It’s something of a “perfect storm” for the embattled yellow pages companies right now. Not only has the usage of print yellow pages books declined in recent years, but they’re also facing heavy competition in the online space from each other in addition to other local business directory providers and the big search engines. With consumers using YP printed books less, they’re now facing irritation from the environmentally-conscious throughout the country where people no longer see a reason for having big, paper-heavy books dropped on their porches. Economic pressures are hitting many businesses, and a lot of them have slashed some advertising spending, adding to revenue pressures at YP companies.

And to add insult to injury, Wall Street has abruptly lost its love for the venerable old companies in the last year, causing their stock prices to fall through the floor — Idearc Media got delisted from the NYSE a few weeks back, and R.H. Donnelley appears to be about to follow them. The car industry can expect major bailout dollars to buoy them through these stormy economic waters, but the venerable old yellow pages cannot.

So, what’s to be done? Is extinction, as described by the Wall Street Journal, a foregone conclusion? Or can something be done to change course? I’m of the opinion that the yellow pages companies can survive and come out well on the other side, and I’ve come up with ten suggestions as to what they need to change to accomplish survival.

Print yellow pages usage is declining

Print usage has indisputably been falling off. This is simply incontrovertible, despite how the industry has strenuously tried to deny it, or deflect attention from it. The YPA’s industry usage statistics studies showed a drop of 7.6 % in usage in 2006, and although their studies claimed to show that no significant drop occurred in 2007, I showed that there’s really good reasons to not believe the drop didn’t continue further in 2007 and into 2008.

In my view, the leadership in some, but not all, of the YP companies has been in a bit of denial about the usage reduction of print YP. It’s hard to imagine that the public might not use an information resource that’s been strong since the late 1800s when it was first introduced — fifteen years ago, no one would’ve ever believed that these hugely profitable companies could ever falter.

However, you can hardly throw a rock these days without hitting someone who’s stopped using the printed yellow pages. If you consider, this is really a substantial demographic, and if the number of internet users continues to grow as it has, this demographic of non-print-users grows, too. So, just the common-sense math dictates that usage of print YP has to drop, even if you go off of unscientific anecdotal evidence.

Is the industry addressing the issue?

Unfortunately, one of the big problems with the industry is a seemingly obstinate refusal to acknowledge the decline, which has led to a a major public relations nightmare. But, if you’re firmly in denial, it’s hard to be effective at addressing a problem. Welcome to the Business 2.0 and Web 2.0 world, folks! In this day and age, the advantage is to be had by taking the upper hand and acknowledging the negative facts head-on. By acknowledging the reduction in consumer usage, people will be more likely to believe you when you tell them about the positive upsides they should also consider about your product. In the Business 1.0 world you might’ve been able to keep “control of the message” more, but those days have really passed.

Many of the bread-and-butter advertiser base of the YP companies are savvy in their own right. They may not have big, expensively coordinated survey studies to back them up, but they have a real gut-sense of how much business they get from each of their promotion activities, and many of them have concluded that they’re not getting as much biz as they used to from the print books.

Despite this apparent loss of ROI, advertising in printed books continues to be expensive! YP companies maximize profits with add-ons, value-ads and product features. Bold this, highlight that, special spot color treatment for this, geographic reach for that, size up to this, add coupons to that, get placement here, add on menus there, put that ad on the spine or back cover, do this, do that….! A fast-talking YP sales rep could mark you up to paying fifteen grand a month within the first five minutes of arriving on your doorstep!

So, many advertisers already felt disgruntled or over-charged for the value they’ve been getting, and it’s very hard to find out just what that value was with many of these ad products. For some businesses, yellow pages advertising was their primary and only instrument for getting business referrals, and they felt like they were somewhat at the mercy of the YP companies. For them, when they started sensing some erosion in referrals, it was very easy for them to start assuming that they didn’t get any value at all from print ads any more.

This isn’t a complete picture, of course. The usage erosion is different in different markets and industries. Just because references to travel companies or restaurants in the books has dropped doesn’t mean that references to electricians and plumbing has. And usage may’ve only dropped off between 6% to 15% in the last two years — that doesn’t mean one should slash all advertising, does it? And, consumers coming through YP advertising convert at a much higher rate — these people are in buying mode, unlike other media.

But at the big yellow pages companies, the advertisers — small, medium and large businesses across the country — have begun re-evalutating their spends. Print revenue has dropped at Idearc, R.H. Donnelley and at AT&T.

Despite the PR and industry spokespersons attempts to get people to listen to their reiterations of the past glories of print YP (one yellow pages advocate called for “fighting fire with fire” in addressing negative PR), advertisers out there are having none of it. The avoidance and refusal to acknowledge the bad news has resulted in distrust from advertisers, so small businesses are skeptical and are not listening to their premise sales reps as easily any more. That previously trusted relationship appears to have become broken.

A number of these companies also have really huge debt loads which no longer appear tenable from the perspective of Wall Street, in the face of declining print revenues. This factor alone has probably had the heaviest impact upon companies’ stock prices.

