Are Yellow Pages Toast? Four Years Later We Review Ad Value
In 2007, I took some heat for pointing out that Google Trends showed declining searches for “yellow pages” while theorizing that this indicated reducing consumer interest in print and online YP sites. About four years later, we can now look back and see whether this turned out to be a valid prediction, and also reflect on what value YP may still have for advertisers.
When I wrote that earlier article, I was aware that connecting a major shift in overall consumer behavior to a graphed trendline of searches in Google was a little loose in terms of causality.
There are many reasons why people search for a particular phrase, and many reasons why cumulative searches for the phrase can rise or fall. (Not to mention, there is uncertainty about what the actual volume of searches is in the graphs since Google obscures volume amounts, and there can be error in assuming that Google users reflect the same search patterns of users who may search elsewhere, such as in Bing.)
I had some basis for believing the Google Trends numbers back then, and for associating them with overall consumer behavior connected to “Yellow Pages” as well as for a number of other types of searches for businesses. I had worked for some years for Verizon’s online YP site, Superpages.com, overseeing analytics, among other things, and Superpages had occupied the top search result in Google for searches for “Yellow Pages” for quite a number of years.
The clickthrough rate for “yellow pages” searches was a large enough volume with enough consistency to see a correlation with the graphed line in Google Trends, and with some directory usage indicators. Google Trends also showed expectable seasonal spikes for various industries, and rises and declines in cumulative interest in topics (which is the basis for Google Zeitgeist which is also often cited as a pulse indicator for rises and drops in popularity).
So, when I saw the clearly-declining trend line for YP searches back then, it was concerning to me, and it seemed highly likely that the cause probably was that Google Maps (and other local search engines ) were having an impact on both print and online YP usage.
Users searching for “yellow pages” in Google were typically trying to find one of two things — they were either trying to find the Web address of their local yellow pages in order to conduct business searches online, or they were trying to find contact information for their YP company (either to order a phone book or to advertise in the yellow pages).
The drop in these searches appeared significant enough to reflect some major shift in consumer behavior — if those consumers weren’t trying to find a YP site to use, or a YP company from which to obtain a phone book, then they must be getting business info elsewhere.
What Did This Shift Tell Us About Local Searches?
So, did this demonstrate that yellow pages were being used less, and, did the yellow pages indeed become “toast” four years later?
It’s not possible to know exactly how much people use print yellow pages. There’s obviously no mechanism to independently measure all of the usage, so surveys are conducted along with various other ancillary measures for a sample set of people, and those figures are then projected out across the U.S. population to estimate overall usage.
Even so, it is clear that printed yellow pages book usage has been dropping:
Usage of Printed Yellow Pages Books Graphed Over Time
In the above graph, which was derived from yearly figures provided variously by the Local Search Association (previously named the Yellow Pages Association), one can see that print usage figures have generally been dropping since 2002.
(Note: The accounting methodology was was changed following 2007, so figures before and after are not necessarily quantitatively equivalent units, but I believe this graph is still a reasonable representation of the overall declining trend. Also, I didn’t have figures to include from 2011.)
When plotted out over time, it seems unequivocal that print YP usage has been dropping.
Yellow pages companies enjoyed a tremendous profitability over most of their one-hundred-year-plus history. The industry seemed so virtually indestructable that when I was first hired onto GTE Directories Corporation back in 1997, veteran employees commonly told me that YP company stock was a rock-solid “sure bet” and local businesses would “always need the yellow pages”. For the past generations, this was true.
Nationwide historical data reflects this profitability dramatically:
U.S. Directory Advertising Revenue – Yellow Pages Industry Revenue Plotted Over Time
source: Douglas Galbi, Senior Economist, Wireline Competition Bureau of the F.C.C.
While the above graph only goes up to 2007, it can be seen that revenues began softening at around the year 2000. Other estimates I’ve seen of print YP revenue also indicate it flattened out and declined from 2007 to 2011.
In many markets, the decline in revenues can also be seen reflected in the size of local yellow pages books. Here’s a graphic comparison provided by Jeff Kron of a Denver yellow pages book:
Comparison of Denver Yellow Pages Books, 2006 vs. 2010 – Shrinking in Size
Photo by Jeff Kron – Used with Permission.
The effect of declining revenues on the top YP companies over the last four years has been massive. Idearc, the company spun off when Verizon divested itself of its yellow pages division, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, along with R.H. Donnelley and Ambassador Media Group the same year.
While there were other big factors that impacted each of these companies in addition to reduced print profits, I would argue that factors such as the recession simply accelerated their rates of decline which would have happened anyway due to consumers migrating away from their printed product.
