19 Ideas to Maybe (Not) Save the Yellow Pages

If you are in any way connected to the business of the Yellow Pages anywhere in America, we had a frightening thing happen in my neighborhood this week. This Saturday, a white van drove around the neighborhood very slowly and began dropping things on stoops.

The white van was dropping off telephone books and yellow pages. As lovers of American civic traditions, we gleefully took ours, and put it in the stack in the office with the ones from last year. But not before doing the typical thing, which is to look and see whether our home listing was in the white pages. It was. We then put them away after noticing that there were some local restaurant menus inside (helpful) and a creepy insurance chaser-lawyer on the cover (have to hide it now).

A few minutes later, we walked down the street to visit neighbors. The same white van, with an African-American woman and her energetic son helping, was stopping at all stoops, giving away more telephone books. Our neighbor Laura, however, told him no thank you. “I have one from last year.”

It took the youth a second to digest this, and then he ran off through the yard to the next house while his mom watched from the van. Laura turned to me and was surprisingly defensive. She looked as if she hadn’t voted. “Doesn’t everyone look that stuff up on the Internet?” I had to agree. Yes, I guess we do.

She, an upper middle class mother of two toddlers, had no need for telephone books. And I had hidden mine in the office closet. If I were a competing advertiser and I had captured the scene on tape and played it to any yellow pages advertiser around the country, I swear this scene would make any advertiser reduce or eliminate their ad. Directory execs can point to all sorts of studies that say that the Yellow Pages still has relevance, but that scene tells me otherwise.

We hear the whisper of time, and Econ 101. Buggy whips. Carriages. Washboards. Telegraphs. Whale oil. Yellow pages. Yikes.

Do the yellow and white pages have a future? Probably not, with shares of R.H. Donnelly (NYSE: RHD) at .57 cents, and Idearc Inc. (NYSE: IAR, how much did they get charged to come up with that name) at .22 cents. But like the rest of print, if there is a business to be rescued, investment funds need to drastically rethink the business model in a time when 35-year-old upper middle class moms tell me they don’t want their product, and 44-year-old nostalgic fogies like me suddenly realize they have hardly opened their yellow pages all year. This is the last chance.

So, what to do about this MASSIVE marketing problem that has already almost killed a multi-million dollar industry? A few suggestions. The yellow pages might go the way of the carriage makers and candle makers. But with concentrated effort, these products could put up a winnable fight against obsolescence in a post-Internet era, albeit with a smaller market share and thinner margins. Sadly, the yellow pages look like they are trying to (or have) run out the clock. But the reality is that there are still advertisers who need it. What to do?

