Directed Advertising Integrated Marketing

In Praise of the Lowly Yellow Pages

If you asked my clients and colleagues whether I’m a lo-tech or hi-tech kind of marketer, they’d all say the latter.  It’s a rare strategy session that I don’t find some way to suggest search, or content syndication, or blogging, or widgets, or behavioral, or email, or… well, you get the picture.

But the fact is, like my agency, Tanen Directed Advertising, I am actually channel neutral.  If a tactic works, I say, use it.  Not blindly — you need a strategy, and the tactic has to have a measurable chance at achieving your strategic goals, but if it does, I say, go for it.

And that’s why I’m writing about Yellow Page Directory advertising. And no, not the online local search kind. I’m talking yellow cardstock cover, dead tree, “pile three of them on a chair so your 4-year old can see the monitor” kind of yellow pages.

You see, it seems that the lowly, lo-tech yellow pages has a ridiculous click thru rate.  According to a recent study, 78% of directory users contact an average of 2 businesses after referencing a directory.  The most popular action taken is picking up the phone, which happens 93% of the time.  But it’s not limited to a phone call: 31% show up in person, 10% go online, and 1% get in touch through the mail.

Those are monster numbers.  And when you consider that for many categories, there is far less noise and competition than Google, they’re even more compelling.

We all love search because we know that anyone who is in the act of searching is in some stage of the buying cycle.  (According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 81% of all internet users “look online for information about a product or service they are thinking of buying.”)

Local search is growing because it turns out that people who search online sometimes shop locally. (The increasing adoption and use of mobile phones and the growing utility and quality of mobile search isn’t hurting, either.)

Unlike most other forms of advertising, both types of search are non-intrusive and non-interruptive.  They are, in fact, requested and highly desired services.

The same logic holds true with yellow pages.  In fact, didn’t search really start with the yellow pages?  (This reminds me a little of how television advertising is beginning to return to it’s sponsor-driven, branded content and product placement roots)

The study was conducted by Knowledge Networks for the Association of Directory Publishers, so it’s lucky for them that the numbers came out as positive as they did.  But I don’t doubt their findings.  After all, how many times have you reached for the yellow pages in the last few months?  Not many, perhaps.  But, when you did, what did you do next?  See what I mean.

That’s the point.  We all still use the yellow pages sometimes, some of us more than others.  And when we do, we take action.  (Of course, that action isn’t always positive.  I’ve never thrown my computer across the room while cursing Google the way I have my local yellow pages because I can’t figure out in which poorly defined and barely indexed category my local movie 10-Plex is to be found.  Hint: It’s not movie theaters or cinemas, which aren’t mentioned at all.  And if you’re silly enough to look up  “Movies” you’ll be rewarded with “See: CDs, Records and Tapes, Retail; Video Tapes & DVDs Rental & Sales.”  Nope, it’s under Theatres, along with the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Greenwich Shakespeare Co. , New Canaan Playhouse, Stamford Center for the Arts, etc.)

Now, I’m not suggesting we shift our entire budgets out of AdWords and into printed yellow pages directories.  But given the ridiculously low comparative cost of yellow pages advertisements, the extremely long ad life/placement persistence and the comparatively high level of response surrounding their use, can someone please explain to me why more businesses aren’t including them in their media mix?

By jlsimons

I’m a storyteller who has spent my life focused on the things people do for fun, from games and hobbies to comic books and podcasts. I love building and managing teams of incredible people and empowering them to do the best, most fun and fulfilling work of their careers. I am also a senior level marketing executive with a unique blend of over 34 years of podcast marketing, social media community building, promotional partnerships, advertising, interactive, branding, marketing, paid and organic search, direct response, analytics, and game design. Along the way, I've built a leading podcast brand and a million-plus-subscriber YouTube channel, created multinational promotions for global brands, and co-desiged critically acclaimed collectible card and role-playing games.
Oh yeah, and I write science fiction.

Specialties: Podcast marketing, social media community building, promotional partnerships, integrated marketing, social media, strategic marketing, alternate channels, direct response, corporate marketing, copywriting, advergaming, game design and development, financial advertising

9 replies on “In Praise of the Lowly Yellow Pages”

I had just finished looking through my own copy of the Yellow Pages, when I read your latest entry. I was looking for an alternative to my usual mass market (?) book store for one more convenient to my favorite d-i-l to purchase a gift card for her birthday. Sure enough, I found one, nearer to me than I thought and, therefore, better for both of us. I’m headed there today. I guess that was your point, from a layman’s point of view.


