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In an opening session of the Association of Directory Publishers‘ 2008 Mid-Year Convention in San Antonio, YP Talk Publisher Ken Clark gave a close-up view of how negative PR in print and online is eroding the perception of the Yellow Pages industry. Describing these sites as “slowly chewing away the credibility of the industry,” Clark described them as “paper termites who are slowly eating away at the industry’s credibility with murky research, hearsay and the replication of misinformation.”

Over the past 12 months, the level of bad press has far outweighed the good press on what Yellow Pages companies have done. Recent coverage on and Tracy Coenen’s “Top 25 Things Disappearing from America” are just a few highlights of the impact bloggers can have on the reputation of the industry when they place themselves in the role of majority thinkers on U.S. print Yellow Pages.

According to Clark, this altered perception of the industry is creating a credit crunch in the financial market and the misconception that the product is rubbish, a danger to the environment, a yellow supporter or a smart green consumer. The question is, what if anything is the industry doing to correct this or take the lead in how it is being perceived? Clark set out a challenge for the ADP attendees to:

  • Rally their employees by supporting companies that support Yellow Pages and help to put a local face to the brand by showing the good the company does in the community and for the environment.
  • Fight fire with fire by dealing quickly with bad PR and implementing a fact checking group to help set the record straight within their communities.
  • Use the advertiser and consumer base as a means for getting out the facts with e-newsletters and Web site content, and highlight how people and companies are benefitting from the product.
  • Use the product itself to make the point on bag messages about the environment and value of Yellow Pages, in directory content and even in green-friendly sections within the book.

The goal, as Clark laid it out, was to be “strategically bold but tactically careful.” Some of the key tactics include:

  • Offering a third-party opt-out clearinghouse to get under the opt-out movement.
  • Offering a win-win proposition to print detractors by allowing the White Pages product to be all online so the print product could be eliminated.
  • Doing a better job of showing the eco-friendliness of the product in relation to other forms of advertising such as direct mail.

Clark concluded by saying, “The goal is not necessarily to win the battle but to level the playing field so Yellow Pages can compete fairly with other local media options. We can’t wait until it is too late; the time to take action has already arrived.”

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Hi Michael, nice write-up!

    Ken would consider myself a paper termite. On my blog, I’ve poked fun of the print book usage a few times in the last two years and he’s commented in defense of the print books. I have no need for them, but that’s just me.

    We probably agree on most things though. I’m a huge fan of the Internet Yellow Pages. It’s no secret that Google and Yahoo depend on IYP data to help provide accurate results in their local listings. I’d love to see this talked about more.

    The main thing I don’t like about the print books is how they are distributed. There’s no easy opt-out and many homes receive books from more than one company. I don’t see this as a win or lose thing for the print books either. Their usage may be declining, but the IYPs make up for it.

  2. Fellow “paper termite.” Regarding the statement “Yellow pages are rubbish”

    Correct. If someone leaves a product at my door. (Why five times a year?) and I DON’T want it – and it NEVER even makes it into my house – then the definition is rubbish.

    Just like if someone dumped off a bunch of old milk crates, Wendy’s wrappers, or anything else I now have the obligation of dealing with.

    Leave the Yellow Pages on ONE pick up place like grocery stores and post offices. Those that want them can find them.


  3. This is a tough issue since many people’s personal habits for finding information often “color” their impressions of what the rest of the world might be doing. The simple fact is that print and Internet Yellow Pages drive a lot of calls, leads and store traffic. Local online search inventory and traffic simply have not risen to the level of the print book and IYP, although we can see a day when that may come, particularly in major cities. Midsize and small towns will maintain a print lead for some time.

    As Paul mentioned, IYP often does not get the traffic credit it is due since it powers the major search engines’ local and Yellow Pages efforts. IYP and search engine marketing are key tactics to supplementing the traffic of the print Yellow Pages and more importantly calls generated for small and medium-sized businesses. One medium cannot do it all as was once the case in local markets. Both print and online media are needed whether we like to admit it or not.

    Our view is that more efforts will be put into place to better target distribution (mainly by the larger publishers), the opt-out process will be streamlined, and more measurements like call tracking will be added to print and Internet Yellow Pages to show where calls and conversions are coming from. The bottom line: You can’t let personal preferences get in the way of the media that drive the calls and store traffic that keep local businesses in business.