Moving online

Even while the legacy print side of the business has been trying to hold on by its fingernails, yellow pages companies were hip and visionary years ago when they saw potential in the internet. Most of these companies founded an internet version of yellow pages well before there was any shakiness in their print business. Even while they’ve faced competition from a myriad of providers online (the barrier to entry in this online business seems to fall lower every year, with it awfully easy to slap a web interface onto a database of businesses), they still continue to gain or hold substantial levels of traffic. These companies easily beat the local newspapers into the online race.

Increasing online competition

Yet, there’s also continuing increases in online competition which are hard to perform against. Google Maps and each of the search engine’s efforts at blended local search results keep biting away bits of YP marketshare, and there’s been no clear direction as to how to effectively dominate in what has now become a search marketing landscape that most of the YP companies simply weren’t prepared to deal with. They’re facing young, savvy companies who have big war-chests and time and space to experiment with new paradigms of connecting consumers with products and businesses.

Even though internet yellow pages companies have been effective at selling ads online, advertisers’ online costs are tempered by the ads’ characteristic of needing to be performance-based to some degree. This along with the fragmented local online space have kept internet yellow pages companies’ revenues considerably lower than the high profit margins they’ve enjoyed on the print side for so long.

So, this all boils down to relatively few problems which can be summed-up. Print YP usage and therefore associated ad revenue, is decreasing. Period. Meanwhile, revenue from online yellow pages has been increasing or holding somewhat steady over the past few years. But, the volume of IYP revenue is still such a small slice of these companies’ pie that the internet income hasn’t grown large enough to make up for how much they’re losing in print revenue.

I think that these yellow pages companies basically need to do these three things in order to survive and be successful:

  • Improve on the public relations front
  • Try to bolster the print revenue just long enough for the internet revenue to offset it
  • Improve competitiveness of new media product offerings and internet yellow pages.

So, here are my ideas for addressing these top issues: 10 ideas to save the yellow pages

