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No. 122
September 15th, 2008

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The Value of the Yellow Pages for Small Businesses Today

I wish people would stop thinking that I somehow ‘have it in’ for the Yellow Pages. Certain Sphinn commenters and a few responses to previous posts I’ve written on this blog seem to imply that I am starting from a “gut reaction” when I criticize their value. This is just not the case. I’m going on hard data from my own clients, and analysis of their business models in comparison to their online competitors’.

One long-term client recently had me conduct an analysis of his marketing budget to-date in 2008. His ROI on Print Yellow Pages spend was about 3.5. While ROI on Google Adwords was comparable to the Internet Yellow Pages, his ROI on organic search spend was 18.6.

Let me repeat that–Print YP ROI: 3.5. Organic Search ROI: 18.6.

With that kind of dramatic gap, it’s hard for me not to advise SMB’s to put the vast majority of their marketing budget into organic search, or at the very least, paid search. In fact, that kind of data makes it hard for me to understand how the Print Yellow Pages have ANY real value for small businesses anymore. It stands in stark contrast to the data being presented by the Yellow Pages Association (found this graph on Andrew Shotland’s Local SEO Guide):

I’m wondering what the industries are which were used for this survey–certainly in something like plumbing it would not surprise me to see that sales ROI from print YellowPages would be as high as stated. But for higher-value industries like auto sales, accounting, law, etc., the internet figures seem to be far too close to those from both IYP and PYP.

Chris Silver Smith wrote this excellent Search Engine Land piece on Yellow Pages usage data which became the subject of a rather heated discussion on Sphinn. Stephanie Hobbs, a rep from the Yellow Pages Association wrote her first and only Sphinn comment on the thread, asserting that “we strongly disagree with the notion that people who’ve switched from land lines to cell phones won’t use the Yellow Pages.” Chris argued that people who ONLY have cell phones, and not landlines AT ALL, were left out of the most recent YPA-sponsored data collection. Among the 18-24 demographic, this is an astounding 32.3%, and by my way of thinking, that age group is increasingly likely to use things like, um, THEIR PHONES, or at the very least desktop search, to look up local business information.

Lo and behold Stephanie is a contributor on Search Engine Land. I found her most recent article particularly self-serving — here are her three sub-headlines in the piece, and my responses:

  • “The message is the convenience (not the medium)” Apparently the YP’s value proposition is that they provide people with what they want, in exactly the format they want it. Guess what? So does Google, so does Yahoo, so do any number of Local portals. The question for small businesses should be–which one is going to send me the most relevant traffic, at the lowest cost? Right now, advertising in the YellowPages, either offline or online doesn’t meet either criterion in most cases.
  • “Innovate where it matters” — has dramatically improved its SEO in the last year or so, as far as I can tell. But it still lags FAR behind and, which Local Search gurus Chris Silver Smith and Andrew Shotland are largely responsible for. To date, has been so far behind in “innovating” it’s laughable. And just this week, Mapquest, which hasn’t been a competitor to date, took another giant leap into an online space that the YellowPages should really be owning, or at the very least trying to own.
  • “Relationships are gold” — My good buddy Will Scott is also big on an on-the-ground sales force, but this is one area where I happen to disagree with him (and Stephanie). Salesmen and women are expensive and inefficient. The truly successful web companies, like Google, like Facebook, like LinkedIn got to where they are today with ZERO sales force. Let’s face it, web advertising is a commodity and shouldn’t require any relationships beyond a good customer service department to answer questions with sign-up. Despite a huge and hugely incentivized sales force, the YellowPages don’t have a monopoly on the most comprehensive data OR the best user experience OR the most relevant traffic, anymore.

The real value of Yellow Pages sites isn’t the Yellow Pages themselves.

Larry Sullivan of LocalBizBits recently authored a post asking about what defines an Internet Yellow Pages website. For those too lazy to click the link 🙂 I will repeat my comment here, which is that the distinction is becoming less and less relevant, but is based on what a site’s primary source of data is.

