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Why Are the Yellow Pages Like Nursing Homes?

They’re shockingly expensive, few people under 70 use them, and many who do are just a little out of it.

Moral of the story? When you invest in Yellow Pages ads, you’re setting fire to money.

Are we being a little harsh on this venerable (read: antique) information source? Hell no. This obsolete technology sucks millions of dollars away from more cost-effective marketing tools, while delivering less every year. There are better uses for your budget, especially if you market goods and services to people who don’t remember the Truman Administration.

Way back in the 20th Century...
The answer to Where can I buy a refrigerator? used to be let your fingers do the walking. But the only people who continue to walk those fingers in this millennium are the ones who got into that habit decades ago. Google and Yahoo, to cite two sites, offer vastly more information, from more sources, more quickly. Fresher info, too. Phone book accuracy begins to decay the moment it comes off the printing press.

Look at your brand message: how can you best tell your story? If you can draw prospects – via broadcast or print ads, good search engine rankings, or sponsored search – to your website, you can offer information precisely tailored to those prospects, with as much drill-down information as they desire. And pictures. And video. And animations. Even pages of technical specs, or multiple languages, if prospects need them. Bingo. Home run. Yahtzee.

Note carefully: we said "prospects" three times in that last paragraph, and not by chance. In branding, we pay less attention to your customers. Customers' attitudes toward you are contaminated by reality; product performance will dictate repeat purchases. The bigger lever to your growth is to create a powerful brand, to influence positively the collective perception of your best prospects.

Let's hammer that a little more: how many customers do you have? How many prospects? What's the ratio? 100-1? 1000-1? 10,000-1? Your opportunity for geometric growth is in direct proportion to your brand strength among people you don't know.

Given that, why would you want to spend a king’s ransom on Yellow Pages display ads? Those rectangles of static, limited information will be … this is where your investment gets monumentally wrong … surrounded by every competitor you have. You’ve spent big money just to set off a round of comparison-shopping phone calls. If you’re the one called first, you can’t close the sale; if you’re called second or third, you have to be the low-price spread. It’s a lose-lose. You may even be ignored totally if the prospect focuses on your competitor and never sees you. YP is a “put two dollars in, get one dollar out” crapshoot.

Measure your ROBI
Companies try to analyze Return On Investment to justify their continued YP use, comparing the cost of the ads to the sales attributed to the medium, but this is deeply flawed, for two reasons.

The first flaw is the dilemma discussed in the last paragraph: you’re spending money to be compared to every competitor, right there on the same page. It’s impossible to measure but easy to imagine how many sales you lost that way, greatly reducing your ROBI (Return On Bad Investment). Let's get real: is your YP ad so magnetic that you will capture a reader's eyes totally? So powerful she won't even look at the ad two inches to the left?

The second flaw? Too many sales are attributed to Yellow Pages: Prospect A has seen your magazine ads and bus sides, heard your radio spots, and decides to call. If he looks up your phone number, the answer to “where did you hear about us?” will often be misattributed to that thing sitting in front of him. Look at your numbers. If you're a YP advertiser, you're probably seeing declines from year to year, a trend we predict will continue. The total number of YP users will decline, because, as a tobacco client once put it to us about their brand's diminishing number of loyal users, every year a portion of them "leave the market."

It’s an addiction, and fear of withdrawal is what keeps the Yellow Pages on life support.
All the fear tactics of “combined rates” and “volume discounts” and implied threats to banish you to a “bad position” if advertisers reduce the size of ads miss the point: they are all bad positions – overpriced, underperforming, and outdated. Join the revolution: you should keep a simple line listing for older people who need to look up your phone number, but quit display ads cold turkey. Start now, because it will take 12 to 18 months to recapture and redeploy those budgets.

Consider anyone who says “oh, our company has always used the Yellow Pages” as a person failing to adapt to changing times. That’s understandable, actually, because none of this would have been true ten years ago. Even five years ago, before high-speed connectivity got so widespread, it was not a slam dunk. Many of the clients we speak to admit their YP results are in year-to-year decline, but they remain addicted out of fear.

Are there exceptions? Of course.
If you’re a locksmith, or a computer repair shop, you must advertise there: your prospects are temporarily deprived of search engine access. Likewise, if you’re marketing to the elderly or to the poor (credit furniture, payday loans, monthly-pay car insurance, bankruptcy counseling ...) YP might be cost-effective.

Your best media strategy?
Assuming you’re not one of those rare exceptions, your most effective, most leveraged approach to media can best be planned by brand strategists with the help of media planning specialists, considering your service or product, your geography, the demographics and psychographics of your primary and secondary market segments, your seasonality, budget, research … it gets even more complicated than that, but we’ll be happy to help you sort it out, to get you into this century’s best branding practices.

One thing is fairly straightforward and immediate: if you’re spending more than the very minimum on YP, it’s time to kick the habit.

© 2009 Killian & Company. All rights reserved.
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