  4. Michael, nice write-up indeed.

    Yellow Pages print books aren’t going away any time soon. Not totally. Original search engine or not – many people still rely on them and still use them. Obviously, many advertisers still advertise in them even though most have no clue what they get for what they pay for and many, many, many are easy prey for unscrupulous sales reps. And unfortunately, most don’t even realize that they (the advertisers) are the ones that really CAN change the game.

    Oh yeah, and BIG Yellow Pages print book distribution numbers keep print book ad rates high. Even though an arguable and debatable number of consumers use the book – advertisers have not yet made a stink about the quality of the numbers and what they actually mean for “their” business. 13.4 billion look-ups, referrals or whatever you want to call them doesn’t mean diddly to my little business that sells rocks and candles or dental acupuncture in my sleepy town of 28,000 people located 39 miles from anything that resembles a major city of town.

    And unfortunately, that’s what advertisers need. They need unbiased, third-party advisors that can help them sift through the jargon and the inflated mish-mash of Yellow Pages benefits, features and data to decide what’s REALLY best for them and THEIR business.

    Ken Clark is right and has great ideas. But he’s just reporting as an industry insider, offering obvious and meaningful ideas for the industry but just not really DOING anything meaningful and “specific” to try and fix it. Maybe Ken should take his Yellow Pages industry advocate’s Superman suit off and put on his Clark Ken(t) Yellow Pages industry recruiting suit back on and start looking for some “outsiders to break up this little industry love fest. And a review of Colonel Jessup’s infamous quote in A Few Good Men might be in order as well.

    Regarding: …these sites as “slowly chewing away the credibility of the industry,” – no, not really. The industry is slowly chewing away at itself by sitting back with it’s arms folded and pretending that nothing needs to change. Ding-ding-ding…E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G needs to change.

    And: “paper termites who are slowly eating away at the industry’s credibility with murky research, hearsay and the replication of misinformation.” C’mon Ken. Murky research? I don’t have any of that. I say what I feel based on what I see happening to me and others. I suspect so does Ed Kohler and Tracy and James and all the other hungry mites.

    “Hearsay”? You bet. Don’t hear anyone from industry saying anything to make me feel or believe otherwise. That’s how you squash hearsay. You repudiate and then you set the record straight. The Yellow Pages publishers are responsible for doing that. Not you, not me, not Ed Kohler.

    When’s that going to start happening?

    “Replication of misinformation”? Maybe. But that’s what happens when the 800 lb. gorillas don’t pay attention and don’t care what’s happening in their industry. Maybe they DO care? We’re just not seein’ it out here in the murky trenches.

    And the industry should pat itself on the back because it does a pretty snappy job of destroying it’s own credibility thank you very much. Still delivering outdated and technologically inferior products to advertisers, charging them an arm and a leg for same – spiced with the continued doorstep bombing of their legendary print books to people who never asked for them and just don’t want them – borders on suicide to say nothing of what it does for credibility.

    When was the last time any of the Yellow Pages publishers sat down with consumers and advertisers and asked them what they think? What they want? What’s useful, what’s not and what can they do to do what they do…BETTER? Whether they want to receive the print books or not?

    Maybe YP reps could do that since their eyes and ears and feet are on the street. Oh no, probably not. That’s not selling. That’s not big commissions. That’s not quotas and bonuses and trips. They get paid to SELL stuff not to listen to what advertisers really need and want and would be willing to pay for.

    The attitude I see and hear is still: it’s our way or the highway. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong it’s just the way it is. I have a feeling that’s what Ed and Tracy and James and Kevin and all the others who are creating this “bad press” are seeing and hearing as well.

    I believe that’s likely because 1) doing nothing (or nothing different) is always the easiest perceived course of action and 2) they just don’t want to hear…what they’re going to hear. From the stakeholders they need to hear it from. A picture of Pee-wee Herman sticking his fingers in his hears and yelling at the top of his goofy lungs La-La-La-La-La-La is coming to mind.

    Apparently, nobody in the industry is too terribly concerned. Otherwise, all of us advertiser and consumer and blogger and paper termite misfits might start seeing something done about it.