I’ve said in numerous places on this blog and elsewhere that it is imperative for small business owners to verify their data with infoUSA, the Yellow Pages themselves, and all kinds of IYP-style sites all over the web. From a marketing standpoint, these sites still hold some value in direct traffic, but more importantly hold a TON of value as citations which help businesses rank in the Local search algorithms at Google and Yahoo.

Small businesses should play in as many portals as they have the time and the money to play in.

The point of this post is simply to urge small business owners to take a detailed look at the advertising they’re doing they’re doing with Yellow Pages companies, both offline and online, and figure out whether those sources are providing them relevant traffic at a cost that makes sense. Keep reading Mihmorandum later this week for a terrific example where advertising, and not just getting listed, on a major IYP portal makes a HUGE difference for a real business. To reiterate, while I contend that the Print Yellow Pages are truly dead, advertising in the Internet YellowPages CAN have tremendous value.

In the meantime, it would be nice to see more objective coverage of both the offline and online Yellow Pages, like Chris Smith’s, on major portals like Search Engine Land and less self-serving marketing pieces written by biased sources.

  • Much in the same way that TV watchers are being forced to Digital Television next year should people be forced to search online directories instead of print directories. Can you think of any bigger waste of the earth’s resources than print yellow pages?

  • David,
    This is the only time I’ve disagreed with anything you’ve said. Please allow me to explain:

    You say:
    “Salesmen and women are expensive and inefficient. The truly successful web companies, like Google, like Facebook, like LinkedIn got to where they are today with ZERO sales force. Let’s face it, web advertising is a commodity and shouldn’t require any relationships beyond a good customer service department to answer questions with sign-up.”

    I’d have to say that lack of sales people/customer service is the root of the #1 problem SMBs have with our favorite local provider – Google! Even with the recent efforts Google has made to offer a place for people to report problems, as your SEG article pointed out, there is almost no direct contact between SMBs and a real person when it comes to Google.

    In point of fact, I would say that if YP had a real USP to make at this point, it would be that SMBs will get to have a unique rep assigned to their ‘case’ and that this person will walk them through the advertising process. I think I’ve mentioned before, my father worked for a YP for awhile and he really did care about helping his customers find the most appropriate ad size for their business. Who, at Google, is helping these same people navigate the on-line waters?

    Lest I wax too poetic about YP, however, my father’s boss was a jerk and didn’t share my father’s personal attitude about helping people. As is the case with the heads of many sales departments, the frantic drive for money makes people inhuman at times. Glad my father isn’t working for them any more.

    This is a good discussion, David, and I think you are making wise points. I just don’t know how well we’re actually doing with people’s business data being a commodity without direct human oversight.


  • David,

    I would agree with much of what you said here. We also measure our advertising sources for clients (and, ironically released a tracking tool for Print YP to do just that last week).

    Overall, we’ve seen that Yellow Pages, particularly print, are wildly inefficient for SMBs. However, it is very vertical (as you mentioned) dependent. It is also incredibly market dependent.

    Major cities are generally full of people with higher technical acumen and better access to things like web-enabled mobile phones and all day web access while sitting at a desk.

    In more rural areas – not so much.

    So are the Yellow Pages dying? Absolutely. Despite what people within that industry may say.

    But there is still a market for them – a location-dependent one, but a market nonetheless.

  • Having been a business to business sales person for about 2 decades I theoretically believe there is a lot of value in that sales force. Fairly recent and my most recent experience with the print sales force leads me to believe otherwise.

    Theoretically print YP (and IYP) have these enormous sales forces. They have hundreds of thousands of contacts and 10’s of thousands of developed contacts. Essentially, that should be a strength for YP. That aspect of it doesn’t mean that users will use either print or I YP but it is a powerful opening to hundreds of thousands of smb’s and in the aggregate millions of smbs.

    The smb decision makers have a hard time with advertising and advertising help. A truly helpful YP team (that is also and necessarily making money) would be a welcome support for smbs. Theoretically a print/Internet YP sales force could sell their own services and those of others on the web with a broad menu of choices. With the 3 major engines (plus Ask) and a myriad of verticals etc. theoretically the YP sales force could be an incredible door opener to the advertisers selling YP services (print and I) PPC for the engines, and services for various web advertising alternatives.

