Should directory publishers embrace the concept of opt-out, the notion that some mechanism should be created that allows consumers to choose not to receive a print book?
This question arose last week at the Yellow Pages Today event in Zurich, which was built around the theme of “Driving Value.” A late addition to the program was Wenche Holen, who runs the Nordic publisher Eniro’s Norwegian operations. Holen was asked to talk about her company’s experience in fighting a serious challenge from an environmental group (Naturvernforbundet) that urged the creation of an opt-in system, which would require consumers to actively vote to receive a print phone book.
In Norway, Eniro has had an opt-out mechanism in place for two years, though it was lightly used before the company was attacked for flooding Norway with paper for a product that supposedly no one uses (or at least no one who works for Naturvernforbundet). The environmental campaign led to a government minister’s involvement, and it looked for a time that Eniro might face having some kind of opt-in system imposed.
Holen described Eniro’s frantic efforts to mount a PR counterattack, which picked apart some of the misinformation being peddled, and for the time being there’s agreement to leave the current opt-out system in place. Interestingly, when asked what advice she had for other publishers that might face a similar challenge, she urged them to adopt an opt-out system as a first line of defense. Holen said having that system in place made it easier for Eniro to beat back its recent challenge, since it had already established a fair system. This gave Eniro ground to stand on as it battled the opt-in push.
“It is not good to force people to take directories they don’t want,” Holen said.
She also urged publishers to be proactive and engage groups that might advocate opt-in to present facts about the business, since many of these groups believe phone books are used less and do more environmental damage than is actually the case.
Holen’s recommendation that publisher’s embrace opt-out runs counter to the conventional wisdom in much of the directory industry, which is that opt-out represents the camel’s nose under the tent. According to this view, once opt-out is accepted, and inevitably fails to produce a dramatic drop in the volume of directories produced (the opt-out rate in Norway was less than 7 percent after the rush of publicity ginned up by activists), then the door is already open to go all the way and push for opt-in. The other argument against opt-out is simply that it would be a very cumbersome process to manage. Both points of view are valid, and the safest bet is probably to fight opt-out as long as possible.
Add to this competitive pressures. No publisher wants to wage let alone lose the opt-out battle in Denver, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, Amsterdam, Helsinki or any other highly competitive market. Opt-out rates would become a competitive data point like usage share and cost per lead.
Unfortunately for publishers, opt-out may be inevitable, at least in some markets. In general, consumers have more power today than just a few years ago, and they tend to rebel when told they can’t have it.
As directory titles have proliferated in recent years, particularly in the U.S. (a trend that is waning, according to our research), consumers have in some places felt assaulted by more phone books than they could possibly want piling up on the front porch. This has drawn attention to the industry, though not the sort the industry normally seeks.
Holen’s view, to embrace opt-out, may only be right for Norway, a small country with an advanced environmental consciousness. But increasingly, it may prove to be a path the broader industry is forced to take. The trick for publishers will be to realize this before it is too late so they can embrace the process and still have some say in how it is implemented.