  1. Clear up the ownership. As a consumer, I don’t know who even makes the yellow pages these days. Everyone can use the trademark, and over the years I have gotten so many other yellow pages and competing directories that the correct one from my land-line carrier got confused with the rest. It must be connected to the telephone company, at least indirectly.
  2. Make the distribution itself an event. Promote the time of year of distribution. It used to be that the annual directory distribution was an event. Now, I don’t know when it comes. It just arrives, and if I had been away, it might have gotten wet. How about this. The telephone books come every November, just after the voting. Connect the yellow pages to civics. And make SURE that the distribution is done in a marked car. A giant magnetic promo sign would do the trick.
  3. Remind everyone that there is a price. When looking up the Verizon Yellow Pages on the Internet, I found out that Verizon charges people about $40 bucks to send a copy of the telephone book to people around the country. WOW. I bet our neighbor Laura didn’t know that something that she could have had for free was sold for $4o bucks!
  4. Fingers need to walk. I want to hear the song again. I don’t know who owns the rights, but the song was effective, and it still works. Ironically, the big push in the 70s for the Yellow Pages was also saving gas. This time around, sell the yellow pages as not only gas saver, but a guide to now trendy “regional” foods, suppliers and companies.
  5. Are you a web design company, or a directory. If you want to stay in the print business, you need to focus on print as its own unit. If you think there is potential in a web yellow pages, fine, but the two mediums are very different. A Toyota dealer doesn’t sell a Lexus, and vice versa.
  6. Stop selling the cover. If the telephone book (yellow or white) is to be displayed in a public place in the home, it cannot have advertising on the cover or spine. It needs to look fashionable, civic and intelligent. I do not want to look at the ugly face of a tort lawyer all year, and directory companies are pound foolish to sell their most precious branding element, the spine and front cover. Again, STOP SELLING the cover. Go back to local images, even an illustration of a local landmark. This is your brand you are talking about. Who are these fools who do stuff like putting a creep on the cover for some cash?
  7. Keep the paper-saving mini-versions. They are easier to read. Cute.
  8. Match them with the white pages. The yellow pages should not only come out with the white pages, they should look like a matching pair, so that both are connected in consumers’ minds.
  9. Assert the white pages as an expression of civic identity and local prestige. I recall that on Mount Desert Island in Maine each summer, a lady published something called the Little Red Book. Basically, it was a telephone book of all the fancy people who summered in Seal Harbor and such. It included children’s names (Alice, Suzy), addresses and cottage names (Deer Acres). That Little Red Book would go on top of the Mount Desert phone book, and it would sit in a public place, like the front hall, by the telephone. For people who have two houses, having the local telephone book from the summer house at the main house is also an element of prestige. Look in a wealthy person’s home office, and you see them with their telephone books from Nantucket, Northeast Harbor, Boca Grande and the like. The point? The books become an accessory to a certain lifestyle.
  10. Use the Bell System Logo. Former Bell Companies still have the right to use the Bell System bell. Because the Yellow Pages logo has been genericized, it appears everywhere and on competing products. In Virginia, they re-branded the books the Verizon SuperPages, to help differentiate. Now of course, Verizon needs to say that the books are Verizon Yellow Pages and Verizon White Pages. But after that, they need to do something that harks back to an earlier era, so us 40-something and up geezers are not confused. Why not use the Bell System logo, either the Paul Rand version or the earlier Bell logo? That is something most consumers would trust.
  11. Hire Lily Tomlin. Frankly, the folks that understand how to use the yellow pages are over 40, and they remember Laugh-in. You need to protect your base customer. Punch every nostalgia button you can find. It’s your last hope.
  12. Margins will have to be sacrificed in the next two years. You can either keep your margins in 2008 or 2009, or you can survive. In this down economy, if you do like the daily papers and cut staff to the bone to keep margins, you will kill the future of the business forever. An advertiser can see if staff is missing, and a company no longer believes in its product. Ad reps project onto advertisers the despair of a declining industry.
  13. Get out of the direct mail business. Good earth. What stupidhead thought up that one? SuperPages offers a joint listing on the web combined with direct mail. Don’t clutter the message. You are selling a yellow pages listing and that is it. What a horrible message to advertisers; your yellow pages ad isn’t working like it did, so let me sell you some direct mail? Huh? The yellow pages should be the one book that obviates the need for you to have junk mail. Yellow pages reduces clutter by putting local advertising in one place.
  14. Focus on the ads inside the yellow pages. If you look at the yellow pages today, the ads are junky, and not put together with any sort of sophistication. This is despite the fact that yellow pages advertising is very expensive. The local design departments could do a better job of making the ads attractive. There is no excuse in an era of Adobe for this to happen, except for complacency and arrogance.
  15. Make the year clearer. The year needs to be in large type on the yellow and white pages, so consumers know they have the correct one.
  16. Involve the public high schools. I don’t know how to do this one, but it needs to be done. We bought an annoying Entertainment Book out of guilt in order to raise money for a school fundraiser. Is there a way to connect public education and the yellow and white pages? School info and teacher directory at the beginning? Team profiles and scores? Print teens (see item 16) cellphone numbers or info through Facebook accounts?  You have to get the next generation to use this product, or it will die. (See item 15)
  17. Connect with Facebook. If the yellow and white pages could see a connection with Facebook, they would win. Facebook has a tremendous problem with advertising. It is astonishingly popular among all ages, yet they have had trouble monetizing these eyeballs. Does it involve listings, contests, applications? Do local teens with the most friends get listed? I don’t know the answer but if it is creative it will save the yellow pages, and make help Facebook monetize.
  18. Don’t forget the white pages. Come up with a convincing argument for the white pages. Because if the white pages disappear, the yellow ones will go too.
  19. It’s not the fault of the sales force. If you are in sales, you will certainly get stress and pressure about your unmet sales goals. Tell your boss to shove it, and get about the business of reinventing the product so you have something useful to sell your local paint store. Local salespeople cannot save the yellow pages by persistence. It has to be a top-down effort.

Perhaps this is all like that Johnny Mathis/Deniece Williams song, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” We all may be saying “It’s over. Called it a day. Sorry that we had to end this way.” But there is enough capital invested in the industry to at least try again. Or else.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website BrandlandUSA.com has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.