    In reality though the YP sales forces are far removed from that. They are weak on both the individual sales person level and more critically on the sales management level, IMHO and experience.

    At the management level they should at least be able to assess huge numbers of smbs with contact names and spending levels. That makes them very powerful. Moreover the businesses are large enough to pass down through the ranks various levels of service and opportunities to the smbs.

    But YP sales management s*cks in my experience. I’ve 1 business with a several decade history with YP’s. We are a small buyer but seemingly and definitely above average size based on estimates of annual spends I have seen recently. For the past few years we have spent roughly $30,000/year in one metro region with entries in many books, some display ads, and at one point expenditures on IYP.

    As web visibility became more important print YP importance diminished year by year. Pre web, it was never the highest lead generator but was ALWAYS the 2nd best convertor on a basis of conversions to leads. ROI on print YP was very well worth it. As the web became more important, not only did leads dry up and diminish but conversion ratios plummeted. From the perspective of IYP’s as soon as our own website outranked the IYP for relevant phrases in the SE’s IYP leads disappeared.

    The major problem on the sales side, from my perspective has been that over the last few years the only time we hear from the sales force has been as print deadlines approach for one of our region’s books. Having told them that REPEATEDLY, they still don’t contat us until we face a print deadline. Then they try and sell us on everything. The process s*cks. We get no respect.

    If more than 1/2 of all YP customers (ie those with more than the average spend) can’t get better service than that –then the quality of penetration into the smb market is weak, weak, weak.

    In terms of users, no doubt the YP has continued diminishing visibility. People with only cell phones and no land lines see less print YP’s. Those w/ print YP’s and who have the web tend to use print YP less and less. Those with print YP’s and no web are probably consumers w/ little disposable income or less likely to spend. Clearly the value of YP is diminishing a functional tool and in terms of powerful brand name recognition.

    I used to think the YP sales force on the ground had some value. I don’t believe that anymore.


  • Hey guys, thanks for all the great comments and discussion!

    – Todd, I’m with ya! – did you see this article floating around last week?

    – Miriam, I’m not sure I’m coming from the same definition of ‘sales force’ that you are. What you are describing is what I would consider basic customer service, which I totally agree Google and other platforms are lacking currently. When I think ‘sales force’ I think of someone earning an income that is largely commission-driven, trying to convince SMB’s to spend $X amount on a product, even if it might not be in their best interests. The value proposition of the highest-quality online platforms should be self-evident and not need to be ‘sold’ to SMB’s, in my opinion.

    – Devin, I’m sorry that I didn’t link to Dan Hobin’s presentation from SMX Local regarding G5’s terrific marketing ROI metric/matrix. You’re absolutely right that the PYP’s can still have plenty of value in the right areas. I was trying to make that point in my ‘plumbing’ comment below the YP graph above, but obviously I didn’t do it as eloquently as you and Dan do 🙂

    – Dave, what an insightful story. I have never personally used the YP’s for my own business so it is great to hear an experience from someone who has. I think your idea for:

    A truly helpful YP team (that is also and necessarily making money) would be a welcome support for smbs. Theoretically a print/Internet YP sales force could sell their own services and those of others on the web with a broad menu of choices.

    is a great one. Unfortunately, from what my clients tell me, the YP reps are only interested in selling their own, sometimes inferior products, rather than being a more honest broker or impartial agent for SMB advertising in general.

  • Hey David,
    Sorry if I wasn’t clear. My father was a sales rep for YP, so, his job was basically as you describe…getting commissions by selling ad space to local businesses. So, on a personal level, I know that he did care about the people he was trying to sell stuff to, but on the other hand, he’s a minister (so, maybe a bit more of a caring fellow than the average sales person).

    That being said, I think you are right that the cost is incredibly high. When you think about what we can do with websites for the money people would spend on a single YP ad…there’s just no comparison.

    Dave’s example is especially good (hey, Dave!). YP ought to listen to you about your lousy experience with them.

    Great discussion, David.

