AT&T’s announcement last week that it plans to sell a majority stake of its Yellow Pages units to Cerberus Capital Management has generated discussion about the future of print Yellow Pages. While we’ll talk about this more at our annual conference “Search Starts Here” next week, I think it’s worth at least briefly discussing here whether or not AT&T’s move signals what some skeptics have called “the end” of print directories.
We’ve seen print media usage decline for a number of years, and all indications are that will continue. This hasn’t been limited to directories – certainly everyone who ever published anything on paper has had to re-evaluate their business models.
With Yellow Pages, we watched usage shift to Internet Yellow Pages sites, then search engines as their local capabilities grew, and now increasingly to mobile applications and even social networks. Some of the declines in print Yellow Pages are driven by the difficult economy, especially as tough times have impacted those important “life events” – the bread and butter of directory advertising.
The growth of digital and mobile media, coupled with fact that many people still use “traditional” media, has resulted in a highly fragmented local media market. Gone are the days when print Yellow Pages were the only go-to source, but the truth is that the days of print Yellow Pages are far from gone. Print Yellow Pages still drive volume and strong lead quality. Print Yellow Pages often reach an audience that doesn’t duplicate other advertising. And, in what might be surprising to some, several recent call tracking measurements showed that print directories generated more calls in 2011 than they did in 2010.
Let’s look at each one.
1) Yellow Pages Have Extensive Reach and High Volume of Lookups
Yellow Pages usage is down overall, but remains significant. Print Yellow Pages generate billions of lookups every year, and the majority of U.S. adults say they use print Yellow Pages at least once a year. TNS’ 2011 “Intermedia Shopping Study” found that Yellow Pages were the second most used among consumers who actually made a purchase, beating direct mail, newspapers, television, coupons, billboards, magazines and radio. Yes, Yellow Pages were second to search engines, but still performed extremely well in the fragmented local media landscape.
2) Yellow Pages Drive High Quality Leads for Advertisers
Consumers reference print Yellow Pages when they are ready to make a purchase. As a result, Yellow Pages have long been known for driving high-quality leads to local businesses. In fact, the annual “Local Media Tracking Study” by Burke found that 75% of Yellow Pages consumers in 2011 made a purchase or were likely to do so. The study also found that 36% of those were new customers to the business chosen. Importantly, print directories are often the last opportunity for a marketer to influence the purchase decision before the consumer calls, clicks or visits the business of their choice.
3) Low Duplication Rates with Other Media
Yellow Pages often reach consumers that other media don’t reach. TNS found extremely low duplication rates (in the low single digits) for the number of consumers who referenced both Yellow Pages and other individual local media sources (newspapers, direct mail, coupons, television, magazines and radio) prior to and after the decision to buy. This data suggests there can be value to the advertiser in maintaining a presence in multiple channels – or otherwise, they’ll miss out on customers.
4) Growing Number of Calls
Although print usage has declined, many advertisers in 2011 saw an increase in the number of calls generated by their print ads. A study conducted by Patek Analytics confirmed national advertisers who maintained their advertising program in 2011 saw call growth. Small markets saw display ad calls increase 25% and in-column ad calls increase 13%. In large markets, display ad calls increased 20% and in-column ad calls increased 16%. In total, 71% of advertisers experienced year-over-year gains in calls. Consistent with those findings, preliminary results from another assessment of metered ads conducted by CRM Associates found a 15% increase in total annual calls in 2011 versus 2010. Part of this may be due to an improving economy. Another contributing factor, however, is that some advertisers have eliminated their print directory presence, creating a competitive advantage for those advertisers who maintain their ad program.
So what does all this data mean to advertisers? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. The research we see however suggests that advertisers need to look at media usage in your market, in your industry, and in your target demographics. From there, create a media plan that combines the appropriate media mix – targeting the right messages to the right audience through the right channels. Yellow Pages representatives and agencies are uniquely suited to help local businesses manage this process and to help them create the best opportunity for success.
As for the AT&T deal, we believe this will be a positive for both AT&T and the advertising business. AT&T, like several of its peers, has decided to focus on its core network business and the directory business is no longer key to its future. YP.com is a top 40 website and the AT&T Real Yellow Pages have terrific brand recognition – so the foundation is there. As a standalone business, Yellow Pages will get the full attention and resources of its new management to ensure it’s doing the right things to stay competitive in this quickly changing media market – and in turn, they can use their extensive in-market presence to help local advertisers figure it out too.