Advertisers Pulling Back on Yellow Pages

The Yellow Pages is going green. How? By shrinking in size. We already know that it would be a lot greener for the Yellow Pages to simply stop delivering their book of ads to people who don’t want them. But according to a new report from Borrell Associates, it’s not just consumers who are pulling back from the YP. Advertisers are too:

“Over the next five years, we are expecting 39% of the ad spending on print yellow pages to vanish. After 12 years as an advertising medium, the Internet has finally reached small-business owners with viable marketing opportunities in the form of keyword advertising, interactive directories and low-priced online video commercials. The recession appears to be triggering the shift. Click here to download an executive summary or the full report.”

Let’s see: Consumers opt-out of receiving the books. Advertisers start to wake up and realize that their money invested in YP goes less far these days since fewer people rely on the YP for business information. Less advertisers use that channel to advertise their business. As less advertisers use it, the consumers start to notice that the YP is less comprehensive than it used to be so they end up turning to other sources for business information.

I feel like I’m watching a big tub of water that’s starting to swirl.

How to Unsubscribe from the Yellow Pages

Photo by Lulu Vision

I’m not a big fan of unsolicited mail in any form, including letters, email, and phone books. If you want it, fine. But having an address should not be permission enough for marketers to carpet bomb your home with marketing messages.

Greg at Metblogs recently took a look at the phone book issue by pointing out that everyone reading his post is well aware of a powerful alternative to printed directories of businesses: the web. He cites a StarTribune story that states that 85% of phone books are tossed in the trash rather than recycled – and this number is increasing. Ouch.

Johnny Northside also weighed in on the subject, explaining that phone books delivered to doorsteps in his neighborhood end up acting as a “nobody’s home” sign for potential copper thieves:

Paper Pulp Pixies of Pure Evil

The wicked phone book trolls-in-trucks had hit many properties in my neighborhood, including some places where we didn’t want a vacancy advertised and we had been trying hard to make it look like somebody was watching the property. But now piles of phone books on the steps advertised “Nobody is home. Break in and steal copper plumbing to buy crack.”

Johnny offers a solution to the problem of phone book deliveries to clearly vacant home:

Unwanted phone books dumped on the steps of vacant houses are littering. Period. The policies of our city (and other cities) should reflect this. Phone companies should not be allowed to dump their crap on our front steps. If they won’t cease, fine ’em. If they still won’t cease, throw them in jail with the crack heads.

It appears that a lot of the online defense of the YP industry comes from a guy named Ken Clark, who uses a website and blog to help market his business (irony #1) and runs Google ads on his site (irony #2). He has a recent post where tears down the anti-yellow page crowd by revealing their “hidden agendas”:

Their membership is a motley collection of bloggers (defined as self appointed experts with a keyboard, an Internet connection, and an opinion on all matters of civilization), media atheists (“I never use a print Yellow Page”), eco-elitists that believe that print Yellow Pages is the single greatest cause of ruin for the planet, those on Wall Street that think the industry is a dead animal about to keel over, and newspaper/magazine writers that delight in dragging down this industry in the hopes they can squeeze a few more advertising dollars to bolster their sinking ships.

Mr Clark stood up for the yellow pages within the comments of a yellow page bashing post on another blog by presenting some industry facts:

Those books you say you never use actually got referenced over 13 billion times last year. And that’s just the print versions. 87% of all adults reference them at least once a year, 70% in a typical month, and 50+% on average month. How about on average 1.4X each week?

According to Mr. Clark’s stats, more than 1 in 8 phone books is never opened and 30% of them are opened so rarely that it can’t possibly be justified to print and ship them. Is this what advertisers are paying for?

The new phone book is garbage
Photo by Steve Garfield

He goes on to explain the industry’s perspective on phone books’ informational superiority:

There is no other directional media that can provide buyers the information they need when they need it about local businesses than the print Yellow Pages. It is truly the original local search engine….

That seems like a bit of a stretch considering how easy it is today to search for businesses on a map with your own address at the center, with ratings, reviews, etc. provided from that point.

Mr Clark also runs a separate Yellow Pages advocacy site called YPGreen (a name similar to an environmental group called Yellow Pages Goes Green) where he puts out the good word for the YP industry. In a recent post there, he debunked some of the more common misconceptions about yellow pages including information on their manufacturing environmental impact:

Now it get’s personal « Yellow Pages Environmental Forum

Currently, on average, most publishers are using about 40% recycled material (from the newspapers and magazines you are recycling curbside), and the other 60% comes from wood chips and waste products of the lumber industry. If you take a round tree and make square or rectangular lumber from it, you get plenty of chips and other waste. Those by-products make up the other 60% of the raw material needed.

Note that these waste products created in lumber milling would normally end up in landfills. Not only that, as wood chips decompose, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas closely associated with global warming, which I assuming you are also very worried about.

Of course, this doesn’t take the environmental costs of delivery, recycling transportation, recycling, or the 85% dumped-in-landfill costs into consideration. Nor the fact that wood chips are a fungible commodity that could be burned in a power plant like Great River Energy or used to manufacture some other product from recycled materials.

Opting Out

If you’re . . .

. . . one of the 13% who never open your yellow pages over the year it sits in your home.
. . . someone who takes it off my steps as a safety precaution then recycles it.
. . . realizing that you don’t get enough value from phone books to want to justify the environmental costs

consider opting out.

You can do so at Yellow Pages Goes Green

Phone numbers that should help:
DEX: 877-243-8339
Yellow Book: 800-929-3556
Verizon: 800-555-4833

Ban Phone Books?

Could they be banned? A city council-member in Boston has been trying to do just that:

City councilor seeks to ban phone book clutter

In an effort to curtail city recycling expenses and reduce litter, Councilor Salvatore LaMattina has proposed a new ordinance that would ban the distribution of unsolicited commercial deliveries weighing more than a pound. His target: hundreds of thousands of phone books left on front stoops and sidewalks across the city.

“The taxpayers end up paying for this stuff to be carted off and recycled,” LaMattina said, noting the piles he’s seen on streets in East Boston and the North End.

Or, why not just ban home delivery? Ship the phone books to easy to access locations where people can pick them up. Then send out postcards to every home to remind people that they can swing by for a phone book or call to set up a delivery. This way, no phone books will end up unwanted at people’s homes. Megan Goodmunson proposed exactly this on the Minneapolis Issues List at e-Democracy forum:

How about the city council adopts an ordiance that bans the door to door
deliverY and requires the marketing companies to make initial contact with some
one at the residence, via telephone or return post card, and requires a
positive response from someone in the house that indicates they are interested
and in need of a new phone book. And possibly require the marketers to place a
big recycling reminder/instructions on the new phone book.

. . .

Here on the north side, with our vacant vs. occupied ratio, we have plenty of
unclaimed, un-needed white bags of phone books adding to the litter of our


Personally, I think a ban would be going too far since there certainly are people using the yellow pages today and there are businesses benefitting from reaching those consumers. However, there absolutely should be a better process in place for allowing consumers to control whether these books of ads end up on their doorsteps.

I’d like to see an opt-in system since that would have a much larger impact on “subscriptions.” A more accurate accounting of phone book users through an opt-in system would likely benefit advertisers as well since they’d have a much better feel for who may potentially see their ads. Why should advertisers cover the cost of printing and delivery of phone books to people who’ll never open them?