  • Interesting discussion indeed! And I can tell you, that in the Netherlands, where broadband density is very high (#3 in world ranking?) people really don’t use the YP or even phone books anymore.
    As a result:
    The phone book and the dutch Yellow Pages (Gouden Gids) are now in a merger. In the future people will just receive 1 book, weighing ~1kg.
    There is now actually a petition going on, where they are vouching for an opt-out or even an opt-in system for YP/phonebooks.
    not that I’m an environmentalist, but some figures; 1 phone book/YP of ~1KG equals 1kg of CO2 emissions and this picture shows perfectly what currently is happening in the Netherlands:

  • I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion that SMBs should be looking very carefully at ROI and challenge the numbers being provided, especially when you are using one client’s experience to make recommendations.

    Your ROI figures for print could be true for that particular customer or even that particular heading. Or could be a result of a poorly constructed ad or a not so great business. Who knows?? Our figures come from validated research and show a considerably higher ROI for YP print. Try for some facts.

    Consider that the service industries that you treat so dismissively are the backbone of business in this country and represent a huge amount of revenue, they’re the very clients that want assistance in developing a marketing plan and figuring out how to deploy their advertising dollars. And the sales staff that you think is so unnecessary is out there helping them. It’s not print or online,it’s both and whatever else is necessary to get the buyers, it’s what works for the client.
    Stephanie “self-serving” Hobbs

  • @ Miriam: I think I owe you a response e-mail. I’ll get to it. sorry…..:D

    I’ve never spoken to the real large advertisers in print YP about how they are treated…you know…the one’s with large full page display ads in big markets. I hope they are treated better. If not…I’d suggest the value of the sales force on the ground is ZERO….not just because of the sales personnel but because sales management doesn’t know how to take care of customers in general. Based on some stats provided in Greg Sterling’s Screenwerk on YP discussions I know the business to which I’m referring is paying well well above an average….and their treatment of us just stinks after years of complaining.

    My impression is that the “mouths” and “voices” on behalf of print YP are fighting a losing battle.

  • Stephanie, thanks for stopping by to comment.

    1) I am not using one client’s experience to make recommendations; I simply used that as one example where I was the one responsible for tracking their leads and conversions over an extended period of time. Martijn points out in his comment above that other places around the world have already dramatically curtailed their PYP use, and this story from the current Kelsey conference highlights that “Professional services advertisers will have largely shifted from print to online” (by 2013).

    2) Unfortunately seems like more of the same. It seems akin to an auto industry website delivering ‘unbiased’ research about the lack of need for higher fuel standards.

    3) I stand by my earlier comment about a YP sales force. Dave Oremland’s recommendation for an ‘honest broker’ is a great one and holds real value for small businesses. But current reps are incentivized to sell their own product, rather than an objective suite of solutions that will help SMB’s.

  • From personal experience I can definitely see the value of printed YPs declining. I never use them. In fact when they are being delivered, I try to stop them from dropping one off (but they usually come back and leave one later). I have a cell phone and a VoIP. I haven’t had a regular phone in 5 years and haven’t used the YP longer.

    Is there value in having YP print ads being picked up by Acxiom or InfoUSA? If you place a print ad, will the info make it online? i ask because we have a client where this appears to be the case.

  • David,

    This is a real quality post, I appreciate the stats on the YPs. Right now, you can’t beat the cost of ranking for local searches. I predict YPs & other local portals will grow stronger in the coming year however agree that for now they are “laughable” and nowhere to be found.

  • Anthony

    I have to say, in the last 10 years I don’t think I’ve used the YP but maybe 4-5 times. In the last 5 years we haven’t even had one int he house. In fact I think last years is still hanging on the side door in the little plastic bag the deliver them in. For our kitchen remodel, the search for a dumpster was done via google and word of mouth. Not the Yellow Pages.

  • From having been on both sides of the fence, I think you need to take any “ROI” data with a grain of salt, when it’s being provided by an industry body. We as search marketers hype the great ROI on search marketing and produce studies to that effect. I’ve relied on them myself.

    Since that time, however, I’ve realized that just about every marketing discipline features these same reports with only the numbers changing. I’d only trust such a study if/when it was created by, say, a body representative of all marketing disciplines. And I don’t think the AMA qualifies, because of its skew towards brand advertising, imho, which is usually more difficult to measure (see for more on that note 🙂 ). Maybe the DMA might be more appropriate.