Most recently, AT&T signaled in January that they were looking to offload their directory division, and they are now in talks to sell a stake in the YP unit to the Cerberus Capital Management LP private equity firm. Very tellingly, AT&T’s relative valuation of their YP is sharply lower than Verizon’s YP spinoff valuation back in 2006 (1.5 times EBITDA now versus 8 times EBITDA back then) — and, the lower valuation indicates that financial analysts foresee reduced profitability over time.
As Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett stated about the AT&T selling off of YP:
“The window has already closed for selling Yellow Pages businesses at a meaningful price.”
While Chapter 11 reorganizations are not the same as a complete extinction of these companies, one could have expected them to emerge as much more agile competitors after reducing debt obligations.
However, the decline of print income is still impacting them each year, and there were continued layoffs of employees from both SuperMedia (the post-Chapt 11 name of Verizon’s YP) and Dex One (the post-Chapt 11 name of R.H. Donnelley) after they emerged from Chapter 11. Dex One is planning to continue cost-cutting into 2012 as well.
The more complex piece to analyze of the YP industry involves their online divisions: while their print divisions are experiencing longterm shrinkage, their online arms have grown in usage and revenues in some cases.
The YP industry challenge all along has been that they needed to grow their digital products to replace their legacy print YP books — and profits on the Internet side are considerably lower than the print ads. Imagine that they basically needed to replace each lost print customer with about twenty online customers, and you get an idea of the magnitude of their problem.
Newspapers, another similar traditional media industry, have faced virtually the same challenge and that industry’s revenue shows a similar trend graph over time.
What’s Next For Online Yellow Pages?
So, it appears that each of the big YP companies is still experiencing financial stress. To flourish, they need to develop their digital sides to replace their legacy products, while simultaneously evolving to compete with Google and other technological challengers. Those challengers’ strength in interactive marketshare doesn’t inspire confidence in the longterm chances for yellow pages.
But, there is more going on than meets the eye. Some of these companies have very healthy (and even growing) Internet traffic, and some have successfully leveraged partnership deals which help distribute their business listings out to consumers. They may be able to survive their diminishing print arms and develop sufficient niches to compete as viable longterm companies. I’ve suggested for a long while that they could stand to have one or more mergers which would allow them to reduce expenses more through synergies while combining marketshare.
Looking back over what the big YP companies have gone through, I’d say they definitely were “toast” and the prediction that they faced serious trouble was entirely justified. The industry had a massive reversal which was unprecedented in its century-long history. While there are some positive signs starting to emerge, the industry-wide adjustment still hasn’t completely played out.
Now for the question that many local businesses continue to try to figure out which is tied into this…
In 2012, Is It Still Worthwhile To Advertise In The Yellow Pages?
The answer to this question isn’t purely black-and-white, although industry proponents and opponents frequently characterize it as a simplistic yes-or-no answer.
I’ll try to make this super-easy for you to figure out if you’re a small business owner trying to decide whether to advertise in a printed phone book or not. Here are the facts as I know them:
- There are still people who use printed phone books! Therefore, there is some promotional value in advertising in the books, in general. So, the question really is whether there’s sufficient value for the advertising to make you enough money versus the cost. The ROI is harder to predict in every case, but we can somewhat generalize what the promotional value will be, based upon your particular type of business, the market area you’re located in, and the specific YP book in question.
- People sometimes present the YP advertising to me as an either-or deal: would I be better off dropping my print ad budget and putting it all into online? In some cases, the answer is yes. But in many cases the answer to that probably isn’t clear-cut. I advise putting advertising budget towards as many promotional channels as is feasible, as long as the channel does better than merely pay for itself. If a referral channel is doing that for you, I’m not obsessed about whether it’s print, Internet, or a guy on a streetcorner holding up a sign. Also, using multiple promo channels is healthier for a business than focusing everything in one — multiple lead generators make you less dependent on any one option.
- Yellow Pages books in larger metropolitan areas may be less valuable to advertisers. While there are larger populations in bigger cities, it seems probable that a larger percentage of the population there uses the Internet to find businesses compared to smaller towns. Also, there are typically more businesses listed in big city phone books, so your company could be hidden in a crowd of competitors. Large metro areas typically have a handful of yellow pages books published by competing publishers, too, and you can’t predict which ones will be kept and used by your potential customers (some people throw away all old books in favor of whatever newest book appears on their porch, while others only keep one preferred brand). And, ads in the larger metro books are often priced much higher than in smaller markets. So, I believe that major metro area phonebooks are likely less valuable to advertisers in most cases. There are exceptions, however, so please read on.
- Conversely, usage of yellow pages books in many small towns continues to be healthy. The books there contain fewer overall competitors, there are fewer competing phone books published, and ad prices are often lower. But, the main deal is that smalltown consumers seem to continue using the books at a higher rate than in larger cities. So, if your business is located in a small town, in general you should consider still advertising in the yellow pages.
