Buying Yellow Page Advertising: Breaking Bad Advice

Picture of three Michigan Yellow Book Directories

Image via Wikipedia

All right…I have had about enough.  Yellow page salesmen are one notch below used car salesmen and half a notch above crack dealers on the sales respectability scale.   That unfortunate misperception is one that can cost a business money.  I have sold millions of dollars of yellow pages advertising and the easiest sales to make are to ongoing customers.  They continue to place ads year after year for the simple reason that it works.  It works quite well, in fact, and business owners — especially new business owners — would do well if they gave this proven source of leads a little more respect.

If you have an experienced yellow pages rep, you have a valuable resource.  Use it.  Don’t worry…the experienced sales rep doesn’t have time to trick you into a sale.  They have a solid book of business and they are looking to build that book of business.  Bad sales become unhappy clients and don’t have much value to an experienced yellow pages rep.  So the the idea that a yellow pages salesman is out to mislead you is the first misconception to overcome.

I will talk more — again — about being prepared to advertise later.  You would be surprised how many businesses — new businesses in particular — who say they don’t have enough money to advertise.  If you don’t have enough money to advertise, you don’t have enough money to open your business.  Period.  Advertising is a key small business fundamental and everyone wants to be smart about their business investments, so choose advertising that is smart and effective. 

Advertising should be an asset, after all, and it should generate profits.  If it doesn’t do this you are only spending money to waste it.  And for some reason yellow pages has become a target of people who see waste in advertising.  We need to debunk this misperception.  It is a misperception that leads to bad advice.  Let’s hit the bad advice head on.

Bad Advice #1:  Start small and test your results.

The idea here is to place an advertisement in a yellow pages directory and track your results.  Be conservative, don’t risk more than you’re willing to lose.  Well, ok.  I’m not going to argue with tracking your results and I don’t have a real problem with letting your yellow page advertising evolve and grow.  There are a few things to keep in mind about tracking and growing, however.

First, if you’re going to track your advertising results, you better have a good way of tracking.  Advertising sales people know all too well that business people claim to know the source of all their leads and sales.  They will tell you “I ask everyone how they found me.”  The best way to test this very scientific survey is to ask yourself:  “When was the last time I was asked how I found a business?”  I sell advertising…I am always waiting and seeking that question.  I will even call businesses from time to time to see if I do get asked that question.  (It’s a bit of due diligence on my part.)  And I believe the last time anyone asked me how I found his business was two or three years ago, if that recent.  People don’t ask!  Am I right or am I wrong?  They don’t ask.  And if they do, how accurate is the answer?

Consider this:   Business owners will tell you their biggest source of leads is referrals (N.B.  This would be a problem if you’re a new business, right?), but in reality that is likely only partially true.  Many customers will tell a business they found them through a referral even if they haven’t.  Why?  Saying so is a way to connect with the business owner, to create and extend a pre-existing relationship.  Customers do this to nudge a business toward more attentive and personal service.  If a business owner thinks an existing client referred them, don’t you think that business owner is going to be less likely to screw you over?  At least a portion of “referrals” are people seeking better service or people just giving the answer they think the business wants to hear.  That’s it.

If you really want to track your advertising results, invest in a lead tracking line, a separate phone line that keeps a record of calls.  This is the only way.  In a phone book it works especially well.  People generally call from the directory…that’s why they are there.  A tracking line is a simple and clear picture of your results.  So, even IF you want to start small and measure your results, be sure you have an objective way to measure your results otherwise your effort is wasted.

As far as going small in order to put less of your budget at risk is concerned…what you really risk by following the “think small” advice is incorrectly assessing what a phone directory really can do for your business.  Not all advertising programs are created equal, and a cheap ad might underperform; it might not make the most of the opportunity you could have taken from the customers using the yellow pages directory.  This does not automatically mean that bigger ads are better ads.  Placement matters most. 

