Get All Access for $5/mo

Not Your Father's Phone Book Thanks to high-tech adaptations, print directory ads still provide tremendous return on investment.

By Hayli Morrison

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Talk Back: Is the phone book still relevant to your business? Do your customers primarily use the internet to find you these days? Join the discussion now on Entrepreneur Connect.

Ask any Yellow Pages industry veteran and they'll tell you print advertising is not dead--despite widespread media reports to the contrary in recent years. While the latest industry statistics do show a slight decrease in use, one thing is certain--the times, they are a-changing for the Yellow Pages. With options like service guarantees, trade exchanges, direct mail and coupons-by-text, a Yellow Pages ad campaign is now more complicated--and comprehensive--than ever before.

The high-tech changes came about partially out of necessity, admits Bob Mueller, executive director of business operations for AT&T Advertising Solutions.

"There's definitely a transition going on in the marketplace and in local search," he says. "The print usage of Yellow Pages has declined, but only slightly. Not as much as some people would think, but there's no doubt that consumers are going to [more varied] platforms for their local business search information. Local search is not a zero sum game. For an advertiser to have access to all those places the eyeballs are going, they need to have a presence in each of those places."

Small Towns, Service Industries and Ready-to-Buy Consumers
Yellow Pages directories still have strong holds in industries where consumers often make "ready-to-buy" decisions. In fact, the top 10 most searched categories of the print Yellow Pages include restaurants, pizza, physicians and surgeons, auto parts and repair, attorneys and plumbing contractors.

"It's the true local, local buying decision resource," says Ken Clark, publisher of industry newsletter YP Talk. "Right now, I don't think the internet's there, as far as being the 'when I'm ready to buy' solution. Besides, when you get into tier two and tier three markets with smaller towns, you may not even get a mobile signal so print Yellow Pages is still an ingrained way of life."

The top 50 most used Yellow Pages categories are heavily weighted among service-oriented businesses where consumers are likely making instantaneous buying decisions--everything from roofing and HVAC to pest control, pet grooming and child care. However, about 20 percent of the top listings are retail businesses like grocers, lumber yards and sporting goods stores.

The Impact of the Internet
According to research conducted by the Yellow Pages Association over the past three years, usage numbers hovered around 13 billion looks for print Yellow Pages and 4 billion looks for online yellow page sites.

"A decade ago, that number might have been 18 billion [for print yellow pages]," says Scott W. Klein, CEO of Verizon Yellow Pages publisher SuperMedia. Klein adds that a Yellow Pages ad still provides a tremendous 65-to-1 average return on investment. "One of the great challenges is traditional press has been clobbered by the shift to digital, so they make the assumption that the same thing is happening to print Yellow Pages, but nothing could be further from the truth," he says.

"That doesn't mean the internet is not important or steadily growing, but if somebody were to spend all their ad dollars online, depending on the market, they would be missing a huge percentage of potential customers out there."

However, it is widely acknowledged that in heavily wired major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, digital advertising is key.
"[Print] Yellow Pages usage has declined more there than in other markets around the country," Klein says. "But, in New York in 2008, two-thirds of advertisers saw greater returns than they did in 2007."

According to Klein, one possible explanation for the increase on returns is that as more advertisers leave the Yellow Pages, all the more calls are to be had by those who stay in.

The Yellow Pages Diversifies
While steadily maintaining that printed Yellow Pages still have a place, the industry is nonetheless shifting toward a more broad range of advertising capabilities. These days, a business owner is just as likely to discuss print ads with a Yellow Pages rep as search engine optimization, customized video commercials for the web, mobile messaging campaigns and direct mail options.

"The larger Yellow Pages publishing community is going to try to help its customers find leads in whatever medium. Yellow Pages publishers have never been technology inventors, [but] they have been technology facilitators," Clark says. "They didn't invent how to put color on a page. A printer did; but the Yellow Pages industry went with it. The same thing is going to happen on the internet.

"If you look at Google and Yahoo--and I don't know that they'd be very vocal about saying this on the record--the places where they're getting a lot of their local content is from print Yellow Pages [salespeople] because these guys can go [to business owners] and say, 'Let's take a look at your complete plan.'"

