Seattle’s ROI on Yellow Pages Postcards #PrintSpam

Yesterday, the Yellow Pages industry won the latest round in a fight with Seattle over whether (or how) Seattle can regulate the print-spamming of their city.

It’s one thing to litter yellow pages all over town. It’s another to expect the city to cover the cleanup costs for this unsolicited print spam.

Which brings us to yellow page’s print spam defender Ken Clark’s tweet posted above. Seattle got the word out about the enhanced city service that allows residents to opt-out of yellow pages deliveries through print postcard marketing. Not surprisingly, this also took paper. Four tons of paper according to Ken Clark. Now, compare four tons of postcards to the spam generated by the yellow pages industry every year in Seattle:

The city adopted the restrictions in 2010, saying that the delivery of the phone books to residents who didn’t want them generated 1,300 tons of waste a year and cost the city nearly $200,000 to dispose of.

Is it just me, or does 1,300 tons seem like a lot more than 4 tons?

1-Year of YP Print Spam vs Seattle Postcards

According to Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, the city’s opt-out plan has been very popular with residents, and saved a ton (figuratively) and tons (literally) of YP waste:

Seattle’s opt-out system has been in place for more than a year now with overwhelming response. So far more than 25 percent of households and businesses have opted out of more than 435,000 phone books, saving over 400 tons of paper.

With a one-time mailing of four tons of postcards, the City of Seattle managed to remove 400 tons of unsolicited and proactively declared unwanted yellow pages from their waste stream. And that’s just the first year. Those were some powerful postcards. (The average household that’s chosen to opt-out has stopped the littering of 5.5 phone books per year on their property.)

The Yellow Pages industry remains tone deaf on the perceived value of unsolicited print spam. Local Search Association President, Neg Norton, illustrates this well:

“You know,” Norton said, “It’s funny. We’ve had conversations with elected officials across the country who were considering similar types of legislation, and nobody’s wanted to pass a bill like this … once they hear about the things we’re doing.”

Norton says the yellow-pages industry is changing, using 50 percent less paper than five years ago. The directories are only 35 percent ads, he said. The rest is made up of maps, stadium seating charts, government information and other helpful public information, he said.

If yellow pages are valuable, why did 25% of city residents take the time to proactively opt-out of receiving them? In 2012, how can a person find a map, stadium seating chart, government info, or “other helpful public information” without a yellow pages directory?

Seattle businesses can now look forward to paying for ads that will absorbing Seattle showers on doorsteps of households that proactively declared that they don’t find that form of advertising valuable. These same businesses can look forward to paying their share of the $200,000 per year it costs the city to clean up unsolicited yellow pages directories.

Who wins here?

Seattle residents, who have to pay more taxes to clean up the YP industry’s print spam? Nope.

Seattle businesses, who’ll have to pay to place ads in directories that will never be opened? Nope.

Seattle’s government, that will have to find $200,000/year from somewhere else in the city’s budget to clean up the YP industry’s litter? Nope.

The YP industry, who can litter every household in the city with unsolicited print spam without consequence? Bingo.

Seattle’s Yellow Pages Opt-Out System is Working Well

Seattle is kicking Minneapolis’ butt when it comes to eliminating phone book spam with a side effect of saving a ton of money:

Since the program began last May, more than 75,000 Seattle residents and businesses stopped their yellow-pages deliveries, removing 375 tons — more than 419,000 books — from the waste and recycle streams, according to city officials.

Yellow pages companies each maintain their own opt-out lists, so you can call up Dex, Yellowbook, or SuperPages to ask them to remove you from their distribution lists. As I’ve found out over time, there is little incentive for YP companies to actually honor those lists, so don’t be surprised if you still receive print spam on your doorstep after choosing to opt-out.

Seattle decided to bring some accountability to the opt-out system. First, they created a universal opt-out form (like a do-not-call list) where residents can fill out one form to get all all lists. That alone is a huge time saver for city residents. Then, they added a fine for YP companies that don’t honor the opt-out list. A fine that’s easily avoidable since all you have to do is do what has been asked of you. The city allows for a small margin of error, so the system isn’t overly punitive.

Is there money to be saved by preventing the over-delivery of yellow pages directories? Yep:

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) calculated that the city had spent as much as $300,000 a year to recycle phone books.

But, as we have seen, Yellow Pages companies in the United States aren’t the most progressive companies in the world. They’ve sued Seattle over this program. You’d think that a program that distills YP deliveries down to only those who find the directories valuable would be of value to the YP industry as well. Don’t they save money by not having to print 419,000 books per year that people didn’t plan to use?