  1. I found this blog after a particularly challenging day at the local phone book factory, where I have the dubious pleasure of creating the so called ‘junky’ and ‘unsophisticated’ ads. Pull up a chair and invite your readers in to set a spell, because I’m going to blow your little minds with what I have to tell you. Heck, they may even figure out who wrote it, haul me in and fire me for what I’m about to tell you. After the last three months of this idiotic publisher’s brand of handling operations, I could care less. Small business owners deserve to know the truth about why the ads look the way they do and why they get the ads they do.

    And guess what… it has jack all to do with the poor souls who have the job of putting these together. So lets get a few facts straight, shall we?

    1.) These are not magazine ads, direct mail ads or any other form of print ad that seeks to create a need. The need is already there, if someone is scanning through the book. What these ads are is informational advertising. They are meant to give as much information as the space allows and can include everything about that business. So what happens is that the small business owner usually crams their ad with as much info as possible, egged on by the salesperson (or, excuse me, marketing expert *rolls eyes*). Cramming tons of text and maybe a photo of the owner’s service truck, because that is what our design-challenged business owner and sales rep want, is not the greatest recipe for a nice-looking ad.

    2.) The graphic designers are not the ones designing the ads. Oh, I know what my job title is, but let’s face it… I’m not a real artist. The company took away that title after our latest round of owners purchased us and started to whittle away at our morale. I am a graphic designer, which in YP terms means I’m a glorified paste-up monkey. If I deviate from the layout that the salesperson has sketched on the copy sheet, I get into trouble. If I make a suggestion to a salesperson that something won’t fit, I’m told to shut up and do the work because the customer wants it that way and what the hell do I know? If the layout is unreadable or if the text is misspelled by the salesperson or the owner, I have to write copious notes that are attached to the ad in our CRM system (see the rant below) as to why I chose to do something, or had to do something that deviates from the copy sheet. Sometimes the salesperson doesn’t get back to me on an ad until the day that the damned thing ships to the printer and I’m forced to try to figure out how to do an ad with flawed instructions, poor quality originals (see the rant below) and no support. Sometimes the instructions are simply ‘be creative’, which is shorthand for the salesperson being lazy.

    3.) Do you have any idea of the kind of pressure the designers are under? We have to produce a large number of ads per day and are held accountable for a quota, just like any other artist in a mass production print facility. I’d love to sit down and take a day to design the perfect ad for one of our customers but our operations structure doesn’t allow me to do that. I do what is on the copysheet to avoid being charged with an error or hit with disciplinary action and move on to the next ad. If there is one thing I want to impress on small business owners, it is this: if you give the salesperson vague instructions about what you want to see and can’t give me a decent logo or a photo or something proprietary to make your ad stand out, don’t be upset when I typeset your name and use a clip art photo in your ad.

    Oh, and you try to spell everything perfectly in an ad building program with substandard spell checking and no proofreaders. After ten hours of staring at a computer screen, no breaks and no lunch, you tell me how well you performed. I won’t even go into the program used for incolumn advertising. It is the most worthless piece of coding I have ever had the misfortune of using. The person who developed it should be taken into an alley and kicked, it’s that bad. The company that foisted this off on us should be sent packing.

    4.) Speaking of agencies, I know most of them would turn up their dainty noses and shudder at the thought of creating something so base as a YP ad, but with the economy the way it is I expect to see more of the mighty scrounging for any work they can get. So do yourself and me a favor and either get the print specs for the product you are buying from your salesperson (and they do have the specs, they just don’t follow them half of the time) and give them to your agency or designer, or make your agency get it and use it before you pay them. I can’t tell you how much of a bitch it is to get in artwork from an agency and find that it is the wrong size/wrong color mixes/typos/wrong format of digital file, etc. Because then I have to send it back to the sales person and tell them to have it resubmitted correctly. If the salesperson is well-trained, then they go back and get something we can use, which will cost the small business owner for every rework that agency does. That will hit you in the wallet. If the salesperson is a typical salesperson and lazy/ignorant/new/clueless/afraid to call you back because you might change your order, they’ll tell me to use what they gave me or ‘recreate as best you can’ (a direct quote). Which means that you have just wasted your money, because I’m going to have to redesign your agency supplied ad, per our company’s policies. And not only does this take a great deal of time and effort on my part, as we are using Adobe software that is two versions older than what is current, but we also have specific print specs that are meant to get the ads to print on paper that is a couple of steps in quality above a paper towel. Give me a digital file meant to print on that nice glossy magazine stock and the ad will look horrible. So not only have you wasted money on an ad that won’t look like what you purchased from the agency, it will vary in quality as well. Depending on the artist, their attitude at being treated YET AGAIN like a five-year-old by our salespeople and our management, we might just find a way to flatten the artwork, make a note that blames the salesperson for being such an idiot in accepting what you’ve submitted, dump it in and move on to the next ad. Because that’s what the company has told us to do. I was there and I heard management say that we weren’t to spend too much time on the ads. So don’t blame us if the ad doesn’t resemble what you bought from the agency. We ‘do the best we can’ with what we are given on a daily basis. Sorry our ability to cope with the crap your agency sent isn’t up to snuff.

