Marin: A Case Study

I’ve lived in Marin County, California, for almost 20 years now. For three-quarters of the time the Pacific Bell/SBC/AT&T Yellow Pages directory was the only one available. A couple of years ago, Seig Fischer and his Valley Yellow Pages team entered the market. For as long as I can remember I couldn’t understand why GTE/Verizon — the telephone company for Novato, California, also the largest city within Marin County — never chose to enter the entire Marin County marketplace. In fact a couple of years ago I joked with Kathy Harless about wanting to buy the property from Verizon because as far as I could tell it was doing nothing to enhance or expand the directory.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to see a Verizon Marin County/Southern Sonoma County directory land on my doorstep late last week. A couple of quick observations. First of all, my wife took the Verizon book and stuffed it right on top of the Valley Yellow Pages book, which of course was sitting right on top of the SBC/AT&T Yellow Pages book. And where are these books stuffed? In the kitchen cabinet just below the telephone, of course.

One of the first things you notice is the books look remarkably the same — what is black, yellow and red all over. The second thing you notice is that Peter Levi Plumbing likes the spine advertising position — he is on all three of the book spines.

The next thing I looked at were my listing in the books. In the AT&T book I have three listings. One is my office number — 415-256-1268 — but oddly my name is spelled "Polacheck," with an extra "c." But just in case you can’t find me that way, there’s another listing — this time the correct spelling, "Polachek."

When I turn to the Valley book, the listing information is identical to what I found in the SBC/AT&T book. In the Verizon book, I find that my wife and I have now moved in with my brother and sister-in-law who live in the county. Our home number is listed as an additional listing under my brother’s listing. Wait till my mom and dad hear about this.

Well, you might ask, what about the advertising stuff? So I turn to the Opticians heading. The Verizon book has 11 listings of Opticians and five of them are advertisers. Not surprisingly all of the advertisers are located — you guessed it — in Novato. The SBC/AT&T book carries 25 Opticians — with 12 buying display advertising. The Valley book has the same number of listings as the SBC/AT&T book but has no display advertising.

As a user, the SBC/AT&T book is certainly the most comprehensive with display ads from Opticians from one end of the county, Mill Valley, to the other, Novato.

Just for grins I went online to the Internet Yellow Pages for each of these publishers. At SuperPages.com I found only four listings — three of them national companies — in the Opticians category. At YellowPages.com I found 37 Opticians listed. More gratifying was that "my" local optician — Patrick Fasano at Focus Opticians — was not only listed but had the first "featured business" position. As I scrolled down, the next two featured businesses were in Berkeley and San Francisco, at least 20 miles from my house — which seems too far to go for even the most trend-setting eyewear.

Valley Yellow Pages has yet to launch its online Yellow Pages site. Were I to go there I am sure the experience would mimic the print book with little information to help me make a purchase decision. I tried Google Maps and received a smattering of results; some were for the local surf shop, which undoubtedly sells sunglasses. I also searched at Yahoo! local and was presented a comprehensive set of listings. Patrick — "my" optician — came up as sponsored link. I'll be sure to interview Patrick to see how these various online and offline channels are working for him.

The take-away is pretty clear. The incumbent publisher in Marin County remains the odds-on favorite to deliver the best consumer value proposition. The often talked about sales channel advantage incumbent publishers have appears to deliver — at least in this case study.

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