Yellow Pages and Internet Not ‘Zero-Sum’

print ypI’m always amused by the debate over print yellow pages usage. An article in MediaPost today, citing the recent AT&T research, raised this again for me.

One the one hand are the detractors who argue that print will inevitably die (“Who uses the print yellow pages any more?”). On the other, and equally incorrect, are the boosters (“The print directory hasn’t suffered any usage erosion.”). There’s a zero-sum quality about this debate. In truth consumers use multiple resources to find information and their purchase behavior has become more complex, to become even more so as mobile kicks in.

Print newspapers won’t die. Print yellow pages won’t die. Radio didn’t die when TV came along. But it changed as a medium.

It’s clear that consumers will continue to use traditional media of various types into the foreseeable future. But it’s equally clear that the Internet has created a disruptive alternative for many people. Yet traditional media and the Internet (and mobile) all are ultimately complementary and should be thought of that way.

The print yellow pages are finding success as a multi-platform ad vehicle and “agency” for their advertisers. Of course they need to figure out how to manage advertiser expectations and spend across those platforms and an increasingly diverse array of products. But they appear to be successfully reinventing themselves as companies along these lines — to varying degrees.

I would like to move beyond this tiresome “either/or” debate about traditional media vs. the Internet and address more complex and interesting questions about how these media work together (e.g., how mobile can be used with outdoor or PPCall in print).


Related: I was reminded of the Jupiter-iProspect survey earlier this year that showed the influence of traditional media on online search behavior. According to the survey, 67% of search engine users were influenced by offline channels to search on a company name, product or slogan that appeared in the traditional channel’s campaign and messaging.


11 Responses to “Yellow Pages and Internet Not ‘Zero-Sum’”

  1. Dan Miller Says:

    I will say that I’m waiting for someone to start a “do not drop” list, akin to the ever-popular “do not call” list for telemarketers, for printed Yellow Pages. That could bring about a change. But I would note that DNC lists did not put an end to telemarketing and created a new set of “outbound” services (alerts and notifications) that are much better tailored to the needs of individuals. YellowPages for eReaders anyone?

  2. Will Scott Says:

    There are still businesses who NEED the Yellow Pages.

    I have a friend who’s a commercial insurance agent with a focus on contractors. Those guys are working off the hood of their truck and for him Internet doesn’t fit his customer base as cleanly as yellow pages.

    I can think of lots of instances where the book still works better (most of the time).

    Will there come a time when the whole world is connected in such a way that print is obsolete? Perhaps.

    Maybe it’s because I’m closer to 40 than 20, but I don’t see print directories going away for quite some time.

    As your recent posts have shown, Google Local is far from perfect and no place to reliably build a business today… unless you’re a spammer.

  3. paul Says:

    I don’t know, Greg.

    I live in a low to middle-income building in SF’s Tenderloin neighborhood. AT+T dropped off the big books earlier this week, and NO ONE has picked one up. Literally: not one. There are 30 books lining the walls of my foyer, each under a designated mailbox, and not one has been brought upstairs.

    The big book will share the same fate as dictionaries.

  4. Scott Says:

    The challenge for yp publishers and other local media companies (i.e. newspapers, radio, local tv, etc;) will be that being an agency does not have the same margin profile as that of a publisher. So sure, they can sell clicks to their advertisers on Google, Yahoo! and any other local site, but this will likely have a 20-25% margin compared to the 50%+ margins of their existing business lines. Thus, these local media companies are going to need to either increase their “bookings” by 2-3X or significanlty expand their own web initiatives. In my opinion, there will be a significant amount of consolidation in the local media space in the next 3-5 years and the FCC will need to further relax ownership rules in order for offline media companies to really have a chance…

  5. Greg Sterling Says:


    Your perspective is consistent with the experience of people in major metros like SF, but you can’t generalize to all the US. I think that directionally what you say is correct but it’s not true for the entire country and for secondary markets.

    Regardless, print yellow pages will still be around for a long time. However, the Internet has become (in the aggregate) the primary local information source. That’s a very significant thing. But it’s going to vary by market to some degree.

  6. Greg Sterling Says:


    I think they cannot give up their status or ambition to be destination sites. But it’s a very different competitive landscape online as you know. You’re probably correct about the media ownership rules change.

  7. Dan Endy Says:

    I agree with Paul. Admittedly, I’m a sample of one, but I cannot recall the last time I used a Yellow Pages for anything other than a doorstop. I have always felt it was the least relevant (useful) resource. When it gets dropped on my doorstep, it goes directly into the recycling bin. Same goes for the little “local” version as well. I think Yellow Pages are designed poorly (i.e., too much clutter makes it hard to find listings), and the onus is on the customer for figuring out where some listings will appear. I don’t want to work that hard when I’m looking for something. Frankly, I’ll use a white pages and search in the business listings if the Internet’s not available. Or even better, if I need a mechanic, plumber or electrician — I’ll ask a trusted friend for a recommendation.

  8. State of Local » RIP Yellow Pages Says:

    […] Yellow Pages (IYP) and frankly, I don’t get it.  After reading pieces by Greg Sterling at Screenwerk  and Media Post I’m left with the conclusion that the IYP is not only a valid publication, […]

  9. Gregg Thaler Says:


    While in the near term, IYP/PrintYP, may not be completely zero sum, I am convinced that it will ultimately be so.

    While those yellow bricks of paper will likely continue showing up on our doorsteps for the foreseeable future (two or three years), do you really think that they will still be distributed in twenty three years?

    I believe that the comparison to the radio/tv comparison the IYP/print YP misses the mark.

    Radio is eminently portable, and managed to survive principally as an automobile based information and entertainment medium.

    For all intents and purposes, at-home radio (terrestrial, not satellite) has gone the way of the dodo bird.

    Print YP is not exactly mobile. Unless you are short and use the books to sit on so you can see over the wheel.

    I think that the more relevant question is whether the game being played out between search engines and IYP is a zero sum one.

  10. Yanir Says:

    Greg Hi,

    Very interesting article 🙂
    I had some history in this industry and I think you missed one point in your Zero sum game theory.
    I think that there is a trade between on line and off line YP Medias but I think that eventually the Online will take big part from an current nonprofit media which called friends and neighbors (F&N).

    One of the biggest YP competitor along the years were F&N. solutions like , and other enlarge the YP market share thus it is not a real Zero sum game.

    I’m studding this web 2.0 yellow pages for the last 12 month and also developed a unique model for empowering F&N method, All research I found said that the IYP will grow together with marginal growth in the Printed media.

  11. Duke Says:

    Hey Thaler….what’s up. I got a brand new wheel of imported Cheese. It should be right up your alley.

    Are you still ruining the lives of your employees/customers?

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