  1. Come up with some way to stop distributing books to people who no longer use them. There’s no way to explain to people why they should be getting these if they don’t use the books, and it irritates the environmentally-conscious even if the books are printed on recycled paper like you’ve been telling everyone.
  2. Make it clear on your phonebook covers how you’re making up for the environmental impact of the books, if you must continue to blanket-distribute. Explain how to dispose of the books when consumers are through with them, and how you’ll donate certain amounts of dollars to work for the environment and other ways you’ll do environmental penance for plopping the books at their homes. The yellow pages industry has already handled the environmental criticism moderately well, and are already doing somewhat effective PR management of this issue — but, I sense this hasn’t gone away completely. Ideally, you really need to come up with a way to stop dropping these books for people who don’t use them any more — you’re likely going to have to eventually face a higher cost of distribution at some point in the future, so it would be best to be ahead of the curve on this one and do it before some local government makes you. Or else, plan to have weaned yourselves off of needing the print product just before you’re forced to stop blanket distributions.
  3. Get industry usage statistics to be rock-solid and dependable. Get some more independent usage studies funded, make sure they’re good, representative samples of the general population, and then make all details about the study and findings available. How was surveying conducted? How many were surveyed, and what’s their geographic distribution? Exactly what were the questions asked to those surveyed? And, don’t just tell me how many “references” to printed books there were, but how many times consumers turned to those books to find a new business, rather than just “references” of times when they were looking up the numbers for businesses they already knew of. And, which company’s print yellow pages were referenced in each area? Don’t just smash all the directory usage figures together into a number that doesn’t let people know which company(ies) from whom a business might want to buy advertising.
  4. Step up your public relations game! Acknowledge that print usage is falling and be open about how much. In fact, just be open in dealing with everyone, period! It’s time to get off the high-horse and stop berating people for calling a spade a spade — don’t lecture people on how wrong they are if they think print usage is declining — it is and it has been doing so for a while!
  5. Add tracking phone numbers to every single YP ad, and let advertisers see the results. If you’re proud of your product, you need to be completely open with the true value and effectiveness it may or may not contain. Some companies already have this to a degree, but this would also help establish overall usage by directory.
  6. Drop the cost of print advertising! I know, I know — you’re hurting for cash and any cut is drawing blood at this point. You’ve just had to go through layoffs, so I know you’ve already been drawing blood. But, I think the days of astronomically-priced print ads are likely coming to an end. You’re going to have to drop the costs some in order to align with advertisers’ value perceptions — if usage is dropping, as we already posit as a fact, then the value of advertising with you is dropping as well. Get your ads competitvely priced and drop the costs some. How about this for an idea: Offer businesses that haven’t yet done online ads half off print if they go online on their own to purchase both print and some level of internet ad! Next year you could save money, perhaps, by not having to send a sales rep in person to their office.
  7. Bundle, bundle, bundle! I know a bunch of you have stopped bundling on the advice of some other industry consultants over time, but I think that was really bad advice. All the credible analysts have observed that small businesses don’t have time for complicated advertising and marketing packages, and they really want easy-to-understand ad solutions along with one-stop shopping. With a great many small businesses still not bothering to do online advertising, bundling print ads with online advertising really shouldn’t have been taken off the table. And, do I need to point out how much sales reps whine about having to learn a bunch of complicated products? Bundling is one of the main things that I see as being able to still help bolster ad revenues on the print side of the business — this could help maintain and enhance print products a while longer until internet revenue is big enough to replace it in your annual reports.
  8. Time to get internet and mobile savvy! Stop listening to the same old rehashed “innovative” ideas from the people working in your legacy print sides of the business. Using scanned print YP ads on your internet product? Are you kidding me?!? Converting books to PDF?!? This is about like suggesting taking one of the antique printed Sears catalogs and putting it on DVD so people can thumb through it on their flat-screen TVs. Wake up — no one wants to do that! If the content isn’t easily searchable and isn’t interactive, then it doesn’t compete today. Stop trying to retrofit print YP ads into something profitable on the internet — that is so pre-Y2K! Think killer iPhone app, and we might be talking. Google still hasn’t completely vanquished the online directories — there’s still a lot of instances where you can’t find businesses you’re seeking via Google Maps, so there’s still some space left for a company that finally creates the killer apps of local search. And your core “innovative” concept had better not be “ad networks” in this economy — that seems so Web 1.0! The core asset and product of yellow pages is the data, and means to easily access it. As a consumer, I want one-stop shopping for all my local info, and so far Google Maps has done a lot to go that direction, but it still hasn’t become the end-all be-all of Local. If you mean business, you’re going to have to put a bit more capital behind being innovative. Get away from trying to force your nasty, legacy print systems to spit out internet yellow pages — that’s hamstringing you. Offer top dollars to young internet developers so you can compete with startups, Silicon Valley, and Google. And make your company attractive to the people who think creatively — no one likes working at highly bureaucratic places that are full of dehumanizing rules — empower employees to make decisions and move away from the top-down management or you’ll never accomplish innovation that will allow you to stay competitive.
  9. Fix your damn data! Strong language? Yeah, it is. But as a consumer, I get really pissed off when I call a restaurant and it’s been out of business for three years, or when I drive all the way across town only to show up at a bookstore and find it’s been closed down. Do you know how often I’ve planned a restaurant outing with friends using your data, only to show up to find the place closed? How about the time I created maps for my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner using your website maps, only to send a bunch of hungry people the wrong direction. How would I know this from your yellow pages if you’re not cleaning up your data? I know this is expensive to manage, but the data reliability is the foundation of your business, and consumers will gravitate to the place where they can trust. I know that InfoUSA used to be the best-in-class for this sort of thing, since they would call and verify every last business at least once a year to make sure they dropped closed businesses from their listings. Maybe the industry should pool resources in order to address this problem if InfoUSA is too expensive or too restrictive, since individually everyone seems to be doing a poor job of it. Do you all want me to do a survey to show just how bad your data is?  For that matter, why isn’t all the data broader? Every last business profile should have richer data. I want not only name, address and phone, but also website URL, hours of operation, pricing, reviews, date founded, credit and business ratings, and more. And, why can’t I search only for businesses that do e-commerce yet — why? This should be the first app that IYPs had, but no one seems to have that.
  10. Merge yourselves. Uhhh… should I really be saying that? Well, I’ve been predicting some collapse of YP industry for some time, and I think this is where the trend is leading — now at an accelerated pace. It’s hard to be just a regional provider online when consumer expectation is for nationwide and worldwide data, but it’s also hard for ten yellow pages companies to compete nationally online. The trend towards a consolidation in this sector has already been shaping up for the past few years. Idearc has closed printing plants and been outsourcing some of that work to R.H. Donnelley or elsewhere. Print usage is declining, and online competition is indicating that there’s just not room for all the big YP players. If the market forces are doing what I’m thinking they are, companies will either need to merge, or else the weaker ones will just die off while the strongest organisms survive. Sure, there’s major expenses with planning a merger and bringing it to fruition, but your alternative might be to die off completely. I think it’s time for a few of you to merge with one another. This might allow you to form a more solid competitive showing against Google and minor players.

One last “Bonus Idea” for print: Issue more specialty directories for large markets: Hispanic YP. Jewish YP. Desi YP. Christian YP. Black-Owned YP. Chinese YP. Russian YP. Vietnamese YP. Green/Environmental YP. Vegetarian YP. Democratic YP. Republican YP. Specialty-audience directories are much smaller in scope, but they have very dedicated demographic groups that are often more accepting of printed books — they like to show their specialized community support through using the businesses in those targeted directories. Niche markets appear to me to be one area where print can be highly successful still.

Do you have any ideas that can bolster the faltering yellow pages companies? If so, mention them in the comments.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Features: Analysis | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

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  • Steve Espinosa

    They would almost instantly rank for any of those niche categories if they had them set up as vertical directories. That would open up a ton of inventory to either sell ads in or simply backfill with a network and make some easy revenue.

    Great post Chris!

