If I Were a Yellow Pages Publisher . . .

Screenwerk • by Greg Sterling

The past few days I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the predicament of yellow pages — and by extension other traditional local media. I realize it’s very easy to be someone who sits back and critiques others’ mistakes. I often liken analysts, myself included, to movie critics. It’s much more challenging to make a movie than to criticize one after it’s been made. And in my work and writing I always try to put myself in the position of someone who’s actually under pressure to accomplish something and has real-world P&L responsibilities.

With that . . . No one has asked me to run a YP company but here’s what I’d do:

Work on the brand:

Relying on Google SEO is a losing game over the long term. You’ve got to do SEO and get even better at it — optimize for the long tail and so on. But you’ve got to develop a brand. RHD’s Dex has done this to a degree. Yellowpages.com has sort of done this (but not really). Many consumers are responding to the “generic” URL rather than brand loyalty. Superpages is trying to do this around the Super Guarantee. But it’s something that needs more attention.

Develop other brands:

Build out verticals or alternative brands that appeal to different demographic segments. See this data from the TMPDM-comScore study about usage:

Picture 4

As you might expect: print is used by older people; younger people use search engines. So if I were AT&T I’d be buying Yelp. The sales force could sell the ads and the brand would be an enormous addition to AT&T interactive (I’ve got no financial stake in Yelp and nothing personal to gain from recommending this). Notwithstanding the chart at the very bottom, Yelp’s traffic is already bigger than the IYPs:

Picture 5

If you can’t read the chart, Yelp is the blue line, Yellowpages.com is green (#2), Superpages is #3. I would argue that other YPs should try and buy Yelp but they probably can’t afford to. AT&T is probably the only one that has the cash.

Change the sales culture:

I understand that most YP publishers are working on this, but somehow they’ve got to shift the commission structure so that reps are equally incentivized to sell digital. The folks at the Kelsey Group will have more insight into the sales/commission issues and the status of those efforts than I have, however.

Work on the cost structure of the business:

Newspapers have been killed by their cost structure, which can no longer be supported by declining ad revenues. YP publishers have moved faster and more deliberately than newspapers, but they are now in danger of going the way of newspapers — less and less usage, fewer revenues.

Aggressively syndicate data/ads/etc:

YP publishers are already doing some version of this: get the ads and data out to third parties. Why not create a Local AdSense offering? To succeed it probably needs to be collaborative because there’s not enough ad coverage from any individual publisher.

Mobile — Yes

AT&T has to date been the most aggressive and experimental in mobile. Superpages has got some interesting things to announce, however, this week. Mobile is a critical area that needs to be developed much further than it is today. The new Yell iPhone app is an example of conservative thinking that may win some usage but won’t turn any heads or gain the loyalty of younger people. Here a “segmentation strategy” is probably also be called for.

More community, more social

Work with Praized, AgendiZe, Facebook Connect. Social efforts to date, with a few exceptions are weak. Facebook (and maybe Twitter) + local may be the other punch the industry didn’t see coming.

Create a lab environment where people can do crazy stuff and be creative:

Superpages’ Seattle office (former InfoSpace) is the best example I know of this. Rod Diefendorf and Pete Schwab in that office are working on some “crazy shit” as they say. The Twitter implementation, even if it doesn’t wind up driving lots of traffic, is an example of a creative risk. They’re doing other interesting stuff as well. Their freedom and the fact that they’re not from the traditional YP culture enables them to think differently about the product.

YP publishers, at least on the interactive side, need to be more flexible and willing to launch less than perfect products and improve them over time. Risk taking is now key, paradoxically, to survival.

The European Directories-Skype deal is another creative experiment; it may not “work,” but it’s a worthy effort. And if it does kudos to them.

The consumer culture has changed drastically around traditional media companies and most of them have not changed to reflect the new reality. Culture shift in organizations is extremely difficult but it has to be done: flatten them, reward risk, creativity and initiative.

We’re now in the third quarter:

I apologize for the sports metaphor. I heard from one of the attendees at the Kelsey-YPA show that there was an underlying sense of anxiety bordering on a kind of nascent panic. That’s appropriate because things are getting much worse for YP publishers. Print directories and yellow pages will never go away but they will get a lot thinner and lose many more advertisers if they don’t accelerate change. As the “third quarter” metaphor suggests, they don’t have infinite time to make cultural changes that will help them remain viable.

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Source: TMPDM-comScore, 9/09

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