Amy Healy, vice president for public policy and sustainability for the Local Search Association, a yellow-pages trade organization, said that while the group does not support Seattle’s ordinance, it does support consumers’ right to refuse directory delivery and provides its own opt-out service.

This is true. The YP industry does provide its own opt-out service, but has no accountability. I believe that system was in place before Seattle decided to protect residents from yellow pages print spam (while saving taxpayers money).

Put another way, it was the Yellow Pages industry’s failure to regulate itself that led to Seattle regulating it.

Yellow Pages Don’t Kill Trees, But Are a Wasteful Duplication of the Web

The Yellow Pages Association – who’s name became so tainted that the rebranded as the Local Search Association – is trying to convince us that phone books are green because they litter households with books made from recycled materials and wood chips rather than virgin forests:

That seemed a little ridiculous to me, so I left a comment. A comment that the Local Search Association has let sit in a moderation queue since October 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm:

Moderated Comment on Local Search Association Website

Now, one could make the case that just because someone owns a computer doesn’t mean that they prefer using it for looking up local business information, so we shouldn’t be taking away their print directories. I agree. All we need to do is switch to an opt-in system where people who truly want the books will get them.

This would allow the Local Search Association to stop having to defend itself against the bad PR that comes from spamming households. And, they could stop making videos about trees since their environmental impact would decline dramatically when directories are only delivered to people who have a use for them in 2011.

Yellow Pages vs. Direct Mail Opt-Out Competence

It’s interesting to watch how yellow pages directory supporters justify their industry’s incompetence. Here is a recent example from the comments of one of my videos on YouTube. As a refresher, here’s the video, followed by the most recent comments:

Here’s the start of the latest exchange:

Just another whacko? fighting the good fight. Do you go to all the companies that send you junk mail and throw the mail onto their property. I think it’s only fair to treat everyone equally.

planesx12 raised a decent point. Here was my response:

@planesx12 I’d consider doing something similar with junk mail, except direct mail companies actually do a good job honoring opt-out requests. That’s a sensible approach. Why do they get it right while yellow pages directory companies continue to fail??

That generated a response from planesx12:

@thedeets Because their mailing is computer generated and it just takes a simple keystroke. Phone book deliveries are done by people and most don’t look at the delivery sheets which have your opt-out request. They simply go down the street and deliver to every house they see. And when you make a stink the deliver guy gets reamed a new ass hole or fired and the next schlep does the same thing.? If you nicely call up the delivery office and ask them to come pick up the book, SUCCESS!

I don’t know what type of response planesx12 is expecting to his comment, but here is what I hear: “We don’t know how to use computers, and we’re not willing to pay and train people to work at a competent level. Instead, we’d like to offset our incompetence onto you by asking you to call to fix a problem you asked up to fix but failed to do so. We would consider this to be a success because it means less work for us.”

But planesx12 didn’t stop there. He/she took the time to leave a second response:

@thedeets Why not just be a decent bloke, pick-up the book and throw it in the trash. Your not saving trees recycling because the books are made from recycled paper. the only other? use for the book is to cut the binder off and shred it into filler as recycled paper can not be made into paper again. The truth of the matter is phone books are better off in the dump as they break down naturally and help filter other crap.

How about that? By planesx12’s logic, yellow pages trash actually improves landfills. That’s some seriously twisted logic.

Seriously, planesx12, keep talking. Your arguments are golden. Or, is it yellow? All I know is that they aren’t solving my problem. All I want is to no longer receive unsolicited print yellow pages spam. Is that too much to ask?

Yellowbook USA’s Use of Social Media for Customer Service

One common use of social media services by companies these days is to monitor their brands in search of complaints from customers. If done right, companies can engage engage those people and possibly turn a frustrated customer into a fan.

And then their is Yellowbook USA’s strategy, which seems to be “insult the frustrated”. I get to experience this on a semi-regular basis on YouTube where commenters associated with Yellowbook take time out of their busy schedules to leave comments like this:

Dude, I work at Yellowbook. You’re such an idiot. Find better things to do with your? time. Maybe try and make some friends.

I left a reply:

@petejt1983 thanks for the tip. If I could offer? one to you: See if you can get your company to live up to the promises it makes. I think that’s a reasonable request. Agreed?