    Oh yeah, and I’ve provided my share of your “bad press” as well. But I’m not just spouting off. I can back it all up with meaningful, game changing ideas, strategies, tactics plus in the trenches expertise and experience both as a Yellow Pages consumer and advertiser to do something to…FIX IT.

  5. Rick: Lots of great points here, but I think you missed one important message from Ken Clark and that is he IS challenging the industry to do something about the PR mess they have gotten themselves into. The one thing we all need to do is stop making this a black-and-white issue of “frustrated advertisers and green advocates” versus the uncaring and oblivious Yellow Pages industry. People on both sides of the issue can and will drive change if both sides can come to mutual understanding — again, based on facts not emotion.

    To say the industry is not aware of these issues is a bit unfair. The point of directory publishers doing little to publicly address them is correct — and a key part of what I believe Clark is trying to change. My opinion is that there is too much fear over dramatically changing the print product to make it into something consumers want and would use. As has already been mentioned, this continues to frustrate consumers, some of whom have opted to no longer use the book for those reasons. Believe me the “paper termites” have gotten the attention of the publishers. The question is, what do they plan to do about it?

  6. The current debate about phone book delivery, in my opinion, has been a healthy one. While there is plenty of disagreement over delivery policies, people favoring the status quo, opt-out, or opt-in methods seem to at least agree upon the facts. That’s better than most arguments I see happening these days.

    Personally, I lean toward opt-in as the solution to unwanted phone book distribution. This does nothing to hurt people who do want phone books, and does a lot for people who no longer want them. Additionally, it helps neighborhoods like John’s where, sadly, many of the houses are currently abandoned yet still receive phone book deliveries. An opt-out system does nothing to address this unfortunate situation.

    My blogging on this issue, if it’s made any difference, hasn’t been based on the size of the readership of my site but the nerve that this particular topic struck with the readers.

    And once again, I’d like to state that I don’t think the YP industry is a bad thing. It’s just not as good as it could be because it’s delivering a printed form of spam to unsolicited households and offices. Solve the spam issue and you’ll gain your respect back.

  7. Ed: I agree with the distribution issue since it hurts everyone involved. The suggestion of a third-party organization is a good one since not all publishers or third-party distribution companies adhere to or offer an opt-out option. Today if you opt out it takes effect the next year, which gives the impression that no one is listening. The problem is many of the smaller publishers and third-party distribution companies do not offer opt-out and utilize saturation distribution (deliver to everybody in the grid), adding to the PR problem and painting every publisher and distribution company with the same brush. My impression is that this will gain traction this year as it has in some European countries. One interesting stat, though, is that opt-out only represents 5 percent to 7 percent of the population in countries that offer formalized opt-out (higher in big cities, lower in mid and small cities), indicating there is still a strong desire to have the book.

    Many have asked for some indication that publishers are listening, so I’m passing this along as a sign of progress being made on the environmental front:

  8. Michael – I agree Ken is challenging the industry but issuing challenges is pretty easy. That’s what the Internet is great for! That’s what all the termites are doing. Certainly not always as gracefully but you get it.

    What’s tough is picking a horse, saddling up and riding that horse into battle. Day after day after day. Not just up on stage at industry events. I don’t see that happening right now from “deep” inside the industry. And it can be somewhat awkward when the challenges are coming from an industry insider that’s also an industry recruiter. I might be wrong and I agree it all has to start somewhere. If I’m not looking and listening in the right places, my eyes and hears are wide open! Again, I’m a potential YP user and a potential YP advertiser so I’m not throwing misguided spears. I want to HELP FIX IT!

    I really do believe the industry is very aware. I also believe, right now anyway, they may be collectively making more enemies than friends. It’s just a hunch. To create color from black & white the industry needs to toss everyone a couple of legitimate/reality based “we’re listening and we’re going to do something – NO, we ARE DOING SOMETHING about it” bones. No lip service. No tiny links on Web sites that you can only see with either special glasses or a site user’s manual.

    Big, fatty site banners that scream: We’re listening. Here’s what we ARE doing. RIGHT NOW. Tell us HOW we’re doing. Then laser target and repeat those messages over and over and over again. I do understand that even though this is biting off the hand that draws up the rate card – creating and promoting a way for those folks that don’t want the print books to opt-out would put the termites and paper atheists out of business. Done. Game over. (By the way, there are some creative ways to deal with this conundrum…that might not be so obvious from inside the industry) And if you ask for feedback you had better be ready to listen and react. Quickly.

