patronage to matter. Local numbers — even if that number is attached to the local branch of a multi-billion dollar corporation like Starbucks — give customers the impression that they're supporting a neighborhood business. On a purely strategic level, local numbers can be used to track pay-per-click metrics, conversion rates and other marketing analytics, boosting advertising effectiveness.

Be Warned

There are a few drawbacks to consider, however, before committing to a local number. Studies show that toll-free numbers — specifically vanity numbers — are easier to remember, especially when advertised on radio and television. Local numbers adhere to relatively small geographical areas, meaning that even small changes in location would require the addition of multiple numbers. With multiple numbers, multiple corresponding advertisement runs would need to be created. With a toll-free number, one ad can circulate nationwide.

As the global economy and Internet connectivity shrink the world more with each passing year, a focus on local, community marketing becomes more and more important. Toll-free numbers are still useful, but their core purpose — free person-to-business calling — is a dying concept in the mobile era — and call forwarding makes one number as versatile as the next.

With these new realities in place, businesses of all sizes are fueling their neighborhood marketing strategies with the implementation of local numbers. Local numbers provide familiarity and create the perception that the number is maintained by a community-based business. Marketing is about altering perception, and local numbers go a long way to making customers perceive the business behind the number as an entity they want to support.

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