Will @petejt1983 take me up on that reasonable request? Based on what I’ve seen of Yellowbook USA’s culture, I have my doubts.

Yellowbook Employee rescommm74326 Closes YouTube Account

Yesterday, I wrote about an employee from the Yellowbook print yellow pages spam company that has been harassing me on YouTube. I pointed out that, in addition to being a jerk, he has literally peed on a competitor’s office and left blatantly racist comments on a competing yellow pages directory company’s YouTube videos.

After doing this, I left a comment for Mr. rescommm74326 on YouTube in response to one of his earlier comments on one of my videos. I said:

@rescommm74326 it looks like you work for? Yellowbook. That explains your motivation. I wrote up a little summary on my blog of what I found in a few minutes of searching. Try Googling your username together with mine, like this “rescommm74326 thedeets” to find it.

This brought a response from rescommm74326, who said:

I’m sure the 7 people who read your? blog will actually care. As for me, I couldn’t care less. Why not spend your time doing something positive, like, perhaps, getting a job? Or, better yet, a life?

Coincidentally, as Greg pointed out in the comments to my prior post, rescommm74326 deleted his YouTube account today. What a coinkydink.

Also, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I had downloaded a copy of rescommm74326’s video where a group of Yellowbook employees held a Shake Weight party at their office. I’d hate for something like that to disappear. I know that the 7 people who read my blog will find it entertaining.

Yellowbook USA Dudes Shake Weight Party

I don’t know why rescommm74326 suddenly decided to close his YouTube account. Did someone at Yellowbook realize that they have an embarrassment working for them? Did he get canned? Did he get threatened with being canned if he didn’t delete his YouTube account? Does someone working for Yellowbook have more common sense than rescommm74326? (Let’s hope so.) Is rescommm74326 searching for a new job? A new life? All I know is that rescommm74326’s talking and walking are a bit out of sync at this point.

I hope the seven of you who read this have found it as entertaining as I have.

Yet Another Yellowbook USA Customer Service Fail

There are some really strange people on the internet. Among the strangest I’ve seen are employees of yellow pages directory spammer, Yellowbook.

For example, I’ve recently been receiving harassing comments on a YouTube video I posted in July, 2009 titled “Yellowbook Yellow Pages Opt-Out FAIL” where I collected Yellowbooks that my neighbors hadn’t bothered to bring into their homes and returned them to our local Yellowbook office in Mendota Heights. This was inspired by Yellowbook failing to honor their promise to STOP delivering their books to me. For those who haven’t seen the video, here it is:

A new commenter has been lobbing some bombs at me on YouTube. Here is the latest:

Yellowbook Employee Says I Need Psychiatric Help?

As one might imagine, the kind of person who takes the time to attack me based on the content of a video like that probably has some sort of connection to the yellow pages spamming industry, and probably to Yellowbook specifically.

So I Googled the username, rescommm74326, and things got interesting.

Back on December 3rd, I gave a presentation about yellow pages spam at the Give & Take event at Intermedia Arts. During that presentation, I explained that there are people who hate yellow pages spam more than me. Sure, I’m not above throwing spam directories at yellow pages offices, but it’s not like I pee on their buildings. Pee on their buildings? Yes, pee on their buildings. Which is something that a YouTube user named . . . wait for it . . . rescommm74326 posted a video of himself doing, which I happened to grab two screenshots from for my 10th slide:

rescommm74326 Peeing on an Idearc Media Building

Those screengrabs are from a video titled “Idearc Media pissed me off. So I pissed on them” which has since been deleted from YouTube. To be clear, that was done by an adult.

Now, at the time, I figured that this was someone I could identify with. A print yellow pages spam hater who takes things further than I would. But, after watching this video from the same YouTube user, rescommm74326 . . .

Yellowbook USA Dudes Shake Weight Party
@rescommm74326, delete it if you want. I’ve downloaded & saved a copy.
UPDATE: @rescommm74326 deleted it, so I updated this with the copy I saved.

Hmm, is it just me, or are those Yellowbook directories in the background? Is that a Yellowbook office? It’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder whether someone harassing me about my Yellowbook video works for . . . you guessed it . . . Yellowbook.

I realize that Yellowbook has a lot of employees, but how many companies foster a culture that makes employees think it’s okay to attack end users of your product on YouTube who have a legitimate complaint about a company’s customer service incompetence?

