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Having worked in the Yellow Pages industry over the past eight years, both for a major publisher and here at The Kelsey Group, I am constantly being asked what the industry could do to make itself more relevant and stem the tide of usage decline and the wholesale dismissal of the product with the under 30 crowd.

Empowering consumers to directly ask companies for what they want and to vocalize when they see something they do not agree with has certainly become the “norm” today. Bloggers have become citizen journalists, Web sites are “community owned” and supported, and brands are allowing consumers to direct new TV ads — all indications that major companies have understood the change in the marketing rules. Time Magazine in fact named “you” as the person of the year.

According to the Time article: “It’s about the many wresting power from the few … and how that will not only change the world, but change the way the world changes. In other words, ‘you’ have the power, and brands and its institutions must get ready for the changes that ‘you’ will demand.”

The Yellow Page brand continues to remain closed to consumers, and consumers are showing their displeasure by refusing to accept or keep the print book and opting for local search options on the major search engines rather than going to publisher sites.

But where is the Yellow Pages industry in all this consumer-empowered change? While great strides have been made by allowing users to participate with online reviews, the Yellow Pages industry has yet to fully embrace and understand that its advertiser base and content is currently less of a strategic advantage in the age of the consumer.

While the advertising industry has begun to focus on and address the changing needs of the consumer, publishers are conversely spending the majority of their time and energy on what the advertiser wants, how to get more advertisers interested in the product and how to retain advertisers that migrate from print to online.

As the advertiser base shrinks globally, it seems a clear indication that this focus needs to be altered if there is to be long-term viability, particularly for the print product. We have found local advertising is more social in nature with word of mouth, the ability to view people’s work or products up close and the ability to meet unique local needs becoming the driving forces that are changing the way buyers interact with local companies.

Consumers are in charge and they are vocal about what they want and who they support. Yellow Pages as a group has done a mediocre job of telling consumers why the print and online directories are relevant products in their lives, how they are changing to meet new demands, and how consumers can continue to benefit from the most comprehensive database of local businesses available.

Consumers view data as currency that can be traded, shared and customized to suit individual needs. The current Yellow Pages format, however, remains rigid and inflexibly bound into large books dropped off on doorsteps each year.

In this age of “empowered consumers,” what can publishers do to understand what consumers want and how they want to interact with the massive local database Yellow Pages offers? How can the print product evolve to address emerging consumer needs, particularly post-college graduates who are waking up to the real world with the real needs of setting up a house, connecting to local merchants, and becoming part of a new community? Does the industry really have a grasp on how the way people search for local information has changed and how can this understanding change the way the print product is formatted and produced? And can this all be done without the specter of immediate revenue return hanging over the heads of product development teams?

The goal should be to listen and learn from consumers about what makes for a great local search experience, then delivering it in real, differentiated, meaningful features and benefits. 

The empowered consumer shift is well under way and now is the time for the Yellow Pages industry to use its considerable local advantage while it can to swing the pendulum back toward viewing the directory product line as the most comprehensive source of local business information whenever and wherever people need it. 

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