  • snook

    I agree that the internet is on the rise and the YP page companies need to continue to advance the products to stay competitive with the internet market, but you are apparently not in touch with the real world. First of all not all companies in this industry are the same. Second most of the companies offer Print, IYP and SEM. Mobile marketing is on the rise and just about every company offers mobile solutions. Tracking your results is offered to most advertisers because the YP companies want the companies to know if it is working or not. As for your ten solutions this is where you need to really wake up, it is already being done!!!!!. As for the unwanted books just about every company has an opt out capabilities. I wish the internet could successfully control the unwanted emails. No industry has all the answers and the cost of internet advertising is not inexpensive and at this point believe it or not print is still the best bang for its buck when is comes right down to real conversion of clients. I firmly believe at this stage in the market place, a company needs a good blend and yes at some point in the distant future the print will fade. Every company needs to track all results and use what works for them.

  • davebarnes

    Just shut down as quickly as possible.
    My 22-year old daughter has NEVER used the printed Yellow Pages in her life.
    I am 60 and even I don’t use them.

    There is NOTHING that the Yellow Pages can do in the USA that will save them.
    They could have owned local search, but they screwed up royally.
    Anything (Yelp, CitySearch, and many other sites) is better than the YP online.

  • Brendanlee72

    I agree snook. Most of the big companies out there already have Chris’s list of 10 things completed. As for the ones that don’t. Well for the others I think it’s a bit too late for them because they are so far out of the picture they would not be able to catch up and keep pace. I didn’t see yellowbook being mentioned on the list since it’s the countries largest independent YP Company and they expand to Canada and Europe. Not just that but they obviously take pride in the fact that they have been around since 1930. Listed as one of the 50” Americas Most Trusted Name Brands” for 06 & 07! Last year there IYP finished with the highest usage gain of any internet company with 138% .Rated by Comscore. Maybe because they are doing the right things and no point in mentioning them with the company of the others! Yes print is falling but it still gives the best ROI, at least 4-1. With users being so high tech and linked what will happen when there Is a power loss or major outage like the north east before Christmas or Hurricane Ike in Texas. I bet those advertiser were damn glad they had ads in their local directory with no power or cell phone receptions. We all know that there will always be a need for print. It’s the consumer’s safety net when the power goes out. Any time there is an outage the cell phone goes down and all you have is a land line. Unless there is a guaranty that the internet and the power companies will never have its glitches, there will be a need for print. Hell even Google sees the value in print since 80% searches goes threw them worldwide anyways. We all know the big companies out there are catering to the next big group of people other than the “Baby Boomers”. The “Millennial” aka Echo Generation, Generation Y or Why or even Tech Generation think and search way different than their Baby Boomer counter parts. The Big YP companies know that and are tailoring things to meet the needs. I guess this article was for the people that have no idea of the YP industry. Good info but a slight out dated.

  • macromatt

    Wow, such a lengthy and strong post from the writer Mr. Smith. I am in my early thirties, college educated, earn a strong income and use the Yellow Pages all the time to BUY things. I surf online and check websites but when I need to BUY things I go to the books. Regarding the Green issues, has anyone checked their mailbox lately to see how many catalogs and junk mail that keeps arriving. It seems like more engery should be spent to stop email spam and click fraud that eats into advertiser budgets. I heard click fraud alone uses up from 15-30% of advertiser budgets. My friend who works in SEO spends thousands of dollars monthly trying to chase a never ending ranking on the search engines.
    I see the Yellow Pages as a service to me as a consumer to provide choices and options to BUY things or use for services. I agree with Snook that it is a blend of options and the thinking that Yellow Pages are not used or wanted is lots of hype that generates headlines.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Smith

    snook & Brenda – you both really think that most of the top YP companies have accomplished my list?!?

    Not so! First, most did *not* come up with a way for consumers to opt-out of book distribution. Instead, they fought a PR war to insist that it should continue to be allowed and to say that it wasn’t a big deal because the paper was recycled anyway. There should be an easy way to opt-out if there is opt-out capability – one should be able to go online and request removal. Snook even appears to be comparing the blanket distribution of YP books with email spam – this is exactly what the books are beginning to be equated with for many consumers.

    Second, industry usage figures have *not* been rock-solid as I showed earlier in the year, and the problem even lead the Association of National Advertisers to issue and open letter calling for improvement of measurement research and circulation auditing.

    The public relations game has been atrocious, with YP executives from a few of the top companies publicly quoted as saying that “Wall Street just doesn’t get yellow pages”, positing that the dropping stock prices were due more to Wall Street analysts being more dedicated to using Blackberries and iPhones than print yellow pages (my paraphrasing, but pretty accurate representation of the sentiments they conveyed). Other YP supporters have talked about “fighting fire with fire” — in other words attacking anyone who points out that print usage may be declining, instead of acknowledging it and addressing it with effective strategies.

    And, the companies have not all enabled phone number tracking for all ads, and every single one of them contains tons of stale data, duplicate listings and erroneous listing information and incorrect maps. So, virtually all of them have dropped the ball in these areas. Fail!

    Which ones have substantially dropped the cost of print ads, in sync with falling usage numbers?

    As for mobile-savvy, did you know that one of the top company executives had completely cancelled the mobile application development at one of the YPs earlier this year? And, have you not seen the press releases from the top company that was all excited about releasing its printed book in PDF format? Planning to build a big ad network as one’s main internet strategy is simply insufficient, too. It seems that insufficient effort is being focussed upon making a highly useful product.

