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The independent directory publishers gathered here at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver for the past two days appear to be even more convinced than ever that the print directory product is not only their past but also their future, or at least a big part of it.

What threatens this future is not the shifting tides of technology and consumer behavior, but a dual threat of environmental initiatives and a growing gap between the perceived and actual performance of print Yellow Pages.

Speaking today, Larry Angove, president and CEO of the Association of Directory Publishers, reported that while the vote on opt-out legislation in Seattle has been delayed, it is expected soon, and passage of some form of the legislation is still expected.

Angove said the real risk in Seattle is that if that legislation is passed, and it becomes “a template for others, that is a threat to our livelihoods.”

Perhaps the greater evil facing the industry is the so-called “perception gap.” This is the widespread belief that print directories are obsolete and no longer effective, despite evidence that they still drive substantial call counts.

To hammer home this point, the ADP brought in Steve Sitton, former owner of Golden State Directories, who has turned a research effort conducted by his publishing business into a new line offering research and consulting services to other publishers.

Sitton’s thesis is clear, unapologetic and red meat to the mostly small directory publishers in the audience. According to Sitton’s data, print is still widely used across all geographic and age segments. He said his researchers have conducted nearly 80,000 interviews. At the same time, the overwhelming perception is that while I may use the phone book, no one else does.

The answer, Sitton said, is to defend print and break through this perception with a relentless use of data. He cited data from his surveys to illustrate what he means. According to Sitton, 63 percent of consumers use print exclusively or as their first choice, while another 20 percent use it at least occasionally. Another 17 percent report never using print. By contrast, when asked what they thought their neighbors used to find local businesses, 72 percent said online and 28 percent said print, roughly the inverse of their own reported usage. Sitton noted that the interviews skewed toward older consumers (they were conducted using landline telephones), but the results were normalized to reflect the populations age distribution.

Sitton called the perception gap a “virus” that will eat away at the product, despite its performance.

“If we don’t fix this, it will take us out,” Sitton said.

We don’t question the basic premise that there is a perception gap. We have not had an opportunity to evaluate Sitton’s methodology, so we can’t comment on the validity of his data.

We do have a few questions. First, can the perception gap, however large it actually is, be overcome with data that show strong usage levels from print directories? Or has the perception taken such firm hold that publishers must adapt to rather than fight the perception gap.

And second, even if the numbers say preference for print is high now, will that be as true in two, three, five or 10 years? At some point isn’t diversification necessary to grow the business, or even to survive?

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