Keep in mind that this is the same company, Yellowbook, that never responded to me about my request to be paid for their continued spamming my my property after they promised to make it stop:

While many yellow pages companies are tone deaf when it comes to dealing with the public, I think Yellowbook leads the pack.

Back to YouTube user, rescommm74326. Here is another Idearc Media video that rescommm74326 decided to comment on recently:

Here are his comments:

rescommm74326 Commenting on Idearc Media Video

Yes, he really wrote that.

@rescommm74326 has two followers on YouTube. One of them is the official YouTube account for . . . wait for it . . . Yellowbook. Yes, that’s correct. Yellowbook has associated themselves with what appears to be an employee who pees on competitor’s buildings, harasses end users of their product when they have legitimate complaints about Yellowbook failing to live up to their own promises, and makes racially horrific YouTube comments about a competitor’s spokesperson.

Yellowbook is going to have to try hard to outdo these examples of incompetence.

The Carbon Cost of Yellow Pages vs Laptops

If you compare the carbon cost of print yellow pages spam to time spent using laptops for search, yellow pages appear to produce 9X more pollution than laptops. Here’s the lowdown:

One of the stranger used by the Yellow Pages industry as a defense of their wasteful product is to claim that it’s less wasteful than using computers to look up business information. For example, they might say that it’s hypocritical for people, like me, to use computers to blog about the environmental impact of yellow pages spam since yellow pages are made from recycled and recyclable materials while computers are made from heavy metals and need a constant supply of electricity to run.

This argument start to fall apart when one looks at the percentages of recycled material used (only ~40%) and the recycling rates (only 20% on average). While both are better than nothing, both could be better if the yellow pages industry really walked their talk.

It’s certainly fair to point out that laptops aren’t the most environmentally friendly products in the world. But, is the argument put forth by yellow pages apologists appropriate?

I decided to try to attempt to run the numbers on the carbon cost of yellow pages vs the use of a laptop computer to get a feel for whether that was a valid argument. This isn’t exactly easy, but I’ll show you the assumptions I used so you can adjust for your own situation based on, say, the weight of the yellow pages you’re spammed with annually.


The main assumptions here are the number of printed directories companies spam households with annually together with the average lifespan of a laptop computer. For this example, I’m going with 3 printed books with an average weight of 3 pounds. In reality, I’ve received as many as 5 books per year in Minneapolis in recent years (3 from Dex plus one each from Yellowbook and Superpages). On the laptop scene, I’ve chosen 4 year lifespans. Some people definitely turn over their laptops more often than that, while some are still running laptops on Windows XP.

I’ve also dug around online for some figures for the manufacturing cost and benefits gained from recycling both yellow pages and phone books. For the recycling offset, I divided it by average recycling rates for both yellow pages and computers. Sadly, we only see those benefits 20% of the time. And don’t forget that the benefits of not creating a product that won’t be used at all dwarfs the benefits of recycling.

Here is what I came up with:

Based on the assumptions and calculations listed above, the carbon cost of running a laptop 40 hours/week (and replacing it once every four years) is 3X more carbon intensive than receiving 9 pounds of phone books annually.

In my own case, the carbon cost of using my laptop is very valuable while the phone books delivered to my home are completely wasteful.

Looking at the yellow page’s industry’s argument, does it end up making any sense? It seems like, to do so, a person would have to use their computer at least 1/3 of the time on yellow pages related searches. I think it’s safe to assume that that’s not the case. I have a hard time believing that people who are using computers are backing away from their desk (or getting off their couch, up from the table at the coffee shop, etc) to leaf through a printed directory when they could search for local businesses in seconds, compare them, read reviews, email them to friends to ask for feedback, etc.

According to Nielsen, people are not spending 1/3 of their time on line searching for local businesses. In fact, search is only the 7th most popular use of time online. Far behind social networking, online games, and email. Nielsen’s stats say that search accounts for 3.5% of time spent online.

If that’s the case, a fair argument could be made for comparing the carbon cost of the time spent using laptops for search vs. the carbon cost of yellow pages. When that’s done, yellow pages generate 9X more pollution than laptops.

Keep in mind that Nielsen’s 3.5% figure accounts for ALL searches a person conducts; not just searches conducted for the type of information one could find in a printed yellow pages directory. For example, I’ve run a boatload of searches to find figures for use in this blog post that would not be found in any of the printed directories spammed onto my doorstep annually. Chopping down that 3.5% figure to local business searches would give an even estimate of just how wasteful printed yellow pages are vs. using a small fraction of a laptop’s life on local business searches.