    What’s really key to note is the changes happening in content consumption. Like it or not, but more people are spending more time online and less on print/tv. Ogling your friend’s cute friend’s pics on Facebook is entertaining a lot more folks than TV, as many dating sites can attest. And when you’re already at the keyboard, why not look up local plumbers, lawyers, hotels etc.?

  • From a general standpoint, it would be nice if industries who have had the market cornered for years and are finally being threatened (like the print Yellow Pages) would focus as much on improving their product as they do on telling us all why we’re wrong. I completely agree on your main point: SMBs need to diversify, measure results and go with the best value for them. If that happens to be the Yellow Pages, great, but they shouldn’t just keep on paying for a full-page listing because a sales rep talked them into it 20 years ago.

  • David: I went back and read some of the links you referenced. Very interesting background on the issue; interesting analysis provided by Chris and interesting comments by Stephanie.

    There is interesting hard data available to one and all on IYP usage. It comes from the AOL dump of data from 2006. I think that referenced about 600,000 anonymous users and something like 30 million total searches.

    I while ago I hand reviewed some local topics of particular interest to me. One of the issues I reviewed was yellow page references for these local topics. Granted this was 2 years ago. Also consider the data represented rankings that used google’s algo rankings and serps. Of further interest the results from 2006 represented rankings that preceeded the appearance of Maps inserts into google searches (or inserts of Y Local maps in Yahoo) for local type businesses.

    In other words….a web page piece of eye catching real estate that exclusively EXCLUDES IYP’s and other verticals from the top of the page was not being used then. Hence the organic rankings had more impact in Google and Yahoo then they do now–by a large factor.

    I hand researched a couple of topics. A programmer could do a far far better and more comprehensive job on this data. The size of the data and the sample far surpasses any study by any marketing group. Its simply great data even if it is 2 years old.

    My analyses suggested that IYP didn’t pay on the topics I studied. Of the searchers for a couple of search phrases relevant to me….a small percentage of users landed on IYP’s. Some of them searched directly for an IYP then hopefully internally (within the IYP’s rankings) picked an SMB. Some of them landed on the IYP for the topical search because of a combination of 2 things:

    A). The IYP ranked highly w/in the serps for that phrase (ie Portland Wedding Photographer(s)
    B). The IYP might have ranked highly and its “trust/authority” might have been better in the eyes of the searcher than other verticals for the topic.

    I concluded that the cost of IYP’s for the topics I studied weren’t going to be worth it….Especially if the sites/businesses I represent could outrank the IYP’s in the Serps. If it couldn’t then there might be more value in the IYP’s, or alternatively in any vertical that could outrank my site for relevant phrases.

    As time goes on I suspect the “trust/authority” of IYP’s diminishes in the views of most people. Cripes one is spending a lot on TV with David Carradine–just to “sell” people on that trust. Its expensive to obtain that “trust” as time moves on.

    Hopefully a talented programmer will work his/her way through this old data. There is so much good information to mine.


  • Even as an advocate for yellow pages, I would not use the bar graph above to prove its value. There is no way that the PYP are going to provide an ROI of $52 to 1 for the typical business. That figure is an average that is wildly skewed by a few headings that with relatively high usage and monstrous average sales: in particular the heading Nursing Homes is part of that. The ACW for Nursing Home is probably over $100,000. Real Estate is another one that wildly skews it.

    For these reasons we would not even use this bar graph. Here is where the median provides a major better indicator of central tendency. Which if memory serves is about $11 to one.

    Each business type in each geography is going to get different results; so I think your approach is absolutely the best way David. Test the media… measure results… and put the money where the client is getting the most value.

    Each business type in each geography is going to get different results

  • Dave, I think the same thing every time I see those David Carradine ads! Wow that’s gotta be expensive!! Why not spend that money building a better mousetrap instead?

    Tim, great to hear that feedback from someone with your extensive experience in this space.

  • I’ve also been criticized as “having it in” for the yellow pages. I don’t at all — however, I’m dubious about some of the numbers which have been bandied about, which is why I looked more deeply into how those print YP usage statistics were derived.

