More Overwrought Yellow Pages Coverage

We’ve written before on how media and blog coverage of Yellow Pages can’t seem to find a fair balance between Pollyanna and Chicken Little. OK, in fairness, there aren’t many Pollyannas writing that Yellow Pages is shipshape with not a worry in the world. But there is no shortage of Chicken Littles declaring that the sky is falling for Yellow Pages. The phone book, we are led to believe, is in its final days.

The latest example is The Wall Street Journal, a respected publication, which published an article this morning with the headline, “Extinction Threatens Yellow-Pages Publishers.” The article isn’t quite as overwrought as its headline, but it essentially argues that the medium’s print business is dying fast and the Internet thing isn’t working out very well.

There are certainly some dubious assertions in the article, such as that Internet Yellow Pages traffic is declining, which seems to be contradicted by a graphic in the article showing IYPs growing faster than comparable pure plays. But the big issue is with the use of the word “extinction” in the headline. This adds to the tone of coverage that tends to be absolutist about Yellow Pages. As in, Yellow Pages are absolutely toast. Maybe they just don’t know it yet.

We have consistently argued that the truth is far more nuanced. Yes, print revenues are declining, due to a mixture of secular and cyclical forces, with the sharp economic downturn putting an emphasis on the cyclical component. And yes Internet revenues, in the U.S. at least, are not yet sufficient to offset these declines. However, Yellow Pages remains a critical source of calls and leads in many categories, and it seems unlikely that small-business advertisers will soon be able to replace these leads with another source, at least not easily or efficiently.

While sometimes it may seem that no one is willing to admit it, lots of people still use Yellow Pages. It’s sort of become like admitting you like ABBA.

And as far as the Internet goes, it is too early to count out the Yellow Pages. The sales channel, while it can be unwieldy, remains a force to be reckoned with, as Google and others still struggle to figure out how to penetrate more deeply into the small-business market.

What vexes the Yellow Pages industry is how to break free of the public relations death spiral it finds itself in right now. Much if not most of what is written is overstated, if not inaccurate. Though it all builds around a kernel of truth, which is that Yellow Pages, along with all other traditional media, is having a rough go of it. It seems, however, that this medium is getting singled out as being worse off than newspapers, magazines, radio and so on, and that really isn’t true.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Stephanie Hobbs

    As always, Kelsey gets it right. No one in our industry is unaware of the challenges that face the Yellow Pages. But the pervasive sense of “doom and gloom” reflected in this type of article is way off base. We’ve been small businesses best friend for over 130 years and we are transforming our products and services to ensure we continue to deliver solid sales leads. Format aside, that’s our business and we can demonstrate our value with valid third-party research and metered ad studies. With over 17 billion references to both print and IYP in 2007, we aren’t going anywhere.

  2. james

    The bad PR and attacks comes from individuals – like me. While we can be ridiculed for promoting “junk science” the fact is our posts and beefs represent the thoughts of many individuals, especially young consumers. Collectively that makes for a large presence, and the criticisms and complains should not be ignored.

    Opt out lists are cumbersome and difficult, and I truly believe that YP publishers have little incentive to monitor and cooperate.

    Here’s my collection of gripes – all the best – james…

    http://www.futuregringo.com/index.php/2008/11/08/the-life-of-a-phone-book/

  3. Dave Richards

    This article does NOT say that Internet Yellow Pages traffic is declining … it says “[Internet Yellow Pages ad dollars] aren’t growing fast enough to offset steep declines on the print side.” quoting Mike Simonton of Fitch Ratings. This is the BIG problem.

    The point of this article is to point out the trend (not the end) … which is down at an accelerating pace. This type of trajectory generally results in a death spiral. Remember 8 track tapes?

  4. Rod Brady

    The article certainly seems to focus on the bleeding experienced by a few companies, while neglecting to look at the overall strengths of the industry. There is some truth in the fragmentation of the industry’s online efforts, however. If independent publishers, who seem to be hurting the most, would come together on a single online platform it would allow them to retain their own branding, but leverage the pooled traffic of a national platform, resulting in better value for advertisers and stronger revenue for the publishers. Yellow Assistance has such a platform that they offering for free to publishers (http://partner.yellowassistance.com).

  5. rzwetsch

    Doom and gloom, 17 bazillion references, stock valuations in the tank, market analysts that “don’t get it”, 130 years in business, opt-out, RAYS, yada, yada, yada. Does the Yellow Pages industry really think this is just going to fix itself? Wake up one morning and everything will be peachy?

    Here’s a VERY BIG PLACE in our world where there’s a deafening silence: SMBs out there promoting and yelling and screaming that they CANNOT live and operate their business WITHOUT any and all iterations of the Yellow Pages. Yeah, there may be a bunch in the group that could do that and maybe a few that actually do it. Listen real hard…hear anyone?

    But there’s a much bigger bunch that are 1) not convinced and/or 2) not convinced enough to yell really loud and pump their fists. Or, maybe it’s….that they….don’t want their…ssssshh…competitors to know about their Yellow secret weapon???

    The Yellow Pages may not be going anywhere. But the publishers are sure having a hard time figuring it out. And guess who’s along for the carnival ride? Yep…SMBs. Yep…consumers. Cool.

    Maybe the YP trade groups should step up to the plate and swing a little harder for their members? Isn’t that their job? Isn’t there “something” they can do to help us uniformed, misinformed, overwrought proselytizers who have it all wrong – to get it all right?

    Oh yeah, and publishers should start having some REAL conversation with SMBs. Third party research is great. If you can spend the cash for that – spend the cash and talk DIRECTLY to your SMB clients.

    We’ve had a 130 year relationship with you and we don’t want to blow it. What’s working, what isn’t? What could we be doing better? We want to be your business partner…what’ll it take? We don’t have “that expertise” in-house so we’re going out to get it for you. Because that’s what EVERYONE is saying they want from us. Can’t you see the value in only delivering paper and ink to consumers in your market grid that WANT the book, that say they do USE or might use the book?

    WHAT “ELSE”, DEAR VALUED SMB, CAN WE DO TO HELP YOU GROW YOUR BUSINESS?

    Can’t the feet on the street do that? My guess is the ones that can handle the truth and then pass the truth on sure can.

    This whole Yellow Pages circus is kinda reminding me of AOL back in the day. Remember? It wasn’t so long ago. Did whatever they wanted. Listened to no one. We’re it and you’re not. Carpet bombed your living space with a trillion plastic discs even though 1) you called them and asked them to stop the madness and/or 2) you were already a member and had been a member for the last 7 years!

    And where is AOHell now?

    History can be a good teacher for the YP publishers so don’t skip too many more classes! And if you do go to class, you know what happens when you snooze?

    Yes/No/Maybe?

  6. Russell

    The problem the yellow pages has long term is that its business model is subject to disruption. It is a model that slants its results in favor of advertisers which isnt always useful for searchers. Go for example and search for “pizza” on yp. The large advertisers like dominos dominate and the little quaint local pizza shop has a difficult time.
    Today many users want the quaint local store rather than the homogenized chain store. The same problem pervades the yp online.
    This creates an opportunity for niche providers like http://click2connect.com who are user facing…..lets see in the end if the advertiser or the user is really the client deserving the focus.

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