    Some of the biggest companies have demonstratively dramatically dropped the ball on the majority of items I listed — so, if you’re in the YP industry, don’t rapidly discount the list. For those who have improved in one area or another, I’d say they probably haven’t taken it nearly far enough.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Smith

    macromatt, I didn’t say YP aren’t used — indeed, they continue to be used — just substantially less than they once were due to internet. However, I am trying to help the YP industry step up its game here — I’m not stating that it’s a bad place to advertise. Reread my article if you missed that. If you notice, I readily acknowledge the high worth of yellow pages: “…consumers coming through YP advertising convert at a much higher rate — these people are in buying mode, unlike other media.”

    You’ve conveyed one of the basic problems that has contributed in the plummeting stock prices at a couple of the biggest and strongest YP companies around: attacking the messenger rather than moving agilely to attack the problems.

    There has been some major reduction in print YP ad spend on the part of businesses, period. Fact. This reduction has in large part come about because these businessmen have decided that print isn’t as worthwhile for their particular businesses. Does it make sense to cancel their ads completely for what may be only a 7% to 15% drop in print usage/referrals? Maybe, maybe not. I urge businesses to go with what’s working for them.

    I’m not trying to make “hype that generates” headlines with this, but I have a genuine desire to help these companies. A few of them are or have been my clients, and I am a friend of the stockholders of YP securities who are mad as heck to see valuable companies rapidly depreciate on Wall Street.

    Honestly, my articles are typically seen/read by maybe a handful of marketers — it’s flattering for people to suggest that I might sway the thousands of businesses out there into or out of advertising with one medium or another, but I’m not the cause of the decline in print revenues, and I seriously doubt that any of the articles about print YP problems have been responsible either. This sort of attack-the-messenger mentality is hamstringing some in the YP industry, and keeping them from putting needed energy into changing course and improving company performance.

  • http://ninebyblue.com/ Vanessa Fox

    macromatt,

    I can opt-out of receiving print catalogs. (This is made even easier with catalogchoice.org.) I can’t opt-out of receiving the printed yellow pages. In fact, they get left at my door whether I have a landline phone or not. From several different companies. And if you happen to catch the person leaving you one and you refuse it, they leave it anyway.

  • Ribber

    Where to begin, Chris? It’s sadly obvious that you don’t know a whole lot about the industry or the players in it. I spend many years in executive management with one of these companies, and I know the executives in the other companies as well. Here are the facts.

    1. Management is made up of old-time YP veterans who have never worked in any other industry. They can’t change. I believe it’s too late now anyway.

    2. Usage is everything in the YP business, and print usage continues to decline. It won’t come back.

    3. The recycling problem is just a minor problem. If that was the only problem they had, they’d be incredibly happy.

    4. They don’t want to track all ads, because it will prove that the usage isn’t there.

    5. They’ve already missed the IYP and Mobile boats. See #1 for why they’ll never get it.

    6. The data is the data. Same as always from the phone company. It’s just a different world now. People can get up-to-date info elsewhere.

    7. Merge? Would you have advised buggy whip manufacturers to merge when people started driving cars? If they merge, you’ll end up with one company that ends up going out of business.

    8. Get better PR? You have to be kidding. PR won’t make people start using the print product.

    9. Debt, debt, debt. They all went on spending sprees when they were fat, dumb, and happy, and now they’ll never get out from under.

    The bottom line is that this is a dying industry. Nothing will bring back the print product, and they’ve already lost the online and mobile wars.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Smith

    Ribber, I do know the industry and players. Yep, there are some old-timers who are unable to adapt to the new environment, and others who are still a bit paralyzed by the surprising new world order that has caused a formerly rock-solid industry to start stumbling.

    However, there’s also a lot of savvy people in the industry with great ideas that could bring things back again. Should companies with huge cashflow just throw in the towel and give up? No. Change is possible and successes can happen again.

    Print usage may decline, or it may level off. However, usage is still there currently, and as long as it is, this can be a worthwhile ad medium.

    It may even be possible to reverse the usage decline, if some disruptive technology is employed. For instance, I posited nearly two years ago that new life could be injected into the print YP industry if nanotech were used to make hardcopy YP books more dynamic. I still think that could be the case, since we’re seeing digital books begin to take off, and thin, flexible display screen “paper” is being developed by a number of companies. Maybe the price of that won’t come down quick enough, but if it did, the “print” side of yellow pages could suddenly see a whole new life.

    You should note that online yellow pages did indeed “get it”, long before anyone else. The current local search engines immitated and improved upon what was originally developed by the yellow pages companies. Since those companies once “got it”, they could easily “get it” again and turn things back around.

    As for my critique of data quality — the search engines are using much of the same data and have the same or even worse problems with it. The YP companies are frequently in a much better position for improving the data quality of business listings, so I believe this is an area where they may have a considerable competitive advantage over other players — if they will exploit it while there’s still time.

