Are Phonebooks – and Other Print Directories – a Dying Breed?

I was at a meeting of small business owners recently where we shared our experiences and ideas about marketing effectiveness – what works and what doesn’t. I was surprised at the vehement reaction against yellow page advertising – either the old hard copy kind, or the new online options. Neither, said this group at least, is worth the cost.

I tried to remember the last time I had turned to the phone book or directory listings online to find a number for somebody or something. I can’t remember the last time I looked up a business number. When I need a business number I go to its web site which I find through a Google search. I have, though, looked up personal numbers both in the hard copy book and online. But that’s probably because I’ve been woefully behind the times in terms of capturing and saving numbers on my cell phone.

Curious about other views on the viability of the phone book, I posted some discussion items on a few LinkedIn groups. The responses were overwhelming negative – even disparaging – about the value of phonebooks and the industry as whole. In fact, said a few posters, the industry has basically “committed suicide.” Here are some representative comments:

“I still use them to prop things up, like small children on a seat! It’s quicker to Google.”

“Suicide. ‘Phonebooks’ murdered their print business strategically.”

“I throw mine out and/or recycle. I think it’s just a waste of trees.”

“Funny story, my boyfriend and I just used the latest phone book to help start a fire in our fire pit in the back yard. We don’t read newspapers, it was the only “paper” we had in the house we could live without.”

But, a few traditionalists admit to still using the old phonebook:

“I live in a small town on the fringe of the Dallas area. I keep the smaller local phone book, but I recycled the huge Dallas phone books because they take up so much space.”

“I use my laptop, Blackberry and the phone book. Whichever is handier. Being new to East Lansing (new again after 35 years being gone), I keep the phone book under my car seat. It’s been especially handy for finding service type businesses, restaurants and professional practices on the spur of the moment.”

“I find myself the renegade again. I’m all about online tools in every corner of my life yet I still grab that book under the kitchen counter. Still find it handier more often than not.”

The whole thing makes me extremely curious about why, if virtually nobody uses the phonebook anymore, they continue to be produced and distributed. If they’re no longer effective, then who’s advertising in them – and, again, why? Do businesses, even really big businesses, simply follow the crowd and maintain their phonebook advertising because their competitors are in the book? Is the print listing just a courtesy throw-in received as part of the online buy?

What will the directory publishers do to address this shift in demand? What are they doing? When does the delivery of phonebooks simply stop – and what additional downstream impacts does that have for the printing and postal service industries?

Are you advertising in phone directories? Why? Why not?

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One Response to “Are Phonebooks – and Other Print Directories – a Dying Breed?”

  1. Erin says:

    We’ve had a lot of our clients ask us this, as they start to consider more online marketing opportunities. For most of them, the money that they’re spending on the phone book could produce much better results online (especially since they can track it to see if it’s working and integrate their offer with their website). However, I think there are still some industries – especially on a local level – that can benefit. Auto repair shops, dry cleaners, take-out joints…personally, I’m still trained to go to the phone book, even though I live my life pretty much online otherwise. And, for smaller businesses who don’t have a website (yes, there are still many out there), they won’t be found on search engines anyway, unless they’re listed with the phone companies (and therefore at least listed in the phone book).

    I’m not sure what will happen with the paper directories, but I think that the online ones are going to have to get a lot more accurate before they completely kill the paper version. A lot of directory sites contain a lot of crap, so people haven’t fully started to rely on those for solid information. If that problem gets resolved and the online directories start offering super-updated, accurate, and complete information – bye bye, paper phone books!

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