    I’d prefer to be perceived as being “medium-neutral”. As a marketer, my bias is towards making decisions based on good analytics. In the case of the customer you cited, it seems clear that they simply weren’t getting nearly as good value for their print YP ads as for PPC ads. It could well be that it’s because the ad wasn’t designed well — but it also could be that the directories it appeared in simply had insufficient usage.

    I’d like to see more case studies done by industry to see which yellow pages categories are migrating faster out of print in terms of where their business is most likely to come from. I could imagine that electricians might still find huge value in print, just on the assumption that someone calling them may’ve lost power and be unable to use their computer. In other cases, it would seem far more valuable to be online than in print. Travel industry businesses, for instance.

    Finally, I’ve had pretty wide exposure to small businesses advertising in the yellow pages over time, and that experience leads me to see very great value in local sales reps. With many small businessmen feeling flummoxed at the prospect of doing any sort of internet work themselves, they really need the people who help them get advertising online. The Google representatives that I talked to when I worked at Superpages stated outright that they valued our sales force — a number of other analysts also see the various yellow pages companies’ “feet-on-the-street” as being one advantage they hold.

    I think the value proposition of print will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis for businesses, or by industry, if we can get some industry-based numbers. For those who feel their YP ad is still bringing them valuable business, but are afraid that business may be declining while the cost of ads is not, I’d recommend Barry Maher’s ( book, “Getting the Most from Your Yellow Pages Advertising”. In it, he explains how to optimize one’s print advertising to reduce costs while improving conversions.

  • Chris, terrific comment. Coming from someone who has actually done great work for an IYP website, this statement

    “The Google representatives that I talked to when I worked at Superpages stated outright that they valued our sales force — a number of other analysts also see the various yellow pages companies’ “feet-on-the-street” as being one advantage they hold.”

    holds a lot of weight with me. I might have to reconsider my general feeling about a sales force. I still feel that internet advertising more or less sells itself; i.e. more and more businesses are figuring out for themselves that they need to be on the major search portals. But if Google sees it as an advantage, then there must be something to it, because they’ve built their business almost entirely without a sales rep model.

    I’d love to see some industry-based numbers for ROI. I agree with your assertion that some of the basic service industries like electricians and plumbers may be best served by continuing to advertise in print. The problem is that they’re less likely to have the resources to analyze their ROI properly, as opposed to someone in travel, medicine, law, or other high-ROI niches.

  • David, Chris:

    I respectfully disagree. Chris has terrific insights into YP’s. I look at it from the advertiser side. I have a lot of experience selling high value services into SMB’s, know (or knew) lots of people in my Metro region’s advertising community, knew 1 or 2 salespeople for YP’s), and finally spent about the last 5 years operating certain parts of 2 businesses, with a lot of time spent on the marketing/advertising/sales side.

    Based on the average spend statistics from various posts at Screenwerk….with a spend level of about $30,000/year in one YP–this business was definitely above both the mean and median for YP customers. Chris, maybe you can provide insights into those figures.

    For five years I had problems with their sales efforts toward us. I complained every year. I went so far as to contact management. Never once did I get a response. On top of that, after years of asking for usage of our 1-800 number….they misprinted it in one edition. And get this the wrong number went to some sex line. UGHHH! (fortunately by the time that occurred YP usage was drastically down.). Never got a response on that.

    The YP sales people churned. We certainly never developed a relationship. It was obvious, that from a corporate perspective, they had a monopolistic perspective.

    Over time the value of YP advertising diminished faster and more severely than did newspaper.

    As referenced above. I wasn’t a huge YP advertiser. I don’t know how they treated the advertisers that take out full page or 1/2 page display ads throughout a metro region. Lord knows I hope they treated those advertisers dramatically better than they treated us. On the other hand, we had to represent more than 1/2 of all their contacts.

    I have ZERO relationship with a YP sales person. I have reasonable relations with print sales folks, even if I don’t use them as much.