    5. If you don’t get a proof, or if your ad isn’t perfect, you have no one to blame but yourselves, the salespeople and the craptastic system we use as a CRM database management system. Some genius at the C-level a couple of owners ago contracted one of the worst manufacturers for it and it has made our lives hell ever since. Face it, when a system crashes on a daily basis, is counter intuitive to the creative process and actively leaves holes on the pages at shipping time, you’d think the morons that run this show would have gone back to the CRM company and complained. Oh no, that would cost money, getting the things that weren’t included because someone in legal was too stupid not to make sure the contract included them. So operations has to scramble to find workarounds for all of the problems that this underachiever of a system throws at us.
    And if you contact your salesperson the day the damned book goes to press with changes or to send back signed paperwork, don’t be surprised when your changes don’t get done. We don’t send out proofs after 14 days to the day that the book extracts, because there isn’t time to get a paper proof to you and back with changes. Any .jpg files sent out as proofs look wrong because the colors are off, thanks to the crappy CRM system. Oh, and if you do want to make changes, you have to do it through your overly busy sales rep, since they laid off all of the customer contact people that did that work. They also fires a good number of graphic designers in a ‘realignment’ so those of us who are left are overworked. Good luck making your wishes known four days past extract. I’m rooting for you, really. If you buy advertising, it is up to you to make sure you get what is needed to make the ad to the rep in time to get your ad in the book. This last minute business is what causes most of our claims. You’re a customer and we love you, but we aren’t short order cooks and the system doesn’t do well with stuff rammed through at the last minute.

    6.) Morale here is low. Really low. Snake’s belly low. In the past ten years we’ve been worked to the bone on mandatory overtime, we’ve watched a smarmy telecom executive tank our then parent company and force a sell off of the directory, lost what we had in our 401k’s thanks to not being able to move the company stock we were forced to take into something safer before the crash of 2001, were sold off to an LBO that gutted the company and forced a barely working CRM system on us in preparation to sell us off yet again, had our work outsourced to India in preparation for the next contract talks, had small privileges and kindnesses taken away from us one by one until we found ourselves working in a forced sweatshop where we got no words of thanks from sales, management, the customers or the investors and we’ve watched our stock price fall like a meteorite, going from 60 a share to 27 cents a share.

    7)Why should we invest our time and creativity in a product that no one, not even the management or executives care about save in a sales capacity? It is hard going into work every day knowing that no matter how much effort you put in, how much you try to care about doing a good job for the poor customers who are buying these ads or how much you try to get around the real obstacles that management has put in place to keep us from making our numbers, the business may very well fail due to events beyond our control. And to tell you the truth, I’m sick of taking the blame for the mismanagement around here. I’m sick of people calling what I do ‘junky’ – that ad is someone’s livelihood and if it were up to me I’d give then an agency’s attention. If it were up to me the salespeople would be selling, not doing something they have no talent for such as ad layout, and the company would make every effort to communicate deadlines to its customers in exchange for a guarantee of a real proof. We’d put more emphasis on keeping and satisfying customers, rather that just churning ads out as fast as possible. But then, I’m only an ad designer, considered overhead and therefore worthless in the eyes of the brainless C-level trash back East who are busy doing everything they can to destroy what was once a great company. Once the company has declared bankruptcy our contracts will be null and void and they can offshore the prepress function just like every other YP company and print provider has done. Yup, you guessed it – your ads will be made by people who don’t even speak English as a first language. I’ve seen what we get back from the overseas vendor – it’s pretty bad. I’ve had to fix plenty of their stuff. but hey, it means your ads will be cheaper, now doesn’t it? And you won’t have to worry about having those terrible, talentless Stateside ad designers to pin the blame on anymore.

