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I had an interesting discussion this week with Amy Healy of the Yellow Pages Association. You may recall a few weeks back we blogged about a movement in Norway to give consumers the ability to opt out of print directory distribution.

A similar effort is brewing in pockets in scattered communities around the United States. A bill in North Carolina, for example, would require publishers to make it easy for consumers to request that they not receive a particular print directory.

Healy says there is definitely a strong environmental element to this movement, as well as push back from local municipalities concerned about the impact of so many directories on the solid waste stream.

Also at work, she argues, is the same consumer sentiment that made the Do Not Call movement the most successful piece of consumer activism in recent memory. The driving idea is the desire to take control over the stream of media flowing into our personal space.

Healy calls it a “perfect storm” that combines the green movement with the consumer empowerment movement.

Directory publishers have every right to be offended at the idea of being lumped in with as motley a crew as e-mail spammers and cheesy telemarketers.

Even Yellow Pages’ harshest critics acknowledge that directories provide a valuable service to both users and advertisers. Plus, when it comes to complaints about print Yellow Pages’ environmental impact, there has always been a bit less there than meets the eye.

That said, we can’t let the industry completely off the hook on this. The opt-out movement would be nowhere without the proliferation in the number of books the average home receives. Sure, this is the free market at work. But in all honesty, do any of us really need five directories in our homes?

It may well be that the invisible hand of the market will not be given enough time to do its work in weeding out weaker players. Legislators, egged on by annoyed consumers, overwhelmed waste management directors and mobilized environmental groups, may impose an opt-out system, at least in some communities. This would give consumers the same control over their front doorstep the Do Not Call List has given them over who can call at home just as they settle in to hear Kiefer Sutherland announce, “previously on 24.”

The industry is fighting these bills as they crop up, as well it should. No industry would welcome having such a regime imposed on it. Nor should it.

Still, it is hard to see an easy out here, assuming this movement gains momentum. No publisher in any given market will unilaterally disarm if it is having success or believes it can be successful in the near term. The publishers that get ahead of the curve with greater targeting, distribution efficiency and other innovations aimed at producing the same or better results for advertisers with a smaller print “footprint” will be the ultimate winners in all this.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. To be frank, I don’t see how the industry (especially the Independent Publishers) will be able to hold off on this concept indefinitely.

    In my experience (as the head of Verification for a phone directory distribution company), the number of complaints received by my agents in regards to the proliferation of directories has exploded this decade, so much so that we’ve scripted responses to them. In response to a generic question of "Did you get the ___ book?" too many times a response is followed by editorial comments: "Why do I get so many books?" "You people are destroying the environment" etc.

    As far as this issue is concerned, it is a shame that the directory industry is split into two groups: independents and incumbents. This will prevent a cohesive, rational response and could result in a situation where the representative organizations for each group (ADP and YPA) will spend as much time worrying about what the other organization is doing as they will in combating the regulation(s).

    By working with government regulators, environmental groups, and other key figures, the directory publishing and distribution industry will be able to shape the inevitable regulation more to its liking. By fighting it until it’s written by legislatures and signed into law (and even after, in court cases), the industry will give away its chance to craft sensible and progressive legislation in favor of whatever the government wants to impose upon us.

  2. Random distribution of marketing media phone books is littering in New York State. The New York State Public Service Commission regulates the distribution of phone books of companies that are service providers, those issuing exchange numbers. Yellow Book is not one of these service providers and if municipalities would only enforce their own littering laws it would put a stop to its distribution. These companies should get permission to deliver these books from property owners, why should the public have to go the the process of opting out?

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