    The other issue is that as significant as YP is in some areas its insignificant in others. Tim, above referenced some businesses that rely on YP. I suspect moving companies, and storage company’s do well with YP. Banks spend very little with YP’s yet spend a lot in other media. (okay–banks may not be a good source for advertising dollars at this point in time 😉 )

    My suspiceon is that YP sales people churn through customers. I’m sure search engines such as Google and Yahoo appreciate the business from YP’s. I’m sure they say nice things. I’d say nice things to ANYONE who brought me business.

    On the other hand I suspect there are dramatically better sources of business and relationships than the YP sales forces.

    On a different level I think Chris hit the nail on the head when questioning the market stats that suggest relatively high YP usage and relatively high ROI’s. You have to look in depth as to how and where those statistics are developed. I’ve seen this in other arenas.

    Finally, I agree with Tim. For all those SMB’s and their marketing/SEM/SEO/Agency reps; experiment, experiment, experiment; test, test, test; measure, measure , measure. 😀


  • Making a slide for my upcoming local conference…

    “Small businesses should play in as many portals as they have the time and the money to play in.” — David Mihm


  • David, you’ve got some very compelling points in this article. Needless to say, this is a loaded topic of discussion for me, as I walk the fine line between working @ a YPG certified marketing representative and being an evangelist of search marketing.

    You’re dead on about the saying that SMB’s should play in as many portals as they have the time and money to play in. That said, I’d have to argue that MOST SMB’s need representation in both Search and the Yellow Pages.

    Where I’m coming from:

    Close to 90% of all my current search marketing clients are represented in the Yellow Pages. CMR’s like my company aren’t the same as local YP sales reps – We help advertisers adopt the best practices in YP advertising, and help them choose the right markets, ad types, sizes etc. SMB’s are very dollar conscious and from what I’ve learnt in our business, we provide them with Year over Year robust tracking metrics like – cost per lead, IYP data (impressions/ctr/etc/headings viewed), and overall ROI on YP investment.

    I believe businesses should advertise where they get the most valuable eyeballs, and in some cases that happens to be search (growing exponentially) and in some cases its still the Yellow Pages. Later in this comment, I’ll talk about cases where the YP worked really well for a client, and another where it didn’t work nearly as postively.

    Why Yellow Pages does Provide Value:

    Like David Oremland, I find that for certain businesses the yellow pages work wonderfully. Recently, I was out to see one of my clients in Britsh Columbia – they operate a *very* well known travel agency, and they let me know that their cost per lead from the Yellow Pages was around $5 based on own tracking. They’ve got a pretty robust setup with a different caller tracking number for each of their locations nationwide with different numbers printed in each of the books that service a region.

    They also have well run in-house SEO/SEM team and the cost per lead off PPC was only marginally better in their situation at around $3.50 per lead. That said, they also track the amount of time their reps spend on the phone with each customer, with results that indicate that customer that found them in the Yellow Pages spend more money, haggle less, and sign up for vacation packages more readily. If you think about that for a second, internet shoppers are attuned to find the lowest price, which works out very well for the consumer, but not so well for businesses that offer affordable rate s + price matching options.

    These guys didn’t wait to hear any pitches for advertising renewals, their data spoke for itself. We ended up signing them on for a large national level priority placement program on which worked wonderfully well for them in the previous year.

    CMRs aren’t incentivised to push just the yellow pages, as we work with many other publishers as well. Internally, account managers are rewared to retain accounts rather than sell them on individual (high margin) products. The YPA often gives us good data, based on which we often actually reduce certain types of spending.

    A colleague of mine and a veteran bus. dev specialist once recommended one of the lawyers we service to stop buying a full page ad, because usage has proved that consumers always turn the page to look at other ads when viewing that particular heading. So instead, he recommended two half column ads I believe, and that really did help the account’s calls increase based on end of year reports.

    What about the little guy?

    The little guy is the guy I worry about the most. In Canada, close to 80% of all businesses are SMBs and I simply love working with them. There are a couple of key characteristics about SMB’s I’ve observed in general:

    – They are brilliant at striving to be the best in what they do
    – They don’t have time or motivation to test new advertising media on their own
    – They have difficulty scaling their operations, meaning they need help to grow.

