WhitePages.com Would Profit from Killing Print White Pages

It turns out that WhitePages.com doesn’t really like the print white pages. Who’da thunk that a web based company would have a beef with offline competition?

In an attempt to eliminate their offline competition through advocacy, WhitePages.com conducted a survey of US adults to get a feel for where they stand on the print phone book scene. (WhitePages.com does not appear to be associated directly with any incumbent WP providers and has tried some less-than-friendly business models over time.)

While I find many of the arguments valid, it should go without saying this comes from a company that would financially benefit from seeing the white pages disappear. Here is the press release along with some commentary:

New Survey Shows 81 Percent of US Adults Willing to ³Opt-In² to Receive the White Pages Phone Book to Save the Environment and Tax Dollars

BanThePhoneBook.org formed to curb the unsolicited, and unnecessary,
printing and delivery of white pages phone books

SEATTLE, WA, August 13, 2009 WhitePages (www.whitepages.com <http://www.whitepages.com> ) today unveiled the results of a survey of nearly 1,000 US adults that finds 81 percent of consumers are willing to embrace ³opt-in² programs to receive the white pages phone book to help save the environment and tax dollars.

They never explain how the question in the survey was worded. That would have a huge impact on where consumers stand on a question like this.

According to WhitePages, the largest and most trusted online and mobile directory, if every US household stopped receiving the white pages phone book, millions of trees and up to $17 million in taxpayer funded recycling fees would be saved every year. ³Opt-in² is defined as receiving a white pages phone book only if you request one.

Impressive stats. If we’d save that much from white pages, imagine if the same applied to the yellow pages, and the other yellow pages, and the other yellow pages people receive every year? That would top over $50 million / year in recycling savings, assuming the stat from WhitePages.com is accurate.

³The Web challenges the status quo and calls for a new way of thinking about how we can minimize our carbon footprint on this planet by using tangible and compelling online options,² said Alex Algard, president & CEO at WhitePages. ³As consumers become aware of the environmental issues with printing white pages phone books, they want to help put an end to the mass printing and distribution of the 131 year-old practice.²

Why can’t Alex simply say, “Here’s the deal: I make money on the web and would make more if print didn’t exist. More money for me, and the environment suffers less.”

The survey found that US adults are largely unaware of the harmful impact of white pages phone books on the environment. Only 15.9 percent indicated they recycle the books, which explains why an estimated 165,000 tons of white pages phone books end up in landfills every year. In addition, 74.3 percent said they didn¹t know that an estimated five million trees needed to be cut down per year to publish the white pages phone book.

Same applies to yellow pages. In fact, even more so since we receive more yellow pages than white pages.

Prior to being told about the estimated environmental damage, 48.9 percent indicated they would support opt-in programs. Once US adults learned of the considerable environmental waste and financial impact of printing and recycling white pages phone books, 82.7 percent ranked themselves as ³angry² to ³outraged.² This anger and outrage led to a 32.1 percent increase in support of an “opt-in” program, with a total 81 percent of US adults saying they would support an opt-in program to have a positive impact on the environment and save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

This makes me wonder what the questions looked like. 82.7% are angry or outraged? The only measure American’s could reach 82.7% on is indifference. However, that’s not to say that people wouldn’t support opt-in programs. Americans seem to care more about their pocketbook than the environment, so explaining to businesses that it’s costing them money to pay for books delivered to people who no longer use them is beneficial. And explaining to consumers that their tax dollars are being wasted recycling books that were never used (or used for only a money in the cases of some yellow pages directories) should have an impact.

In an effort to educate consumers on the environmental impact of printing and distributing the white pages phone book, online directory WhitePages has started the ³BanThePhoneBook² initiative. One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of eliminating the white pages phone books are laws in many states require phone companies to publish and deliver white pages phone books to every landline subscriber. BanThePhoneBook.org will serve as an educational hub for helping environmentally conscious consumers get involved and take action to curb the unsolicited, and unnecessary, mass printing and automatic delivery of white pages phone books.

I’m not a big fan of fake advocacy groups. I’d much rather see Alex Algard take a more straightforward approach to the issue by discussing the issues under his own brand and with full disclosure of his financial interests.

Overall, I’m encouraged to see someone bringing more attention to the phone book waste problem. Print white pages’ value is clearly eroding, although slower than yellow pages since there is less dilution (one per year rather than multiple copies of nearly the same information from YP companies).

If the financial interest of a company like WhitePages.com helps cut back on the delivery of unwanted print phone books, great.

What’s interesting to see is that the print phone book companies are actually on board to work on this issue as well. Incumbent phone companies that produce both white and yellow pages directories are trying to kill off the print white pages directories for the exact reasons WhitePages.com explains in their press release. Cincinnati Bell managed to do this starting this year. Strangely, they aren’t ready to apply the same criteria to the yellow side of their businesses.

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