Malcolm Gladwell ‘Re-frames’ the Yellow Pages

Tipping Point and Blink author Malcolm Gladwell just delivered the morning keynote at the Yellow Pages Association conference in San Diego. It was a terrific speech and, unlike many keynotes from noted authors and celebrities in similar situations, it actually contained valuable insights and “takeaways” for the people he was addressing.

Gladwell is a compelling storyteller. And he opened the talk with the story of David Sarnoff, an early RCA employee (and later founder of NBC) whose scrappy and industrious determination to promote a live boxing match on the radio in 1921, against his bosses’ indifference and even opposition, helped popularize the insurgent medium. Gladwell said that part of Sarnoff’s genius was that he “re-framed” the way people understood radio. Previously it had been a medium for news and classical music. But Sarnoff introduced the possibility of bringing live sports and real-time events “right into the living room.” This was a repositioning of the medium and illustration of what was unique and possible with radio vs. newspapers, for example.

Later in the speech, as he brought an entertaining and at times far flung discussion back to the yellow pages audience, he sought to distill the essence of what the industry does and the functions it performs for consumers and advertisers. This would be part of a potential “re-framing” of the understanding of what yellow pages are. An arguably more direct version of this point came in the Q&A discussion when he was asked how to reframe magazines and The New Yorker, where he works, in particular. Gladwell said that it was a “community” that offered certain kinds of “observations and insights about culture and ideas” and was delivered through a print magazine but could and should also be delivered in other forums as well.

During the talk, Gladwell introduced three “lessons” inherent in what he described as “successful business creation” — here it would arguably be reinvention. Those lessons formed the skeleton for the various stories and anecdotes he used to illustrate them:

  • The importance of social connectors within organizations
  • The role of “mavens” in the larger marketplace
  • The importance of re-framing or repositioning to make products and services more directly appealing

On the first point: Connectors are important social entrepreneurs and critical figures within organizations, according to Gladwell. He says they help bridge isolation across groups and silos. Mavens are experts or trusted authorities who help consumers navigate the complex world of too much choice in the marketplace. And then re-framing, as discussed, helps sell or refresh a product or idea that might have been otherwise unappealing or inaccessible to consumers.

As those lessons and ideas apply to the yellow pages industry, Gladwell argued that connectors within the organizations could help promote better communication among groups within the publisher organizations. He added that the industry and yellow pages product(s) play “maven” roles with consumers, providing a trusted or expert source of local business information. We can certainly debate the merits of that point. While it was true at one time, there are others online that probably make a stronger claim on that role today. My reaction was that the industry plays or can play that role more on the SMB advertiser side. However it can redouble its effort to reclaim the mantle of trust among consumers, along the lines of some of what Scott Klein is trying to do at Idearc (e.g., SuperGuarantee).

After the session was over I had a chance to speak to Gladwell for a few minutes. We talked about the execution and culture challenges that the YP industry faces. He agreed that on the consumer side there were challenges and obstacles to be surmounted.

Gladwell had also said that the difference between Google and yellow pages is that Google didn’t have the same degree of “trust.” This was another point I challenged to a degree, arguing that while Google wasn’t trusted as a human might be it was seen as the most reliable and comprehensive source of many types of information online.

People in the room listening to Gladwell were very enthusiastic. The concepts he laid out and applied were quite relevant and, it seems to me, offer a jumping off point for further discussion and exploration within the industry. But the question always is whether this sort of enthusiasm can translate into action and execution.


8 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell ‘Re-frames’ the Yellow Pages”

  1. David Mihm Says:

    “This was another point I challenged to a degree, arguing that while Google wasn’t trusted as a human might be it was seen as the most reliable and comprehensive source of many types of information online.”

    “My reaction was that the industry plays or can play that role more on the SMB advertiser side.”

    I couldn’t agree more with both of your reactions, Greg. I’ve been saying for at least the last 12 mos. that the only real way for the YPs to recover any of the market share that Google is eating is for them to become truly objective, trusted sources for SMB’s of where to spend ad dollars online. I.e. not just pitch their own advertising platforms. The need to play the “maven” role is much more important than tweaking a product which is largely dying, as far as I can tell.

    Having said that, if some of the problems with Google’s LBC aren’t corrected soon, the YP products might actually take over that spot… 🙂

  2. predictabuy Says:

    Nice summary. Sorry I missed it.

    Adding to David’s comment – in order to maintain or regain the trust of SMB’s they will need to increase their focus on proof and transparency.

  3. Malcolm Gladwell Inspires on Tuesday Morning « Yellow Pages Association Blog Says:

    […] Pat Nichols at Berry said, “Gladwell was outstanding. Kudos for a great choice.”  Greg Sterling liked it too. […]

  4. Steven Says:

    Great post, Greg.

    To the points on re-framing and positioning of products, there’s a wonderful piece that Gladwell did on master pitchman Ron Popeil and the products that his company (and family) developed for market (The New Yorker October, 2000 –

    Very interesting points in that article on product development, marketing, and product utility. I had never fully realized the link between a good web experience and the Veg-o-Matic, but it’s there.

  5. Greg Sterling Says:

    Thanks Steven. I’ll take a look at the article.

  6. Joe Mescher Says:

    Malcolm Gladwell is an intriguing writer, it must have been fascinating to hear him speak.

    Following is a video of Gladwell at TED titled “What we can learn from spaghetti sauce”:

  7. Greg Sterling Says:

    I’ll take a look, thanks.

  8. Need a Culture Transplant? « Screenwerk Says:

    […] I was struck by how radically different the two cultures are: yellow pages publishers and their vendors and mobile marketing companies and ad agencies. Both sets of attendees would probably have profited from attending the other conference just to see how different the world looks from the other’s point of view. To some degree Malcolm Gladwell was talking about the same issues, when he discussed the problems with “silos” and isolation in his YPA keynote. […]

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