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Phone Books Going the Way of the Dodo?

November 2, 2009

Every year I see the big bins at the grocery stores outside their entrances. No, not the big bins of pumpkins that are out around Halloween. Those same big bins get used for recycling your phone books. Now, I’ve always wondered, ‘Who would bother to drag their big, heavy, cumbersome phone books from home all the way to the grocery store to recycle them?’ I am, evidently, not alone in this conclusion, as only 16 percent of white pages are even recycled each year. That doesn’t even address what happens to the larger, heavier Yellow Pages books….

For several years now, my clients have asked and been telling me about their success (or lack thereof) in their local Yellow Pages directory. Appearing in the book used to be a staple in basic advertising to ensure a successful business launch, particularly for small businesses desiring a strong local presence. But increasingly, I’ve heard business owners report that their Yellow Pages business had trickled down to nothing, and they stopped advertising in them. A few, however, report business stronger than ever from their listings and display ads. So it seems that success can vary widely depending upon the type of business and specific geographic location. It makes it very hard to advise clients on the best course of action when the results are seemingly hit and miss.

Now comes word that the State of California may consider an opt-in measure on White Pages distribution laws in January 2010. Many states have laws on their books either requiring distribution of White Pages and/or Yellow Pages to every doorstep in the jurisdiction, or they have opt-out or opt-in laws (relatively newly enacted) for the same. The reasons are myriad for ensuring doorstep delivery, but some include making sure everyone has phone numbers for government agencies and emergency services. Others see the paper-weight heft of the books as a local nuisance and an affront to the environment. Most know the internet has replaced folks’ primary source of local phone information with its ease of use and timely delivery of relevant data.

So what do you do? Do you invest in the dying dinosaur, as surely these publications will go by the wayside in time (as printed newspapers seem to be doing so today)? The folks at Yellow Pages like to boast huge returns: average sales ROI (return on investment) of 27:1 for national display advertisers and nearly 13:1 for local display advertisers. Personally, I’ve never heard any client (or other advertiser) boast of these results. But some businesses remain happy with their results. Others state their well has run dry with this advertising venue.

What is the bottom line? As more and more businesses opt-out of advertising in the Yellow Pages, it will continue to lose readership and credibility because it won’t be the all-inclusive source it once represented. At one time, if you weren’t in The Book, you didn’t exist as a business. The landscape has changed dramatically. It’s dying like newspapers are. And as local and state governments begin to change the legal requirements across the country to opt-in and/or opt-out for both White and Yellow Pages, their strength will continue to diminish.

Some business categories will likely continue to do well in the printed Yellow Pages, such as movers and pizza delivery. But both business types have long been planning (and using) the latest replacement model on the internet: They are easily found online and have nifty tools, such as moving planners and guides or menus and ordering ability for pizzas, available to the user at their fingertips. They can’t do that with one printed display ad – no matter how large – in the paper book. Eventually they, too, will opt to discontinue print ads in The Book.

Think twice before investing in your local book. Know the local opt-in, opt-out laws so you understand the book’s distribution rate. Research what your competition is doing to determine if you need to be there. And just because your competition may be in the book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good investment for them either. Proceed with caution. You may find better use of your marketing investment dollar through other venues.

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