Print Directory Usage & the Hall of Mirrors

Of course it varies by market, but what can we believe about the usage of print directories?

Behind door number one, this very non-scientific online survey at a gadget site (biased against traditional media, given its readership) about phone directory usage:

Do you ever use a phone book?


Then there’s this from comScore-TMP about relative engagement with various media (7/08):


It’s hard to read the chart but print YP/WP directories are the 72% figure at the bottom (“less than once a week”).

But then there’s this from Q3 ’08 from Forrester (not asking about engagement or frequency, just usage):


And this from Knowledge Networks:


I could go on. I continue to see conflicting “empirical” data like this. It’s both strange and somewhat confusing to me. I’m  unable to explain these discrepancies.

20 Responses to “Print Directory Usage & the Hall of Mirrors”

  1. Douglas Galbi Says:

    The context and wording of survey questions can make a big difference. For example, the gizmod survey post has the title, “Question Of The Day: Do You Ever Use a Phone Book?” The survey box queries, “Do You Still Use a Phone Book?” The later question has a slightly negative valence. I’d guess that it generates a significantly higher share of “no”.

    Surveys can be designed to satisfy the needs of clients. That’s why economists prefer actual behavioral data from real-life circumstances.

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Understand re wording of surveys . . . but there’s lots of conflicting data in the market; it can’t all be attributed to manipulation of survey wording.

  3. Rich Hargrave Says:

    It would nice if folks defaulted the real data, forget the surveys. Let’s look at publisher metered ad call counts from their print, IYP and “search” products…

    The winner of this game (asssuming there is only one winner) will be the medium that delivers the most value – in the form of leads. In reality, I think it’s a blended, package solution that drives max ROI.

  4. Stever Says:

    Survey wording as well as survey structure (number of options to choose from and listing order) certainly do play a role in the results.

    Forresters results seem way out of whack but look deeper and you might see why. They accepted multiple responses from each participant. So if you use Google 10 times a week, and print yellow pages once a month you would still give a vote for both of them. I think many of us who rarely use YP still turn to it once in a while, yet those that don’t use a computer much still rely heavily, maybe solely, on YP. And that all adds up to YP print having 70% in Forresters survey. In other words it does not really say anything.

    I also think that when you ask thousands of people what they use and give a list that includes local search sites, IYP sites, search engines, social networking sites, etc. there will be a fair number of people who have considerable confusion about the differences between some of those classifications. Is Google Maps a local search site? Or is it a search engine? It’s called Google so maybe it must be a search engine??? Is Yelp an IYP, local search site or social networking site? Isn’t it kinda all the above? Those of us in the local search space know the differences here but many average joe web surfers scratch their heads over that stuff.

    So, lots of reasons why all these surveys are all over the Map. What we all know to be true is that Print YP usage is in decline. What Rich said above is true, it would be more accurate if the the YP publishers released stats on actually call usage, but they would never do that. They simply have too much to loose if they get that transparent.

    Also true of what Rich said is that for many businesses a blended package of print, IYP, SEO, PPC, etc. is best. Problem is that target is moving as print declines, as well as Local Search (GMaps, usage increases – cutting into IYP usage.

    Long term, YP print is a dead end as it becomes obsolete. IYP may be headed for dead pool too as better competitors build better mouse traps, ie. Google. Much like the music industry knows all music will become free yet reap profits while they try to prolong that inevitability, YP continues to raise its ad rates to juice every last dollar out before the end game finally plays itself out and advertisers pay that cost in diminishing returns. Same for newspapers but they just don’t have anything worthwhile to cling too for profit while the ship is sinking.