    It is blindingly obvious that turning this industry will be like turning the Queen Mary. What is also obvious to me is the proof is in the pudding. My simple message is stop making Yellow Pages pudding and trying to jam it down everyone’s throats. Everyone loves pudding. Get them to help you make the pudding and then get them to help you make the pudding…BETTER!

  9. Michael,

    The RAYS program is really cool. The fact that the Yellow Pages publishers are listening and are participating is even cooler. Kinda.

    It shows they care or at least they want us to think they care. There’s no question – that is good. Sorry it has to keep coming back to the termite thang but…that’s the bigger issue that continues to rain on the print business model parade.

    Put on your Yellow Pages SMB advertiser hat for a second. You’re the reason there’s even a print book to have a discussion about.

    Your rep tells you there were 13.?? BILLION referrals/lookups last year industry wide. The rep also tells you that they are printing XXX thousand or million books for distribution in your market area. You don’t care about the XXX gajillion books they printed or will print industry wide, you care about how many books are printed and distributed in your market area with your ad or listing in them that your target customers hopefully will see. If that’s not what you care about I know a rep that’ll gladly upgrade you to a nice four color, two-page spread.

    I think the number for one of the Dex books in my market area last year was 1.4 million printed and distributed. That might be a seven county area. So as an advertiser paying LOTS of money EACH month for a quarter page ad in 1.4 million books which would you rather have or know:

    1. Your ad will appear in 1.4 million books of which _?_% will be recycled, tossed in the trash or stacked up in front of a vacant or foreclosed home and therefore NO ONE will even have a CHANCE to see your ad? Or…

    2. Your Yellow Pages publisher has spent the time and the resources to do their best to determine how many of the prospective customers in your local market area actually WANT the print book, are LIKELY TO USE the print book and have raised their hand and said SEND ME the print book or tell me where I CAN PICK-UP a copy?

    Yeah, it doesn’t sound as sexy when you can’t throw numbers with lots and LOTS of commas around. The more commas in the number of books printed AND distributed the more you can charge for anything in the book. And the more the advertiser’s eyes glaze over with the sheer anticipation of a BIG KA-CHING when the phone starts ringing off the hook.

    But if some significant number of the books are never ever seen – it doesn’t matter where they go, where they sit, how high the pile is or how eco-gracefully they’re destroyed. Buh-bye. The advertiser’s dollars go with them.

  10. I shared a platform with Ken and others at DMS 08 in September (I’m UK-based) – the data from YPA showing the huge growth in US circulations over recent years is at odds with our experience in the UK over the past 2 years, with publishers looking to cut print demand by better use of targeting those people who are active users.

    We (as a third-party distribution company) DO offer opt-out, DO offer targeted delivery, and are very keen to work with publishers that want to do this.

    It may be of course that recent financial events provide a further “push” towards looking at print reductions / more active targeting of deliveries globally – which, if done correctly, will still keep advertisers happy that their spend is more precisely targeted.

  11. Hi Peter. Thanks for the comment. I agree that publishers must look at ways to make opt out and targeted distribution work for them. With pressure on costs and pressure to use paper more efficiently, not to mention pressure to respond to consumers who do not wish to receive a directory, now is clearly the time to invest in this area.

  12. We are one of those small service businesses in the Midwest. It seems that every week some rep is entering our doors or ringing on the phone. We have local books, county books and multi-county books. Oh, let’s not forget the big metropolitan book that comes from 50 miles away! We have tried to do away with the ad’s. We have reduced them to near non-existance. However, with dramatic chages in our market and in our small part of the community (we have lost significant drive-by traffic due to the closing of the last remaining large business on our side of town, gone south like everyone else…) we need to reach residents in our town and surrounding area, We have tried radio – with limited reponse. We have done placemats too. But, newcommers to the area do look in the phone books when they need our service. The problem is that we have no idea which book they will pickup, or which books they will keep in their home and office. Our margins are small and the costs are dramatically different between each of the books. On top of that, you are made to feel that you have to be present and noticable in ALL of the books…where does that leave us? With bills from $950/YR to $499/month. It is killing our bottom line and may ultimately put us out of business. So, why are the publishers not looking at the impact on the businesses they claim to be serving?

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