    Depending on the nature of their business, the Yellow Pages can be a great fit – for lawyers, dentists, plumbers and more. But performance is more mediocre when looking at businesses that sell more niche items – garage doors, dog walkers etc. In these cases, I’d say the ROI is far better for posting ads on sites like Craigslist. You can’t beat ‘free’ after all!

    43% of All Statistics are Made Up

    I’m not going to argue for or against the YPA data, but I will say that every industry tries to make itself look good, and search marketing is no different. There was a recent article floating around about how seo budgets are decreasing compared to ppc budgets, but I wouldn’t envision an organic search agency touting that information proudly to be honest. Every statistic can be contested, because there are multiple variables that can be considered to skew the results.

    Statistics often bring forth counter-intuitive data – like a spike in the number of retired folks signing up to facebook, or that 65% of 24-34 year olds use the yellow pages in a month.

    Re: Sales Force

    I’d have to agree with Mariam on this one – It’s very true that companies that try to sell SEO through a sales force are generally inefficient as the sales force doesn’t ‘get’ the essence of what they are trying to sell, but a sales force ought to be imperative to companies like Facebook, Google, Linkedin even. Google already employs an enterprise level sales team to sell their hosted solutions, enterprise search, and more. Wouldn’t it be imperative for companies like Facebook and Linkedin with the vast richness of their data and membership to inform SMBs of the advertising opportunities? I would think so, because most SMB’s have little or no idea what Linkedin is, and think that Facebook doesn’t have any business application.

    Most SMB owners I’ve talked to would much rather have someone explain the process of getting on board than trying to figure it out for themselves. Sales forces can come handy in such situations.

    At the end of the day, I can keep rambling on and on, but like Chris’ POV, I feel that different kinds of advertising media work for better or for worse depending on the nature of business being advertised.

  • Holy Toledo, David,
    This conversation gets better every time I come back to it, with some great input here from Dave, Chris and Dev. What a wealth of experiences to pull from.

    I just wanted to add, I’m guessing you’ve caught Mike’s post regarding the massive florist spam. Read the last line of his post. None of the florist who got sabotaged knew that they were supposed to claim their LBC listing. That, to me, is why the absence of a sales force is alarming.

    This is one of the most amazing conversations I’ve participated in this year, David. Thank you for getting the ball rolling so nicely.

  • Bob

    “Theoretically a print/Internet YP sales force could sell their own services and those of others on the web with a broad menu of choices.”

    We already do. As a YP insider and rep, I am face to face with SMB’s all day long. We now digitize SMB print ads and now the words in their ads are Google Adwords. In a sense we are now selling for Google. What is interesting is that early test show a click through rate of sponsored links as high as 25%. It seems that the brand name is very trusted.

    SMB’s are very keen to hear that they now have sponsored Google links that link back to their print ad. It in it’s infancy right now but will grow in leaps and bounds. Google even has an incentive offered to our reps that the top 3-5 reps that sell the most Adwords and Pay-Per-Click packages will get a trip to their HQ to let us have a look around.

    We also sell incredibly inexpensive, super high quality, and professionally done online video ads , that link back to the SMB websites and all the major search engines. In a way they can now get that “Television Style” commercial that is super targeted to customers who are seeking them out locally and online.

    I don’t think YP is dead. I reall think it will morph into a major media company in the future that offers many different ad options to hundreds of thoudands of SMB’s. We really do have our foot in their doors and are able to see the guys who make the decisions right away. I don’t think YP is perfect but it should be a part of every companies ad strategy. Even small.

    By the way, it is amazing how many people that run businesses with their cell phones call to get their number listed in print. Go figure!

  • Since you called out plumbers I thought I would point out RotoRooter, clearly a plumber. They developed a blog strategy aimed squarely at local search….they are not ready to share their actual numbers but they are crushing the ROI of both Print and online directories.

  • Remarkable writing. I’ve been reading online articles for quite long time but to tell the truth I never got something really interesting to read out unlike yours.

  • The local algorithm has been changed alot, more people are trying to promote their product or service locally. IN Mr Speedy Plumbing we think answering online questions and solving issues our customers are facing is the best way to bring in traffic and improve online reputation. Yelp, Yellow Pages all have marketing solutions but we never saw a ROI which can satisfy Us.