When Will Print Phone Books Die?

Northrop Auditorium Phonebooks at the U of MN
Photo by Alan Wyman of Lonely Northrop Auditorium Phonebooks at the U of MN

My phone book industry friend, Ken Clark, tries to educate people – via the web – about how valuable print phone books are. See the irony in that? People have to be explained, via the web, that the books left at their door are valuable. Books they’ve received at their door at least once a year over their lifespans.

While Ken still thinks print yellow pages are valuable – or at least wants phone book advertisers to believe they’re valuable – his own industry is starting to turn against him.

A report from the Kelsey Group predicts that yellow pages companies are going to begin killing their print editions in exchange for a pure web models:

The Online-Only Yellow Pages Publisher? For some time The Kelsey Group has been predicting that an existing print directory publisher would divest all or much of its print operations and transform itself into an online-only business with an established sales force and brand. This hasn’t happened yet, but Kelsey analysts believe the prospects of it occurring in the next 12 to 18 months are reasonably good. However, some willing sellers may have trouble finding willing buyers. What to watch for in 2009: Look for organizations that are structured to enable a clean separation of the print operation. Also look for organizations that are clearly disinvesting in print by shifting all or most marketing and product development funding and energy to the online product.

Local business advertising has been relatively slow to move to the web, making the transition for phone book companies, newspapers, and other paper based businesses a challenge. However, YP companies are starting to figure this stuff out. Having an established sales force with business relationships in local markets puts them in a great position if they can figure out how to build online advertising models that will work for local businesses.

Somehow, I think embracing the future that exists today is a safer bet than betting on print directory spam long term. Predicting when Ken will get this is probably tougher than betting that print YP’s will eventually abandon print for the web.

14 thoughts on “When Will Print Phone Books Die?”

  1. Is there a way to keep from having them delivered? We get 3 or 4 phone books a year– metro white pages, metro yellow pages, the suburb’s yellow pages…… They go right into recycling. What a waste.

  2. While I don’t enjoy getting a mountain of phone books every year at home, there is one place where they come in handy – at the museum where I work. We have a collection of phone books back to 1930, when very few people actually had phones. The early phone books are no more than pamphlets.

    If I’m trying to follow where people lived over time, or where particular businesses were located, I turn to these phone books and page through each one. For some businesses, this is the only source of information I have.

    The big discussion in museum circles is how we are going to preserve all the born-digital data that’s out there. Like when phone books are no longer produced in print version.

  3. Early last week we had our first unsolicited phone book left at our house since moving there in September. The book was in a plastic sack and left on the sidewalk, more than 8 feet from our front door. It was snowing that day, so I only discovered there was a phone book there upon shoveling the walk and unearthing it from a snow drift. Encouraged by Ed’s phone book campaign, I’m going to be returning it to the company and request to be removed from their distribution list.

  4. I found you post typical of an outsider and not someone who is in the Yellow Page industry. My company publishes directories with tracking numbers in the ads to determine performance and show our clients a true Return On Investment (ROI). My customers are able to see the time, date, ring count, number, name associated with the number, address, city, state and zip of the calls. From the data I have seen over the past 7 years I can say that print will never die, it may dwindle. Why is the you may ask, well let me tell you. In an EMERGENCY situation Print will always win. Ask yourself, would you go turn on your computer to search for a Plumber if you toilet is overflowing? Would you go next door to use your neighbors computer to call an Electrician if you fuse box sparked and shorted out (i.e. you have no electricity)? You get my point. There are still a lot of people who use print Yellow Pages and by the number of calls my company sees (I have customers who get between 500 to over 4000 calls in a 12 month period) to say the end is near would be a ridiculous statement. I agree that some headings will move to more leads being generated from online advertising but that will talk years. That is why the Yellow Page companies are spending in online products, we are lead generation companies and for those heading/advertisers we want to be positioned right to help them. As for Ken, you should listen to him because I guarantee he has more experience in the print Yellow Page industry than you do and with that experience comes a vast amount of knowledge.

  5. It would seem that you’re taking liberty in your paraphrasing …it’s somewhat out of context. What Kelsey actually predicted …with the accuracy of the weatherman (and women) who predict the likelihood of rain or how many inches of snow we’re going to get …is that “…an existing print directory publisher would divest all or much of its print operations…” The point is that there are hundreds of Yellow Pages print Publishers worldwide, and if just one of them, maybe a marginal or fringe player decided to change their model to a on-line only model, then Kelsey would be correct in their prediction. Marginal print Publishers of other medias like: magazines, newspapers, direct mail, etc. have gone the same way that internet only Publishers seem to come and go, like the drop of a hat because their models simply don’t stack-up to the ROI metric advertisers demand. That’s the good-old, rock-solid ROI metric that still stands test of time…like the one the Yellow Pages delivers. Many of the small and medium size business throughout the US and Canada that work with have NO internet presence at all, yet they rely heavily on their only directional local search advertising which continues to deliver. What I find so amusing is the comparison of newly delivered phone directories and how it resembles the nicely stacked e-mails that pile-up in a while in my Outlook from time to time…wonder if the means no ones reading their electronic mail any more either.

  6. Scott, I’m definitely an outsider to the YP industry. However, I see a lot of parallels between the current state of the YP industry industries I have worked in who have or are going through similar changes. Sometimes it’s easier to see things when you don’t have a financial stake in believing that they’re not true.

