John Kelsey makes the point that the “real story” of Kelsey Group’s forecast is that print yellow pages are growing (if only slightly). This got me thinking about some persistent themes and larger issues surrounding print yellow pages vs. the Internet. There seem to be two camps in this debate, with print yellow pages as a kind of proxy for traditional advertising media more generally.
The Detractors: “Nobody Uses Print Anymore”
Many employees of Internet companies are waiting for the death of the yellow pages to be formally announced. Neither they nor anyone they know seriously consults the print directory (though online is different) anymore. They’re stunned when survey data seem to reveal that people “out there” still use the print yellow pages.
The Boosters: “Yellow Pages Will Live Forever”
The other group, smaller though equally zealous in its viewpoint, consists of die-hard boosters. These folks believe that the print yellow pages will continue to enjoy the success it has had historically and be relatively unscathed by the Internet. They point to “flat” or “stable” usage and massive revenues as indicators of the health of the product and secretly hope that history will prove the detractors wrong.
As with all extreme positions, neither is entirely accurate. But there is truth in both camps’ positions.
You’re Both Wrong — and Right
Those who believe that print yellow pages (or other traditional media more generally) are going to whither and die are wrong. Print yellow pages will go on albeit in diminished form over time. They will be used by many people, sometimes as primary resource, but increasingly as a backup or secondary resource. Print yellow pages’ “monopoly” over local business lookups is broken.
The Boosters (as I call them) are also incorrect. I live in the little bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area and interact with people like me all over the US. I now have two cell phones. So I recognize that I’m not representative necessarily of the larger population out there. But there is absolutely no one that I know that uses the print yellow pages today as much as might have been the case even two years ago.
My wife was the production manager of the creative services department at Pacific Bell Directory (now part of AT&T). And she worked there for about 10 years. We used to have contests over who could find information faster: me online or her in the print yellow pages.
When the new Valley Yellow Pages (the independent publisher in our market) was delivered to our door SHE RECYCLED IT. Her, not me. In addition a friend (who writes for a print newspaper) made an unsolicited remark to me about the same delivery to his house: “We told them to keep it, we didn’t want it.”
Anecdotal stories like this are happening all over the place and I hear them frequently. It’s simply untrue to assert that all is well in print yellow pages land. But it’s also incorrect to call the medium dead.
Traditional and Internet media will coexist and, in many cases, be complementary. There are lots of audiences that the Internet still doesn’t effectively reach. Google’s Eric Schmidt likes to recite them, in particular the “drive-time” audience that listens to radio during the morning and afternoon commutes. Google recognizes fundamentally that traditional media have value, which is why they’re trying to build out print, radio and video/TV offerings in addition to core paid search.
Print yellow pages will go on, make lots of money — much more than their Internet counterpart — and be used by many. But use will be increasingly segmented (i.e., age, income, education) and probably in conjunction with online. Moreover, the advent of online ratings/reviews and local social networks provide so much more information than can a print directory (unless they start reverse publishing) that consumers will increasingly turn to these online sources for information they used to seek exclusively from the print directory.
The local search products that are available to people today are still evolving; and we’re in a kind of transition period where many online resources aren’t fully trusted or considered comprehensive. The print yellow pages is familiar and generally trusted. But the combination of a new generation of users — the NY Times’ Brad Stone characterized it to me today as “digital natives” vs. “digital immigrants” — the improvement of online (and mobile) offerings and the integration of trusted communities and recommendations in local will eventually shift the balance of usage to the Internet.
But, paradoxically, as consumer usage continues to migrate online the bulk of the revenues will remain offline for some time.