    PR naturally won’t make people start using print, but it could better educate small businesses about the remaining worth of the print product, and if the PR was done more effectively as I describe, I think it would be better trusted by purchasers of advertising. Usage of print is dropping off only by somewhere between 7% and 15%, so advertising shouldn’t necessarily be completely cut off by 100% or else businesses are missing out on some promotional value they could otherwise be getting.

    As for the debt — many industries are suffering due to debt loads right now. It was not that they went on “spending sprees” necessarily, if you check the histories. The debt decisions seemed much more reasonable at the time they were incurred — after all, if you have a rock-solid business that’s been performing well for over 100 years, it’s very hard to necessarily predict that it could go sour so rapidly. And, if you fail to aggressively capitalize new business development, you would have been decried on Wall Street for that as well — they took on debt for various purposes, most of which seemed reasonable at the time. They could get out from under this and improve their profiles to make Wall Street investors happy once again.

    There are a whole lot of investors who deserve to have these companies shape up and improve performance again. It’s very easy to suggest to people to give up, but what are some constructive things which could be done to re-infuse life in these companies again? I tried to provide some in the article, but there are potentially a lot more out there if people do not just give up.

  • Ribber

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Chris. I love a spirited discussion!

    In January, 2008, I predicted that the industry would experience this level of decline within a year. RDH and Idearc stocks were still at high levels, and my predictions were dismissed by companies that were looking to partner with YP companies.

    I knew I was right then because of my years of experience in the YP and publishing industries. I could be wrong now, but I fear I’m not.

    Perception is reality…and when small businesses perceive that they will get little value from the YP, they will put their advertising dollars elsewhere.

    I guess we’ll just have to see how it plays out. I wish I did have some sage advice for turning things around. I truly think it’s too late.

    I’m sorry for investors, but anyone who had their eyes open should have seen what was coming.

  • jambad

    Great post Chris. I am not necessarily a “green” person, but come on.. who needs four different sets of YP books? The only time that I touch them is to pick them up from the front door and throw them in the trash out the back door.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Smith

    jambad, you and Vanessa both describe exactly how a growing segment of the population feels — “these books are not used by me, so why are they left at my door?”

    14 years ago, I couldn’t imagine not keeping a yellow pages in my house, and now I don’t use it. We’re part of a growing demographic, and this is a hard thing to adapt to, business-wise for these YP companies.

    Originally, print YP distribution was founded on the concept that virtually everyone has telephones, therefore virtually everyone in an area would find a directory helpful. You’d occassionally hear someone mutter a complaint about receiving multiple books from the various companies, but overall this distribution was accepted. During the past two years, though, there’s been a groundswell of people who have become offended at the perception of environmental waste.

    Now, the problem is that it’s much easier and cheaper to blanket-distribute than it is to *not* distribute to the people who would request to not receive the books. With blanket distribution you can hire some temporary labor to drop directories at each address. With opt-out, though, costs go up dramatically as you have to collect and account addresses desiring not to receive, and distributors would have to carefully check addresses before dropping stuff off. The public doesn’t understand the logistical expense and complexity of this — nor the impact to the bottom lines of these companies.

    So, what can they do about it?

  • Ribber

    Many years ago, there was only one YP directory delivered to each home.

    In 1984 AT&T divested, forming the Baby Bells. Independent YP companies jumped in to compete for market share. At least two YP directories were delivered to each home.

    Residents were unhappy because they didn’t understand why they needed two YP directories. They complained about adding to the landfill.

    Bottom line: These complaints have been going on for 25 years. The YP companies are used to them. This really isn’t the main problem. Even if they managed to fix this, they’re still headed for oblivion.

  • Waxman

    It’s ridiculously obvious from the posts who still works for one of these dinosaurs. ATT, Idearc, and Donnelly are all getting ready shed hundreds of outside sales reps and move most of the advertisers to the telephone or letter channel. The next round of compensation and benefit plans will also be dramatically reduced. These companies are squeezing every possible cent of cost out of the business they can. It doesn’t sound like the yellowpages lovers in this blog understand business very well, but this is called harvest mode. And for macromatt if you are really in your early thirties, college educated, and use the yellowpages for all of your purchases I have an awesome set of encyclopedias I will sell you.

  • Lookout

    I love to see the participation from readers on this site and specifically this topic since it’s directly related to my line of business.

    I work for a Canadian based competitor to YPG. I read most of everyone’s comments regarding adapting YPG to today’s environment.

    The truth is, based on what we see in the market, usage of print directories IS IN DECLINE. The usage rate of print isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago and it’s normal because of the Internet. The decline we are seeing is not as low as some of you think it is. The reality in today’s market is that PRINT YP IS STILL BEING USED by consumers of all ages.
    - Yes all you computer savvy people who are connected 24/7 to your computers have tendency of using online directories more than print. Although everybody isn’t as savvy as you are and many people (especially baby boomers) continue to use print YP as oppose to online because it’s like an old pair of shoes.
    - Certain headings are less consulted in the print directory than others. For example a business offering Internet connectivity and IT solutions shouldn’t necessarily put their budget in print advertising but should online because that’s where 90% of their customers find them. A Plumber or electrician for example still advertises heavily in the print because YES even in 2009, 80% of their business comes from Print YP.
    - Circumstances also have an impact on Print usage. Depending on where you are in your house at the time you wish to search for a business (kitchen vs. in front of a computer) will determine if you choose the print over the web.

