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When I read the article in The Boston Globe today that yet again chronicles the woes of big city Yellow Pages directories (full disclosure alert: I was interviewed for the Boston Globe article but not quoted), several thoughts came to mind.

The first thought is that directory publishers need to gain more control over this issue, which seems to have taken on a life of its own. I realize this isn’t an easy task, but I do not know how many more dust-gathering-on-the-uncollected-phone-books-in-the-apartment-building-foyer stories this industry can take. It is a visual that seems to sweep away any other evidence, however credible, that Yellow Pages is still a functioning local medium, including in large cities. At some point, the risk is that perception becomes reality.

Another thought is that an inconvenient truth for this industry is that the product model in the densest urban centers needs to be rethought. Is the book in fact too big for a four-story walk-up apartment building? Should the IYP or some other online product be the primary urban core product, with a scaled down, opt-out print product as a strong secondary offering? Is call measurement being used aggressively enough in the urban core? Is the current pricing model obsolete? No idea should be swept off the table before it’s fully vetted.

Some work has already been done to adapt the print product to the urban core, such as reducing book scale and rescoping to smaller trading areas, doing more hyper-local directories and so on. But it seems that more innovation, and risk taking, is needed. In France, for example, PagesJaunes has acknowledged that in Paris print is secondary to its online product. The publisher has also made it clear that print still reigns supreme in much of the rest of France. This distinction needs to be acknowledged and products need to be developed accordingly.

Another thought that came to mind as I read the Boston Globe article (and this one, which seems to be based on it) is the thin reporting in so many of these articles that spotlight either the supposed environmental hazards of print Yellow Pages (ironically newspapers take up far more landfill space), or the diminishing importance of Yellow Pages in the media mix.

The Boston Globe article quotes one consumer who claims all the numbers she needs are stored on her cellphone. She must have tremendous foresight. The article also quotes a local blogger who has taken on the issue of unsolicited directory distribution as a personal crusade of sorts. I’m sure he is sincere and he has a point to make. The reporter also quotes one advertiser, a plumber, who said he was reconsidering his investment in Yellow Pages. I don’t doubt that he is. But I do wonder if it was really that hard to find one consumer who uses the book or one advertiser in Boston who would attest to keeping the lights on at least in part through customers that found his business in the Yellow Pages. Maybe it was that hard, but I still have my doubts.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Charles,

    One way to re-join the conversation would be for directory publishers to start blogging. They all have very smart CEOs and VPs, who usually have a lot to say, but we only communicate behind closed doors or in industry conferences. It’s time for the industry to get back its share of voice and I think it would help to address the media bashing that’s currently happening.

  2. Hi Seb,
    Thanks for the comment and I agree, though we certainly don’t want industry leaders to stop speaking at conferences 😉 Another related point is that it would be a serious mistake for the industry or individual companies to disengage from the media because they think they are being treated unfairly (which they are to a large degree). Most of the time, they will get better treatment when they answer the phone and engage the media openly than when they don’t. It doesn’t always work, but it usually works better than silence.

  3. It always amuses me to see “news”papers running stories like this without a note at the bottom which reads, “full disclosure – our print/internet products compete with yellow pages for advertising revenue.”

  4. The publishers should start by “reading” the industry and related blogs first! Lots of great ideas and advice – free for the taking! And you know the “strong economic headwinds” are at a gale force when the infamous YP plumber says that he’s not sure that spending “several thousand dollars” a year on advertising in the phone book is worth it. Only to be accentuated with “I haven’t picked one up in I don’t know how long.” That’s coming from an advertiser? YIKES!

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