In an era when we all look up phone numbers online or even using our cell phone, why so many paper phone books? Alva, Oklahoma, population around 5000, is included in all six of these directories. One directory is new in the last year. And I don’t even have a copy of the City Directory, so that makes seven.
I want to let you in on a little secret: The directories don’t exist to benefit your business. They exist to make money for their publisher.
People’s Exhibit #1: AT&T has been on a campaign to eliminate the printed white pages in as many markets as they can, offering them on request only. As few as 1% of customers bother to request a copy, according to this news report. But of course, they are keeping the yellow pages. A St. Louis columnist kicked a flaming debate when he said AT&T makes millions from the yellow pages and then suggested that there is little benefit for advertisers any more.
I think directory publishers are coasting along on small businesses’ habit of advertising they way they always have. It’s so easy to let a relatively small expenditure roll over just one more year, especially when you think some business might have come from there. (If you think measuring social media Return On Investment is tough, try figuring out whether anyone actually used your yellow pages ad, even if you use tricks like “mention this ad” or include a special code.)
There’s a second habit they are relying on, too: competition. If your competitor is advertising, you feel like you have to, too. Glance through the attorneys section, or the physicians. How’s the ROI on those full page, full color ads? How many oilfield roustabouts really need a big display ad, and how many just feel pressured because all the other roustabouts are in there, too? (Yes, we really do have roustabouts, and some of them do advertise in the phone book.)
And that doesn’t count these scammy solicitations you’ll get in the mail, designed to look as much like yellow pages invoices as possible. You’ll get next to nothing for your money, if you bite. The directory may or may not even be printed! These are so common, you can read about them at the Federal Trade Commission. You have to catch and eliminate them, and be sure they don’t make it into your regular bill-paying process.
Did I mention all the scammy phone calls for inclusion in internet yellow page directories? Ignore them, too. Make sure that everyone who answers your business phone knows it. (I’m starting to sound like Maesz on a rant here, but I do object to slimy business practices! OK, deep breath, and onward to… )
Decide if yellow pages ads are right for your business at all. If your customers are not online, it might make sense. If your business does well in the yellow pages, I’d love to hear from you. Tell us why it’s right for your business.
Evaluate each phone book, before you advertise. See if your target customers are using it. Remember that for small towns, each regional directory covers a different territory that may or may not match your sales territory.
If you do advertise, track your results. And don’t fall into the “just one more year” trap. If it doesn’t generate enough business to pay for itself, kill the ad.
Focus more of your time on local search tools, like Google Local. We’ll talk all about that in a separate piece.
OK, I’ve calmed down. What do you have to say about the yellow pages? Do they still matter for your local small business?
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Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.