  2. I’ll make a few comments on how a company is doing just what you are asking.

    1) Ownership – Yellowbook has a new logo and it nice and big on the front of the book. No mistaking the new books. All markets will have the new logo on the next delivery. The prbolem with the phone companies is that they still feel they are the only one on the shelves. Verizon spun off there yellowpages and they now call it IDEARC. At&t and SBC combined and who knows what they call it now. The phone compines are a mess.

    4)www.yellowbook.com/commercial/ Go there and you’ll see a new interactive commercial that started on many cable channels yesterday. Go there to vote on how you want the commerical to end.

    5) Yellowbook has Yellowbook.com and it’s driving 15 million people a month to the site. May, June, July of this year produced 107,000,000+ searches.

    6) The new cover will still have some ads but pictures of people are not allowed.

    7) Thin is in. Most phone books delivered in the next year will probably be smaller

    8/9) White pages are still important in small rural areas. I live in a large city and haven’t had a home phone in more than 10 years. Just my cell and I don’t want that published. I really don’t want my kids names published in the phone book either, that’s just creepy.

    10) AT&T (Ma Bell) back in the day didn’t trademark the walking fingers. Anyone can use it. Hence the reason Yellowbook rebranded to stand out from the Bell companies.

    11) Yellowbook had David Carradine as “the guru” again go to yellowbook.com/commercials/ to see the latest.

    12) Margins won’t have to sacrificed too much. Lots of traffic through yellowbook.com. The phonebook is still a very profitable medium for a small business to advertise. The return is still very good.

    13) I agree on the junk mail thing.

    14) The ads are and have been getting better. However, they are not ad agencies. Small companies should do a better job of creating a brand. Most don’t even have a logo. Advertising in the yellow pages is buying space not branding. Many professional people are out there and for a small sum will create a very nice logo that will help brand small businesses thus helping the ads look better. That all being said, the ads are created on yellow paper not a glossy magazine.

    15) Yellowbook’s year cannot be missed on the new cover.

    17) Fantastic idea. Yellowbook has been advertising on myspace among other networking sites and just partnered with youtube.com to add all our videos from yellowbook.com onto youtube.

    18) Going back to the white pages. A handful of people in rural communities like their white pages. They need to stay. Most households are going the route of no home phone hence no need for white pages.

    I hope you do as much research on Yellowbook as you did on Verizon. I think you’ll find that not only are they charging less for the advertising, they are listening to their customers and have a plan to be the most used and only directory on your shelf.

  3. Garland,

    I’ll mention in advance that we make a living off local service businesses that are dissatisfied with the various yellow page publishers, so my viewpoint is biased.

    But I agree with your points on how to make the yellow pages still relevant. Perhaps also add that yellow pages can be personalized– if you put their name on it, then they will feel guilty to dump it.

    Also, you can go further with the school concept– using that as a distribution means. It’s like a book drive, but in reverse and schools who participate at certain levels, get donations. Folks like DEX can apply their 90% margins to something good in the community– and make folks “want” the book, rather than have them unceremoniously dumped at their doorsteps.


  4. For the love of god. Has anyone gone onto the website of the local yellow pages? Its terrible. Type in home depot in Aurora Co and you get ones for all over metro Denver even after filtering. Google does a much better job of searching. The books themselves are small type so they don’t use lots of cost. Im 41 and I havent used the books in over 15 years. easy.. print books aren’t relevant and the legacy publishers are way behind the times. They thought that the paper pub was the way to go since growth never stopped. Well it has. And now they will prob go the way of the 8-track..

  5. I agree that the local directory still has value. The problem is that generations younger than I have fallen out of the habit of looking at the yellow pages. You are so right to point out the $17 billion in yearly revenue from the directory business; I hope that figure can entice capital back into the industry to rebuild what was once a dominant local franchise.

  6. The yellow pages is a multi billion dollar industry 17 billion roughly, and it grew last year along with the favorableness of iyp’s.

    You say everybody looks everything up online, but where? Do a local search on Google, that is an industry search and not a business name search, and what kind of results do you get? How about meeting facilities indianapolis? Horrible search results. People want to know the options that are around them locally, and I can find no search engine that offers me content rich relevant search results for niche local searches, which is what most searches are.

    If you have been in town over two days we all know a mechanis and a hair stylists. To suggests that the internet is the future right now for local search, is misguided and i believe a judgement made by people who for all intensive purposes already know who they wanna use in most industies. Try going out of town for a week, or better yet move. Then decide how well the Internet satisfies your need for local business search.

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