Is it “Say Yellow to the Future”—Yellowbook.com's new ad tagline—or “Say Goodbye to Yellow Pages”? The latter is the title of a research report released in July by researcher Borrell Associates, which predicts the print Yellow Pages industry will collectively lose $5 billion in revenue by 2013.
The print medium is not dead yet, but it is on life support, according to advertisers and industry pundits.
Borrell isn't the only one issuing a dire warning. AOL's Walletpop blog created a Top 25 Things Vanishing From America list. Along with VCRs, pit toilets, classified ads and personal checks, the Yellow Pages comes in at No. 24.
The Yellow Pages industry paints a very different picture. In February, the Yellow Pages Association released industry research that showed combined Yellow Pages usage online and off grew to 17.2 billion searches last year, from 16.7 billion in 2006. That number combines 3.8 billion Yellow Pages searches online, measured by comScore, and 13.4 billion print searches, measured by Knowledge Networks/SRI. Print use remained stable, according to the Yellow Pages Association, while Internet Yellow Pages searches increased 15%.
But publisher stocks have been hammered, with prices falling precipitously since January. Three companies—AT&T Corp.'s the Real Yellow Pages, Idearc and R.H. Donnelley Inc.—receive the lion's share of the market, and all are to some extent seeing print revenue decline.
The ill health of the printed phone book industry goes beyond the fact that more and more people access directory information online, say observers.
“Many national advertisers feel ignored, neglected and frustrated with the medium due to a lack of fundamental accountability metrics and other questionable practices,” the Association of National Advertisers' Telephone Directory Committee said in an open letter to the Yellow Pages industry issued in April.
The ANA has urged the Yellow Pages industry to improve its measurement practices by providing national syndicated audience measurement research and circulation auditing. The industry currently measures only 18% of the U.S. market.
ANA said the $15 billion industry, of which national advertisers comprise $2.3 billion, must address measurement issues in order to meet marketers' needs.
“At a time of intense focus on advertising accountability, the committee is discouraged by the Yellow Pages industry's failure to provide basic accountability and ROI metrics,” said Janice Lucente, marketing manager of Allstate Corp. and the ANA's Telephone Directory Committee chairwoman, in the letter.
Bill Duggan, exec VP at ANA, told BtoB the lack of syndicated measurement is frustrating. “We have been requesting what for advertisers are basic metrics, and there continues to be resistance on the part of the Yellow Pages,” he said. He said the limited measurement conducted by some of the big Yellow Pages publishers has been “drastically pulled back” recently.
One of those publishers, however, disputes the ANA's claims.
“Our research is probably the best research in the industry,” said Bob Mueller, executive director of communications and business operations for the Real Yellow Pages, a division of AT&T. “It meets ARF [Advertising Research Foundation] guidelines.” Mueller added, “We've done more research than we ever have in the past in terms of usage on the print product that is very specific by market, and we now research more markets than we have in the past.”
Neg Norton, president of the Yellow Pages Association, said the group has initiated a measurement and accountability program to monitor the top 400 national advertisers for print ad effectiveness. Since January, 100 advertisers have been conducting tests using phone numbers that only appear in Yellow Pages ads.
Even so, advertisers continue to shift spending to paid search and online directories.
Mitch Goldstone, president-CEO of ScanMyPhotos.com was a loyal Yellow Pages advertiser for 18 years. But the photo scanning and finishing company stopped using Yellow Pages ads completely this year after the Yellow Pages in Orange County inadvertently left his ad out of its 2008 book. Goldstone opted to advertise with Local.com, a search engine that targets a business' message to local customers. The Local.com ads made his phones ring more than the Yellow Pages ad did, but at half the cost, he said.
“We should have gotten out two years ago,” said Thomas G. Martin, president of private investigator Martin Investigative Services and a Yellow Pages advertiser for 27 years. He replaced that advertising with Google and Yahoo pay-per-click search ads, and will be entirely out of the print Yellow Pages by December.
Stephanie Calahan, principal of Calahan Solutions, an organizational consultant, said she stopped using the print Yellow Pages in May.
“Fifty-one percent of our leads come from the Internet,” Calahan said. “In the past three years, we have received one phone call from someone who found us in the print Yellow Pages.”