Yellow Pages Search Traffic Continues Downward Spiral

Stephanie Hobbs recently boasted on the Yellow Pages Association’s blog,, about the fact that the term “yellow pages” is among the top-50 terms searched for on the web.

Here is some more information about the popularity of the term “yellow pages” worth considering:

According to Google Trends, the popularity of the term “yellow pages” has dropped by ~2/3rds over the past 5 years:

Yellow Pages Search Volume over Time

Over the past 12 months, states with the highest search volumes for yellow pages have been primarily in the Deep South:

States that Search for Yellow Pages Online

Yelp Factor

One local business directory term that’s growing rather than shrinking, and on track to overtake “yellow pages” is “yelp”:

Yellow Pages vs Yelp Search Volumes

That makes sense, considering how superior Yelp’s consumer experience is to any of the online yellow pages websites.

Motivation of Searchers?

I wonder how many of those “yellow pages” searches were conducted by people looking up how to unsubscribe from the yellow pages that were littered on their property throughout the year?

Dick Larkin’s Hillbilly Yellow Pages Logic

Dick Larkin of YP Commando has an interesting list of “hillbilly logic” in his newsletter where he presents yellow pages industry positions on a lot of hot topics in the news these days.

He starts out by insulting politicians who’ve attempted to respond to concerns from constituents regarding over delivery of yellow pages directories, then gets into his hillbilly logic list. To see his list with his commentary, click here. Below is his list with my commentary.

1. Local businesses underwrite the entire cost of compiling, editing, proofing, printing, and distributing the Yellow Pages. The only funding for the books comes from local businesses.

But they don’t cover the cost of cleaning up the mess they create. Taxpayers are on the hook for the pickup and disposal costs of the directories, whether they were used or not. Asking YP companies to cover the cost of the mess they create seems reasonable to me.

2. Local businesses are VERY SOPHISTICATED advertisers.

If that’s the case, why is so much YP advertising sold based on metric-poor ego-driven competition comparisons, fear, and loyalty rather than performance? Or worse. There are plenty of stories of small businesses who want to cancel their ad because they no longer think the cost is justified. But, since YP advertising is often sold with a loyalty metric (you’ll lose your position in the directory among advertisers advertising with similar sized ads), leaving for a year then coming back is very punitive.

3. The business generated by advertising would not otherwise occur.

I don’t have any yellow pages directories in my home. Yet if a pipe were to break, I’d still manage to contact a plumber. Business would happen. Or, are you suggesting that water would continue to pour into my home until a YP directory was delivered?

4. Asking consumers to opt-in to receive a local resource that has been freely distributed since 1878 is like asking residents to begin voluntarily funding the local libraries, police, and fire services.

No, it is not at all like that. Were it so, the YP industry wouldn’t be actively working to kill off white pages directories.

5. Yellow Pages publishers are privately held companies who make no money publishing directories that are not used.

The YP industry has a media model where having the illusion of market saturation is part of the value proposition. While one would think that the YP industry would self regulate to an effective targeted distribution strategy, this has not happened, which is why politicians are hearing from frustrated constituents.

6. If directories cease to deliver profitable customers, the businesses will stop advertising. When the businesses stop advertising, the books disappear naturally.

Agreed. This is definitely happening. Hopefully, YP companies figure out how to use the web more effectively than this.

Sadly, yellow pages insiders seem to think that they’re entitled to spam residents with unsolicited phone directories multiple times per year, the tide is shifting. Do to a shift in business search behavior, over deliveries due to competing directories, people are feeling inundated with directories and want to gain back some control over what’s left to rot on their doorsteps.

While Dick Larkin considers political efforts to bring some sanity to phone directory distribution “anti-small business”, in reality, it’s only a response to the failures of the YP industry to regulate itself.

Regarding the cost to businesses of something like Seattle’s proposed recovery fee that would chip 14 cents per distributed book to the city to cover the costs of dealing with the eventual clean-up of the books. Seattle has 258,499 households, so this “anti-small business” proposal would cost only $36,189 for a YP company delivering to every household in the city. I have a hunch that $36k divided by all of Seattle’s yellow pages advertisers isn’t all that punitive. Especially considering that the advertisers are also taxpayers, thus paying a share of this cost today through municipal waste fees.

I get the impression that people like Dick Larkin and Ken Clark are big believers in personal responsibility. This is a case where they can show that they walk the walk by getting their industry to take responsibility for the waste it creates.