Some of the latest offerings from the yellow pages include:

  • Direct mail: Most Yellow Pages publishers now offer a standard postcard-sized mailing, typically designed online and included as part of a package Yellow Pages ad deal. "There are some times when the ad in the book and the ad in the mail are identical, but more often than not there's a greater call to action in the mail," Klein says.
  • Pay per click and pay per call: This a la carte setup lets customers pay for results only, typically pertaining to internet ads.
  • ATT411: With this AT&T program, if customers want information about a company's deals and coupons they can opt in to a text message marketing list by texting a pass phrase to ATT411. The pass phrase can usually be found in the company's Yellow Pages print or online ad.
  • SuperGuarantee and SuperTradeExchange: SuperMedia offers an incentive to businesses with a qualifying SuperMedia advertisement in the Verizon Yellow Pages and; a "SuperGuarantee" on all work performed by service contractors in certain sectors. If needed, SuperMedia will even arrange for the problem to be fixed--either by the same contractor, or a different contractor--or will issue a check to the customer for up to $500.

    The SuperTradeExchange, on the other hand, is an optional membership network for SuperMedia advertisers to earn and spend "SuperBucks" currency by offering and procuring in-network goods and services. "If you're a dentist who needs brochures printed or you're a restaurateur who needs a travel agent for a vacation, you can trade services," Klein says.
  • Call tracking numbers: These unique phone numbers assigned to an ad help advertisers know exactly how many calls each ad is producing. The numbers are becoming more common, often paid for in part or whole by the Yellow Pages publisher. The phone company provides monthly data on call times and call duration and in some cases, calls can be recorded so advertisers know how their employees handled them.

Managing a Yellow Pages Ad Campaign
How do you create and maintain an effective Yellow Pages ad campaign? Get in touch with a Yellow Pages sales consultant.

Consultants will help design an effective ad, complete with what's known in the industry as the RASCIL factors:

  • Reliability: The ad should provide details about the business owner's years of experience, company size, licenses and awards.
  • Authorized: Advertisers should include any logos, trademarks and brand names they're authorized to use--this can even help advertisers get co-op dollars as a result. For instance, HVAC service professionals might include the logo from their preferred HVAC manufacturer in exchange for the manufacturer's agreement to partially reimburse the ad cost.
  • Safety: Earn consumer confidence with copy about licensing, bonding, guarantees, professionalism, etc.
  • Completeness of information: A great ad shares the entire scope of services; from whether credit cards are accepted, to parking availability, areas served and so on. A catchy headline will also convey information while drawing attention. For instance, "Freshest flowers in town" is more noticeable and informative than "Jo's Floral Shop."
  • Illustrations: Quality, eye-catching artwork or photos will help attract consumers to the ad.
  • Location: Yellow Pages ads should clearly state the business address or give directions, sometimes even with a small map in the ad.

Ask customers how they found your business and consider using call tracking numbers in Yellow Pages advertising. The extra cost and effort is small to ensure maximum efficiency of advertising dollars.

Keep good records. As with any other aspect of business management, good records-keeping is vital to a Yellow Pages advertising campaign. This is important because business owners have long dealt with various mail and e-mail scams and the Yellow Pages industry is just as susceptible to these scams as any other industry.

That famous walking fingers logo we all recognize is not trademarked and is still used by some legitimate Yellow Pages publishers. Unfortunately, scam artists also use the logo to legitimize the appearance of fraudulent Yellow Pages advertising bills. If business owners keep thorough advertising records, they can compare imposters against a real bill. It also helps to read the invoice's fine print, call related phone numbers before issuing payment and give the person writing checks full access to company records for side-by-side comparisons, according to Clark.

If a business owner receives a fraudulent bill, hang onto it. That scam's classified as mail fraud and should be reported to the Better Business Bureau or even the state attorney general.

"This has been going on as long as the Yellow Pages have been published," Clark says. "It's not unlike anything you'd experience with an online 'phishing' scam."

While some things may never change, there are plenty of transformations in store for the Yellow Pages industry as it adapts to a high-tech world offering more consumer choice.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.

Business News

'We Pulled Off An SEO Heist': Entrepreneur Stole 3.6 Million Pageviews From Competitors — And Your Business Could Be Next.

This has huge implications for businesses that rely on Google's organic traffic for revenue.

Business News

Wells Fargo Reportedly Fired More Than a Dozen Employees for Faking Keyboard Activity

The bank told Bloomberg that it "does not tolerate unethical behavior."


The Key to Real Innovation Is Cross-Pollination — Here Are 10 Ways to Implement It in Your Business

Transform your business with this unique approach to sparking innovation.

Business Solutions

Why Every Solopreneur Needs to Embrace AI-Powered Teams

With the right approach, solopreneurs can harness AI to drive efficiency, productivity and business growth.

Starting a Business

Spend Less Time Worrying About Your Company's Runway — And More Time Rethinking Your Strategy. Here's How.

Perceived short runways leave founders in angst. It does not have to be this way; the best way to extend the runway is the right strategy.