Print YP is the original search engine, and even if many people “browse” the Internet, as a business, why would you not advertise in the media where they go when they are “ready to buy”?? Good analysis.

Thanks for the comments, Ken and Faithful. I was just at the first day of Ad:Tech NY yesterday, and met with the people from It turns out that the same people are behind both the printed and the online versions of local search, using the same sales force to give local businesses like Joe the Plumber (sorry, couldn’t resist!) the chance to be in the original and the online versions. A great example of an old tech medium reinventing itself to remain relevant and vital in a new tech era.

I am a manager for one of the larger yellow page companies, and we also do have an popular IYP and offer Google SEM. I have seen lots of businesses jump ship to early, go from spending $700/month in print to canceling and doing $2,000/month on Google expecting the WORLD. When you do the ROI on each, 9 out of 10 times they get a lower cost per lead through print, and these are much more qualified leads. I always recommend doing all 3 products. Of course I will sell my customers whatever they want, but am very hesitant to let them get rid of print totally

Thanks for the comment, Andrew. With ROI data like that, I think you’re right to try to keep your customers in print. That’s one of the most important freedoms/obligations we have as direct marketers: to listen to the data and act on it.

Measuring performance is really important. The numbers at a high level say little about the success for any given category or business. However, at a high level, the things to consider would be the dropping popularity of print yellow pages, the dilution of print YP advertising among many brands (which one will prospective customers end up using if they decide to keep any of them?), overly broad coverage areas, the cost of distributing phone books to the 15% of people who no longer use them even once a year, etc.

That being said, any form of advertising that is measurably effective is a good thing.

All very valid points, Ed, and the reason for my mistaken perception that Yellow Pages didn’t make sense as an ad medium any more. As a direct marketer, I prefer targeted, less wasteful forms of advertising. Plus there’s the green issue. You’re also right that high level numbers don’t always apply to every category. But we both agree that effectiveness is good, which means that for some advertisers, the Yellow Pages merit another look. Thanks for the comment.

Great Article-
I think you really touch on the reality of the situation. Although much can be accomplished on the web, it has its limitations and we are seeing strong signs of that as some traditional print advertisers try to seek customer volumes that will support what the yellow page programs have done for a long time. BIG MISTAKE! Plumbers, Electricians, Dentists, Doctors, Attorneys, Pizza places, restaurants, auto repair shops, cabinet guys etc all the big yellow page headings are still providing and will provide in the future the cheapest cost per call around. I have an Insurance guy which we analyzed specific to what it cost to generate a call and the Telco print book was cheapest by a long shot $12.00 per customer. Comparable leads of search sites as well as SEO programs not anywhere near that figure. In fact the cheapest was $20.00 online to make the phone ring. That is where the truth needs to be told, what does it take to actually produce a call from the web? The smart marketing people embrace the directories; specially the more used one’s and uses it to their advantage to make solid recommendations to customers. I forgot to mention there are some real crazy people out there writing all kind of BS about phone book advertising, you seen some of this crap. I did a bit of digging and I will tell you what all of them have alternative motives and the BS they are spreading will ultimately put some small business people out. I actually had a Nursery owner approach me and said that this internet marketing company told him a Google ad words campaign would triple his business!! Give me a break! I will let you guess what he thinks after six months with those inflated expectations. They told him to pull all the way out of his yellow pages and he did it. WOW, is that going to change real quickly. I picked the guy up and I’m doing him a well rounded marketing program and not at the expense of his other medium’s to sell him other advertising. Good Luck-

Thanks for the comment. (Interesting screen name, btw.) You make a compelling point about Google, small businesses and the overpromising some agencies are guilty of. When you look at potential local search volume, then run it against an estimated Click Thru and Conversion rate, some times there’s just not that much potential traffic to run a business on. Of course, that depends on the industry segment. For the hospitality industry (hotels, motels, inns), the web is far more important than the yellow pages; for local retailers, services and repair businesses, I have usually found the opposite to be true. I believe paid and natural search are just one part of an integrated, multi-channel marketing strategy (albeit a critically important one). That’s why I am a Director of Integrated Marketing — the combined arms tactics of the marketing realm.

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