    To summarize, Chris, within your 10 suggestions (which are very good) we are already working on 3-4-5-6-7-8-9. That shift of moving towards online has begun although we’re not there yet because we all know that baby boomers represent a huge portion of the population and they are the one’s that use the print the most AND out of all the different age groups, baby boomers spend the most money not only on themselves but on their children and their grand children therefore we simply can not neglect that age group.

    How long is print going to survive, we are estimating 10 years although between all of us here I say it’s more like 5. There is so much that can happen in the next few years with technology that it’s hard to predict for sure. We are already integrating our online directory with mobile devices and looking to connect it with your GPS. This specifically will have an impact on print usage because you’ll no longer have to go up stairs and turn on your computer to search. You’ll just have pull out your phone and search from there.

    Cheers everyone!

    Kevin

  • graubart

    But should they be saved? I’m not just talking about the obvious environmental impact. More important than that (from a business perspective) is that the yellow pages companies have built their business by selling perception rather than reality. It was all about “if you don’t buy a big ad, then another plumber will get all the business”, knowing all the while that it was virtually impossible for small businesses to know whether it generated any revenue.
    They have fought transparency every step of the way and are the absolute opposite of the analytics-driven world of online advertising.
    Although a few have tried to integrate their online and print models, their print sales reps never embraced online, in many cases because of the transparency. And most of their online offerings are pretty useless. Try searching for a service provider (plumber or electrician) in your area. You have to scroll through many irrelevant paid listings before being presented with an alpha list of companies with no way to discern anything about them other than their name. That’s not a good user experience.

    This economic downturn is a wonderful opportunity for better online services to completely displace the traditional yellow pages. Whether Google and the search engines are successful at local, or if someone else creates the better offering, there’s a huge opportunity for a user-centric local directory service with performance-based advertising. And I just don’t think the Donnellys and Idearcs of the world have what it takes to reinvent themselves.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Smith

    Lookout/Kevin – your comments are all apt, I believe. You’re entirely right, according to everything I know — print books are still used. As I mention, if usage only dropped about 15%, why should advertisers pull out completely? That still leaves a significant amount of usage in the medium which can be exploited for business promotion purposes.

    The answers to why businesses have pulled out of advertising even though usage only dropped 15% is a matter of perception. As you point out, it does make sense for some business categories where the market has moved more online — I believe this includes a lot of the Travel categories as well as Internet/Computing, and a number of others. There’s still a number of biz categories where usage is likely strong in print — maybe stuff like Plumbing, Electrical Contracting, yes, even Restaurants.

    I think that businesses’ perception has been that YP ads were already very, very pricey, so when the value of those ads in terms of referrals dropped slightly, the cost of the ads may not’ve still made a good business proposition in their minds. Also, I think that businesses had/have anger about the usage statistics being preached to them by the YP industry — they perceive or know that usage dropped some, but the industry figures didn’t reflect that. So, their trust in the figures evaporated. The Association of National Advertisers’ open letter demanding better metrics and stuff really demonstrates this sentiment.

    To address these two parts of the problem, I think that ad prices need to drop some and the research statistics to be more comprehensive and trustworthy.

    Print needs to continue being profitable a while longer to give the industry time to evolve over to internet. The gap between high print profits and low internet profits seems scarily wide at the moment.

    Kevin, the one thing you mention which I’d caution about is something I’m hearing from a lot of people who’ve written to me from within the industry about this article — YP companies think they’re doing something about many/most of what I suggest. But, I believe most haven’t taken any of these items nearly far enough!

    Graubart, I think you’re right in the sense that these are very traditional companies and have resisted a lot of the openness and transparency that online has brought with it. There really has been an element of selling “the emporer’s new clothes” with this industry, and it has angered many business owners who have advertised there.

    From a business perspective, it’s hard to convince a company to release statistics that could be harmful to it, however, and if you’re within such a company, it’s hard to see how such openness might be beneficial in the long-run. It might not be beneficial in the near-term nor long-run.

    As these companies have embraced online commerce, though, they’re increasingly bowing to customer demands and adapting to have competitive products in the internet space.

    You’re also right that their online directory products often have major usability issues going on — but Local search continues to be in a highly experimental stage with even the major search engines changing their listing ranking and display methodology frequently. While scrolling through paid listings may be nonoptimal, there has to be some way to effectively monetize the product or it can’t standalone. I venture to suggest that Google Maps may not be paying for itself in advertising as of yet for instance — I suspect that the amounts of clickthroughs they’re getting on their very subdued ads are no where close to paying for the Maps’ expense and ongoing development/maintenance. Google has the luxury of more longterm playing with their local product in this respect, while other companies do not.

    graubart, I do disagree with your sentiment that the trouble experienced by the yellow pages is a wonderful opportunity to see evolution in the marketplace. For one thing, yellow pages publishers continue to be in a much better position for improving data reliability and quality than the major search engines. So, if YP dies, there’s a big gap left in getting good local data. You should notice how much YP data is going into Google Maps at the moment. The search engines could not pick up the slack quickly enough if YP disappears overnight.

