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When Will We Finally See the Death of the Phone Book?

Information is everywhere — in our homes, on our phones, on our televisions. We’ve got web-based city guides like Yelp and Citysearch, location-based apps like Foursquare and Gowalla, and search engines at our fingertips to help us track down any lost address, new phone number, or updated business listing we need. And yet, every few months the phone book people slam a four-inch-thick tome down on our doorstep.

In fact, half a billion phone books are printed and delivered in the U.S. each year, according to The Daily Green’s Jeff Yeager.

With all the free, paperless alternatives to Yellow Pages available in increasingly convenient forms, why do phone books still exist?

Local Advertising Is Stuck In The ’80s

Small, local businesses with limited budgets have narrow advertising options. Whereas the Internet provides myriad cheap or even free ways to advertise a local business (Adwords, Yelp, Blogs, etc), a busy local plumber simply may not be savvy enough to take advantage of them. Enter the Yellow Pages salesperson, a man or woman armed with a quota and a mouthful of statistics like “8 out of 10 calls come from Yellow Pages.” Because phone books have typically been cost effective advertising forms for small businesses, it’s easy to justify the expense to renew an ad each time the sales rep comes calling. And since the sales rep comes to you, it’s often easier to spend your budget on a phone book ad than on Google Adwords or something that requires proactivity.

It’s difficult to measure the return on investment of a print ad. That’s one of the reasons the print industry has been so profitable over the past few decades: advertisers don’t know where their money is being wasted.

The bottom line is that even if people don’t use phone books, as long as businesses are paying money to advertise in them, those big books will be printed.

Mobile and Web Alternatives Still Lack Adoption

Mobile applications like Gowalla, Foursquare, and Where have introduced a powerful (and much more pocket-friendly) alternative to Yellow Pages, and to Yellow Pages advertising. Smartphones allow users to access nearby business listings based on GPS coordinates, view reviews from peers, and map out directions to any location. This combination offers a far more powerful set of local search tools than a simple phone book. Despite these advances, Nielsen reports that fewer than half of cellular phone owners have smartphones today. There are more than two phone books printed each year for every American citizen, so it will be a few years before smartphones overtake phone books in terms of market penetration.

Online listing behemoth Yelp is a searchable, filterable directory of business listings available on the web and mobile. Yelp says it receives about 39 million visitors per month. That’s a big number, yet still a fraction of the U.S. population. Furthermore, Yelp is only in roughly 50 cities so far, so it’s got a long way to go before achieving the local reach of the phone book industry.

Google, on the other hand, with its maps, street view, targeted Adwords advertising, and local business listings, is pervading across local markets all over the world. As Internet access becomes more ubiquitous, perhaps search engines will eventually be the death of phone books.

Will Phone Books Ever Die?

Even if phone books become technologically obsolete, they’ll continue to live on as long as advertisers are willing to pay for placement in them. Not only will the vast majority of consumers have to stop using phone books in favor of web and mobile tools, but small businesses will have to figure out how to measure the ROI of their phone book investments in order for phone books to stop being profitable enough to print.

So when will we actually see the death of the phone book? It may not be until we run out of trees. In the meantime, cities like Seattle are taking steps to crackdown on the amount of phone books delivered each year. Not only does Seattle impose a $0.14 fee for every book delivered but also fines the yellow page publishers $125 for delivering phone books to people who have opted out of receiving them. Read the full story here to see what else Seattle is doing to crackdown on phone book deliveries.

  • Jennifer

    I have to say that I love this blog post. Whenever I receive phone books, they go straight in the trash. Not only is it a waste of trees, but it’s a waste of marketing dollars. I would never advise any of my clients to advertise in direct mail or the phone book. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yelp, etc are where it’s at. This is the present and the future and I say RIP to the phonebook.

  • Allison Canty

    Thanks for the comment Jennifer! You’re not alone with throwing them straight into the trash, we polled our fans on Facebook and most said they toss or recycle them. Either way, what a waste!

  • M. Rad.

    It depends on what business you are in and what you are shopping for. For homeowner services, for example, the printed media–not just yellow pages but also the newsprint advertisers–are still the best source. Googling for a tree surgeon or a plumber yields quite unsatisfactory results. Finding 6 cubic yards of topsoil online is well nigh impossible. So truly local advertising media are not going obsolete any time soon.

    That said, the yellow pages are no longer the definitive resource they once were. I no longer feel a need to keep last year’s copy in the trunk of my car. And I cannot for the life of me see why they can’t be published as a PDF on CD, at least as an option for those who ask. I would use the yellow pages more if I had a copy on my laptop.

  • Allison Canty

    Agreed! I think that more people would use them if they came in a better format like a PDF and not the big, clunky form they come in now.

  • Jeff S.

    You people that want to kill phonebooks, have no idea about the facts. You live in your own little bubbles and can’t or won’t acknowledge the facts. Yes the Internet has gained traction in the big metropolitan areas. There is only one city in the country where Internet usage for products or services gets more hits than print YP. That would be Austin, Texas. Also, what about how many job in the industry and that supply the industry, would be lost at a time when we can least afford it! I think all of you would be heart broken if your industry you love was facing cheerleaders, who hoped you die. And one last thing to you pathetic low brows. What about small businesses who do track where their dollars are coming from or when towers and power is out and a print book has escape routes for hurricanes or any disasters. What about our Baby Boomers and Seniors who depend on these directories for many services. And, especially for you ( The straight to the trash lady). Have you ever heard of recycling them. They put off less greenhouse gases than cell phones, smart phones and computers. God help this country! You narcissists are perfect examples of the dumbing down of America. People like yourselves will ultimately bring this great country down!

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