- Independent directory companies have been profitable, even as some of the larger, better-known YP companies have faltered. An “independent directory” is a non-national company, and is not the “main” book publisher that provides directories branded with the local phone company’s logo. The indie publishers have likely performed better because they had to be more agile, functioning with lower operating expense, and incurring less debt. The indies typically have lower ad prices, too, so it’s possible in some major metro areas that the ad cost is sufficiently low enough to make advertising in them more worthwhile than in the incumbent, “main” phone book. This is iffy, though, and you have to carefully assess the indie book’s distribution numbers compared to the incumbent. In smaller towns I’d be dubious as to the worth of advertising in an independent publisher yellow pages book at all.
- Specialty directories may be a highly valuable advertising option in any size market! Specialty directories are a variety of independent directory which are targeted to particular demographic groups, such as Spanish-speaking consumers, Christian or Jewish customers, Vegetarians and individuals seeking to shop from businesses dedicated to the ethical treatment of animals, and consumers wanting to support ecologically sustainable businesses. Special interest groups of consumers seem to have a higher level of dedication towards businesses supporting their communities, so those types of books appear to be much more viable than the traditional YP books. Here in Dallas where I live, the Desi Yellow Pages and the Korean Yellow Pages appear to be very robust directories with highly engaged consumer groups. So, if your business qualifies for inclusion in a specialty directory, you should seriously consider paying up to be in it.
- Some business categories continue to be sought out more in print than others. If your company provides technological or luxury products/services, it would be expectable for your potential customers to be more inclined to seek you out via Internet, tablets and mobile phones. Businesses catering to lower-income customers should reasonably expect more referrals from offline information sources. So, figure out your average customer demographic when deciding where to place your advertising dollars.
- Old habits die hard. Older consumers continue to use print directories at a much higher rate than younger consumers, so if your business caters to older generations you need to still consider advertising in print.
- Some travel/tourist destination markets may enjoy higher directory usage. Phone books are still commonly included in most hotel rooms, so if your business is located in a city like Las Vegas or Miami you should consider paying to have an ad in the book. This guideline is also closely affected by your business category, too.
- Restaurants, with their coupons and menu lists, can have healthy referrals via print YP. So, even in large metro areas, restaurants might still benefit well from advertising in print.
- Even as print usage shrinks, advertising in the books can still be a profitable enterprise for businesses which sell high-ticket products and services. For instance, an attorney who obtains a single, multimillion-dollar lawsuit from a $40,000 ad could consider it money well-spent. Likewise, a contractor or luxury auto dealer might receive sufficient business from a high-priced YP ad to rationalize advertising in the book a lot longer than other types of businesses.
- Carefully check your local business category in your local phone book — while my generalization is that large metro areas might be a bad ad buy for most, if all of your competitors have bailed out of a book you could scoop up all the remaining referrals left. Some data indicates that the advertisers sticking with print advertising are enjoying pretty good call rates for this reason.
- Larger ads are often a worse value proposition. Try to go with smaller/cheaper print ads which still give you sufficient exposure to communicate a few key facts about your business which would persuade a customer to choose you. Larger ads don’t always equate in consumers’ minds with better businesses, so go with “just enough” exposure if you decide to be in print. Attorney and restaurant ads are some obvious exceptions to this rule — those industries may perform better with larger ads.
- Be sure to measure results! Since this industry is changing so rapidly, it is really necessary to monitor and assess how good the ROI is if you are advertising in print yellow pages. When you design your ads, try to build in ways to account for each of the business referrals you receive from them. Use a tracking phone number (be careful to try to keep the tracking number off the Internet, though, or it could impair your online search ranking ability). Use a tracked version of your website URL (ex: http://example.com/track) and provide a special discount code which they have to repeat to you in order to receive a good deal. If you advertise in a book and you realize the referrals have declined too much for you to be profitable, then it’s time to pull your ads.
- Even if you’ve decided that the print ads in your book are no longer delivering, advertising in an online YP site could be worthwhile. And, it’s easier to assess the ROI of online advertising in most cases. So, assess if your YP company’s site has enough exposure (find out what partnerships they have, and all the places where your ad could appear if you advertise with them), and if it looks good consider advertising on it. Avoid packages which bundle Internet YP with print YP, since the bundled package may be designed to fluff up the perceived value of a declining print product. (Except, you should consider going with the bundle if you read my previous tips, decided that the print ad may be good in your case, and the bundled price gives you a sufficient discount on the combined print/Internet/mobile ad package.) Discontinue the ad if it isn’t performing, of course — with online ads it should be easier to test whether it’s working sufficiently for your business.
The print yellow pages was toast, but is it still worthwhile to advertise in them? It’s not a pure black-and-white world here in 2012 — there’s also yellow!
There continues to be usage of some of the books by some consumers in some areas, and if you carefully asses you can figure out if it’s still worth advertising in your local directory.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.
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