    As someone who’s survived without a land line phone or phone books for around 7 years now, I can assure you that life does go on. I have dealt with plumbing and power issues without kicking myself for not having a phone book on hand.

    can’t live without them, great points. Metrics are really the key to all of this. I hope more small businesses do a better job of measuring where their money is best spent. And while they’re at it, I’d love them to measure the effectiveness of the ads they pay for in phone books that are immediately recycled. Local businesses should be asking phone book companies why they continue to deliver books to people who don’t use them.

  7. I find it humorous that the prognosticators who predict the death of the print product are those who won’t even leave their house without a laptop or Smartphone. If YOU don’t use the product, it’s easy to assume that EVERYONE doesn’t use the product. Most forget that older Gen X’rs and Boomers are the primary audience of the print product. In addition, these two groups also have the most money to spend. A smart business owner is interested in reaching these buyers when they have a desire to make a major purchase. Meanwhile, a college student with no money is in their dorm room buying running shoes over the internet. When these college students graduate, have kids, buy houses, etc, we will see a decline in print usage. This won’t be for at least ten more years.

  8. Brent, I imagine you’d agree with this statement: “More and more people are using smartphones and laptops these days.” If that’s the case, what does it say about the future success of print directories?

    Saying that older Gen X’rs and Boomers are the primary audience is saying that you’ve lost everyone who’s grown up using the Internet.

    Suggesting that college students have no money is kind of strange. They may not have much net worth, but they have student loans, credit cards, and mom & dad to tap for funds.

    I think you’re ignoring the fact that college students have been hooked on email after graduating college for at least 10 years. Thinks are probably further along than you’re financially clouded brain is willing to admit.

  9. Quick note about the economics of not delivering phone books to people who “opt out” of the system: It costs a boatload of money, almost as much as it does to print each book, to deliver books to specific addresses. Instead most publishers hire local delivery companies to broadcast the books to the front stoop in a zip code by zip code scattershot basis. These guys are in a cut-throat business competing against one another for the lowest per book cost of getting the books out there. A new operation may think they can get it done by simply throwing the books haphazardly on lawns, in gutters (we even had one company dump a skid load over a cliff), and they get tried once because their price is so cheap. Then the calls come in — my book was wet, my book was two steps away, whine whine — and if the sins are bad enough, that delivery company does not get the contract for more books.

    All of this stuff is driven by dollars and cents that are watched like hawks by the guys in the industry. We will know for certain that the printed book is no longer an economically viable delivery mechanism for advertising messages when it stops showing up in our driveways.

    Avito Viret Honore

  10. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree in economics to realize that a book delivered to a household that doesn’t want it provides no return to local advertisers. That, of course, is assuming that the goal is to help local businesses make money through YP advertising, thus continue to advertise.

    If the industry really watched this stuff like hawks, they’d do this: make it easy for people to cancel their phone book deliveries. Publish the “do not deliver” addresses on the routes used by contractors. Deduct the contractor’s pay for every complaint you receive from someone on the do not deliver list.

  11. I worked for these people delivering phone books thinking it was quick cash to do during break. After 8 hours of horrible labor and a huge headache, I learned this:

    First of all, no one wants these books. They want you to delivery so many to all address. Half of the businesses are in existence anymore thanks to the recession.

    God Forbid if you have extras from the books. They question it all. The phone book Nazi Lady had to tell us that everything has to be accounted for. Except the fact that no one will open a phone book ever. Use Google, Yahoo, Hell even Whitepages.com

    Verizon subs everything out to a company DDA which has no regard for anything.

    Oh and to Boot I have to pray that I will get my stinkin $140 slave labor money in a couple of days.

    Thanks Verizon and Scam Company.

    OH and do they ever waste so much paper and plastic bags.

    Love the other Video on here Deets.

  12. I happen to be one of the owners of MyJunkTree and as a new company I search the web to see if we are getting any visibility out there and I post n relevant Blogs.

    We launched the company because we were tired of all the junk mail we were receiving and we personally did not want to bounce all over the web to contact all the different companies to stop it all. First and foremost we wanted to let people choose what they wanted to let come to their home knowing that some people really do like some of the coupons and catalogs. So our clients choose what they want stopped.

    We also had to provide a service that is different than the other services out there, so here is what we offer:

    1. We have a database of over 1300 catalogs that you can choose to stop.
    2. We have over a 5700 charities/Non-Profits that you can stop solicitations from.
    3. Stop the delivery of the national phone directories.
    4. Stop the delivery of the weekly coupons.
    5. Stop the general credit card offers as well as the ones from your own major bank.
    6. Stop the miscellaneous junk mail from the data brokers.
    7. You can register on the National Do Not Call Registry from the website.
    8. You can order your no strings attached free annual credit report right from the website.
    9. We plant trees with every new membership.

    And, yes we are a paid service and yes you can do everything that we do for free, if you want to do all the research and spend the time contacting the companies yourself it can easily be done. We have just done all of the legwork for our clients and feel there is value in the service we provide. So check out MyJunkTree and make difference in your mailbox.

  13. Is there a reason why they even make those? lol
    All you do is throw them in the trash anyway. It’s like spam or junk mail.
    Whenever I don’t really call anyone anymore, I mostly email people. And when I need an address, I try to find the business’ website and get it from there.

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