    Secondly, there are a whole lot of innocent stockholders who invested in the Yellow Pages companies who do not deserve to see their money go up in smoke. Sure, this happens in business, but these were people who frequently were seeking conservative, trustworthy investments. For all these many people, they deserve to have the yellow pages companies make a real effort to reinvent themselves and survive.

  • http://fastcall411.com richrosen

    Chris – Nice article. Your idea #5 – add tracking phone numbers to every single YP ad, and let advertisers see the results – is, of course, a great idea. I’d also say that assigning tracking numbers to all print advertisers would answer 8 of your remaining 9 ideas to save the yellow pages and here’s how:

    1. Stop distributing books to people who no longer use them: Call tracking data would identify heavy usage households as well as non-users. The data would also reveal true service areas based on calling partners. This is great data to up-sell neighboring directories.
    2. Reduce environmental impact: Distributing books based on household usage would lead to a lighter environmental impact (smaller directories to non-users?).
    3. Better, more dependable industry usage statistics: The call tracking data would be rock solid and empirical; not relying on surveys.
    4. Improve PR: The call tracking results would lead to improved public relations for the reasons stated above (better advertising results, lighter environmental impact.)
    5. **Add tracking phone numbers to every single YP ad, and let advertisers see the results.**
    6. Drop the cost of print advertising: The call tracking usage data would lead to performance pricing. Some prices will fall, and others may increase, but will be ROI-based. A secondary benefit will be better service from local businesses as the data will identify which business are more responsive to the calling consumer. Tracking all calls will identify demand in each market and each vertical. Prices will rise as the market for leads becomes competitive.
    7. Bundle: Paying per-lead makes the source of the lead less relevant.
    8. Get mobile savvy: Bundling will stimulate Internet and mobile distribution (savvy)
    9. Fix the data: Assigning numbers to all advertisers will identity disconnected numbers, and other indicators of poor service thus improving the data.

  • adam.hodgkin

    One very simple idea. For all phone numbers on web pages make them clickable to call. I have yet to see this on any Yelow Page sites. Obviously this will help tracking call numbers…. all our magazines now are converted so that phone numbers are cilckable to call. Or see this Directory where phone numbers and other stuff are clickable
    http://www.exacteditions.com/exact/browse/450/651/4272/2/9/0/
    Really simple way of leveraging the value of the YP databases as users move to mobile platforms. Totally obvious but none of them doing it. Why?

  • http://silvery.com Chris Smith

    Adam, I believe some of them have used click-to-call tracking in the past. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been expanded or made standard for all listings. Perhaps due to expense?

    Even Google Maps used to have it for a period of time, but they discontinued it after a period of time.

    I have a gut feeling that it might just be one of those things which might come back — sometimes stuff gets introduced unsuccessfully before its time, and then later returns with good success.

    Some marketing agencies who manage YP advertising for businesses employ tracking phone numbers, such as ReachLocal.

    Superpages uses a sort of half-step in this direction, by requiring users to click the listing phone number in order to display them — they count that as a billable referral action.

    One of these big players should really partner with Skype, though, because they’ve gained a really solid chunk of marketshare in the VOIP space — they’d be a natural partner for this sort of thing.

  • adam.hodgkin

    There may have been an expense/overhead for Google in parseing the data and turning phone numbers reliably into callable links. But for the YP pages this should be no expense/trouble at all. They know the international or national prefix codes for every number they print. The code which makes a link callable is zero cost. Also tracking that usage data is zero expense and highly valuable. Tracking the customer beyond the phone call may cost something (I guess it would, if its doable), but having the usage data is already a huge value for YP. Of course the usefulness of the clickability rises directly as web access increases from phone-capable devices. More PCs have this, and Skype as you say puts that up. But the big jump is with the mobile phones which are now in the market. Google discontinued this when web browsing from phone-enabled systems was much lower than it is now. Much much lower than it will be next year.

  • adam.hodgkin

    BTW — the Superpages half house is reall, totally DUMB. They clearly could make all their numbers click to call, and providing that facility to their users will immediately give them a priority position for every iPhone.Gphone.Skype user out there… incredibly short-sighted. And they collect the data too as soon as they enable it … what a competitive advantage!

  • Lookout

    Adam and or Chris:

    This web calling looks interesting although I’ guessing I need a LAN line and a VOIP application already installed and running on my computer for it to work?

  • traderruss

    I am in the process of launching a new local search site click2connect.com which will offer one click calling (hence the name).
    To use the system all you will need is a regular phone line or mobile phone in the US.
    On the main subject of this article, I think that you make some good points, but the reality is that the YP business model is broken and wont work over the long run. They face the same dilemma as microsoft does with Office….too many cheap and free alternatives make it harder and harder to convince your customers to keep paying premium prices especially when your audience has alternative information sources and they are migrating away from you.
    I believe the inevitable can be delayed, but their demise will come about in the next decade without a doubt.

 

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