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Aiming Your Company at the Bottom of the Barrel

I remember 25 years ago I loved leafing through three big books: Encyclopedia Britannica, The Big Book of Amazing Facts and the Yellow Pages. Maybe it was my lack of friends in grade 3, avoidance of people commenting on my bulbous head, or just a general interest in things that made me want to go through them, but I would sit there for hours.

Long hair can help hide a huge cranial circumference

Fast forward to the present day: The encyclopedia has been replaced by Wikipedia, The Big Book is now called The Internet, and the Yellow Pages are called Google. Yet, many businesses and phone directory sales reps continue to use these big hunks of paper and try to justify it.

I’ve had this debate with many people about businesses using tools like the Yellow Pages. Most people say it’s a great door-stop, booster seat or a thing to beat people with when they don’t pay up on a gambling debt (@EricaDurst inspired use), but let’s look at the case that most people say justifies using them: “They work in some markets! People still use them! Like old folks, shut-ins and people who are still locked into AOL contracts!”

So let’s roll with that: people who still potentially use them. I have a few issues with this way of thinking…

1. You’re aiming at the bottom of the barrel: No, I’m not saying people who use them are the lowest of the low, it’s that they’ve gone through every other resource that influences them to potentially buy before pulling out the directory. Have a look:

This is the Hierarchy of Buying I came up with 5 years ago after surveying a thousand or so people on how they hired a service provider. So your potential customer doesn’t already have a provider, doesn’t know anyone who could perform the service, doesn’t know anyone who knows anyone and hasn’t even heard of anyone in the field. So no relationships, no word-of-mouth. Nothing. (I should really make a new one, since Google would rank above Yellow Pages.)

2. Paper spam: Email spam works on the premise that if you blast it to a million people, a fraction of a fraction may be in the market for the product and a fraction of that may even click. Phone directories work on this same premise. 1.6 billion pounds of paper per year are used to produce the 500 million directories that go out in the United States every year in the hopes that you may be in the market for one of the 2,000 categories of businesses that are listed. It’s spam at its finest. You didn’t opt-in, the majority of people don’t use it, many not even taking it out of the plastic. Instead it ends up in landfill, might get recycled or thrown at random phone company trucks that drop them off. Sadly I don’t see them ever going opt-in, since like most things in the print industry, they charge due to bloated “circulation” numbers and I estimate the number of people who would actually ask for it at 14, give or take 12. Makes you want to go out and hug a tree and then go here to opt-out of them!

3. Price/Competition Sensitivity: The lower down on the hierarchy of buying you are, the more you’re up against lowest-price seekers and competition. It becomes a competition of who can have the most AAAAA’s in their legal name, just to rank as the first in their section, or who can put the biggest ad beside the rest of their competitors. It fascinates me that businesses pay good money to be listed next to all of their local competition. Since you have no clout/trust with the potential customer, the first and main question usually revolves around price. You instantly make yourself a commodity.

4. Lack of updates: Since they come out from a provider once a year, once you place an ad, that’s it for the next year. No testing on which ad converted to leads better, unless you do it on a year-to-year basis. That would mean to do a proper test, using three different ads, it would take you years to get any relevant comparative data. That’s like walking to Los Angeles from New York to see how your product is doing.

5. A dying market, literally: Through my totally non-scientific opinion, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that the amount of people who use a phone book to look for a service provider goes up with the age demographic. Hell, even seniors are ditchin them to jump online. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project, 45% of seniors over the age of 70 are online. Even 27% of those over 76 are surfin the Interweb tubes. Since the average life expectancy is around 80, I’m not sure who you’re aiming for. Those over 80? Go get em! Just make sure you buy the big ads with large font.

I understand there is still a lot of money to be made by businesses that aim for the bottom, when people have exhausted every other resource, but even those people are using Google at that point, and you can track your clicks, and have a concrete ROI on it.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

Some other great posts about this:

Dear YellowBook: Why? – You must read this one, not just for the post, but the angry comments that were later found out to be actual employees of the YellowBook. Craptastic. Go get em Nicole

Yellow Pages Suck – Great post by Jim Brown (no, not that Jim Brown)

We Still Use Old Media – This picture sums it all up. Also made me snot laugh. Thanks @ShaneGibson

Do the New Rules of Marketing Apply Worldwide? – Great video by David Meerman Scott