  5. Rich Hargrave Says:

    Valid points Stever. I’m on the new media side here at yellowbook, so I can’t speak for other publishers – but we make our response rates very transparent, including advertiser calls/clicks/leads from all of our print/search/IYP channels. Also, I’m not sure there are too many YP’s out there “raising rates” any longer…

  6. Stever Says:

    Rich, I of course speak in broad generalities and base much of my opinion in what I hear my clients say about their YP experiences. My perspective also extends into Canada as I have clients on both sides of the border. In Canada it is a little different as, for the most part, there is only one Yellow Pages, except for small regional players. No true direct competition means they have more control over rates, and they are still going up, so I hear.

    As for the transparency on response rates, could you point me to some of that data?

  7. Rich Hargrave Says:

    Absolutely. I’ll touch base via email…

  8. Douglas Galbi Says:

    Even if ad call counts from print YP are very low, and a YP advertiser understands that, there’s still the problem for a small business of what to do. I estimate advertising expenses by businesses with less that $1 million in business receipts in 2005 to be $27 billion, with average advertising expenses of these businesses being about $1,000 per business (tax return). Print YP served this market well. How to serve small business advertising needs in the future is very important, but very unclear.

    For the data, see my post on small-business advertising.

  9. Douglas Galbi Says:

    Additional note: the above data are for the U.S.

  10. horde & alliance leveling guide Says:

    This is US data only?

  11. Douglas Galbi Says:

    Yup, the numbers are just for the US. Worldwide numbers would be much bigger.

  12. Greg Sterling Says:

    yes. US data.

  13. Scott Says:

    Its clearly a “sampling” bias. If you ask different groups of people the same question their reponses will be different.

  14. Greg Sterling Says:

    The claim of Forrester is that it’s a representative sample.

  15. Mike Stewart Says:

    I believe that using internet polls or internet research to determine print usage is like going in a clockwise direction in a Nascar race. Not going to get you to the end result with success in my opinion. (always wanted to use Nascar in an analogy). I have worked many rural markets and found that just a few miles away from Dallas usage of Google falls flat and print usage jumps tremendously. Keep in mind that some of the small town thinkers live in the urban areas as well. There are folks that live day to day without even turning on a computer. Then there are folks that can’t breathe without a Blackberry next to them. The average American likely will use print more than a fast paced urban dweller or urban soccer mom. In my opinion this industry is one of the few in which statistical information is less important than common sense. Don’t use big cities and big websites to determine if people use the yellow pages. Take a trip to Royse City Tx or Sherman Tx and ask folks how they find a plumber or an attorney. Enjoy your trip to these smaller towns. You might like these quiet areas of the country. That’s my 2 cents. Mike

  16. Greg Sterling Says:


    I was on the phone with Dick Larkin, one of the founders of Weblistic, who’s now working for a traditional YP publisher in the midwest (not a household name). They’re in smaller markets and he said the company is growing and revenues are growing in a very healthy way.

    It’s market by market. Nothing can be assumed and everything must be empirically validated now.

  17. Chris Silver Smith Says:

    Mike Stewart is right about polling internet-only users causing a definite bias of data. Internet-only poll respondents would naturally show higher percentage of online usage.

    Likewise, I’ve pointed out before, if any of the polls are based on landline-only surveying, it will miss many of the households that are cell-only users — very likely causing a bias in favor of printed directories.

    But, Mike’s point about rural vs. urban users I think is very likely true. I’d completely believe that rural users refer to printed directories a lot more than people in cities. However, I’d also tend to believe that those in small towns are referring to the directories in order to find businesses they already know-of or frequent a whole lot more than referring to them to find new businesses.

    I really wish the polling of these various research projects would focus some on the type of references coming from directories and online. How much of the total references are people looking up contact info for businesses they already know of?

  18. Greg Sterling Says:

    Chris: you’re raising the point about the problem in general now with polling. There may not be any reliable national sample given the cell-only HH, etc.

    Re the already known business issue, the YPA tries to dispute that with the online product in their latest release that was put out late last week.

    But I agree many of those contacts are phone number lookups of already known businesses

  19. Jeff Powers Says:

    Alot of great comments and tips here!I can really learn alot from these suggestions and hope that i can contribute as well.keep up the good work

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