Here’s an important and common sense takeaway:  The ads that get seen the most produce the most.  It is that simple.  If you’re buying an advertising plan on price alone, your ads might not get noticed.

Often the ad that gets seen the most is the largest ad, not because it is large, but because it is seen.  (There are many other considerations about ad content, design, and placement, but for now I am arguing against the less-is-more suggestion.)  If you buy a small in-column ad in a directory that has several pages of display ads — i.e., a very competitive and successful directory– you might not even garner table scraps from the big guys.  Also keep in mind that if people are calling the ads they see first first, you might end up with a lot of lower quality leads, such as price shoppers, for example.   There is a strong correlation in the quality of leads — or lack of quality — as an advertisement appears further and further behind others in yellow pages directories. 

A job worth doing is worth doing well.  Don’t sell yourself short on a yellow pages trial.  Make sure you’re starting with an advertising plan that is worthy of your business.

Bad Advice 2:  Choose a small directory and test that market first.

Very bad advice.  In fact worse than the starting with a small advertising plan.  I am not necessarily opposed to choosing one directory as a test, but it is important to know that not all directories are created the same.  Literally.  In fact some business owners might believe yellow pages is a failing industry because they have chosen to advertise in weak directories.  (Usually because it is inexpensive.)  Among the mistakes you might make is choosing a community directory over a directory that competes with a metro directory.  The yellow page industry isn’t dying, but small directories are. 

Today phone directories are used primarily to locate businesses — less than 5% of all directory look ups are to residential white pages — and most business lookups are coming from people new to a market or people making a specialty or infrequent purchase, like a new roof or dealing with an emergency.  For these things people want options and they want them fast.  Phone books still have an advantage over  internet advertising for this kind of information, especially if you are looking for local businesses.  You’ll likely see more local roofing contractor options in a good phone book than you will on an internet search, for example…even today.  The internet is great for research, but buyers still shop and phone books attract buyers.  Although online phone directories like are closing the gap fast.

Skip the small books.  Choose a book that has good content.  You want to see a lot of existing advertising in the directory you choose.  This might seem counter intuitive, but business begets business.  If you’re the only roofer advertising under the roofing contractor heading that might seem like a good thing, but how many consumers will want a book with only a smattering of ads scattered here and there?  You want to advertising in a book that people will use and for this content is king.  People want to see options.  Choose a phone directory with options.

Then go back to Bad Advice #1.  Don’t sell yourself short.  Make sure you are competitive within that directory.  Buy an advertising plan that will compete; one that will be seen and generate results.

Another somewhat related note:  Who do you think the directory publishers are advertising to on their radio and television campaigns?   The advertisements promote a strong consumer message, but the reality is those ads bolster the directory’s reputation with business owners.  The publisher is really advertising to their advertising market. 

For most people yellow page directories are like tissue paper.  Everyone might call the tissue Kleenex, but it really doesn’t matter to the consumer who made the “Kleenex.”  Leads are essentially a commodity and more than one directory can deliver that product well.  Keep your eyes open for quality.  Look for size, scope, and content.  Bigger is better in the directory world.

Bad Advice #3:  Nobody uses phone books anymore. 

I will sound flippant, but so what?   The idea that “nobody” uses phone directories is a lazy conclusion and a convenient one for someone looking to get out of tried and true old technology and move onto the glamorous world of internet advertising.  In reality the demise of yellow pages directories has been predicted for at least ten years now and yellow page directories still provide results.  In fact, if you buy smartly, you might find that yellow page directories are the most cost-effective advertising investment made by your business.  The bottom line is simple.  If you are getting a profitable return from yellow page directories, invest in it. 

Also keep in mind that you, the business owner, don’t need to use a yellow page directory to justify investing in yellow page advertising.  What matters is what the prospective new business is doing in your market.  Furthermore, yellow pages doesn’t have to be your biggest source of new business, it only needs to be a profitable one.  Yellow pages remains a key connection between buyers and sellers and likely will continue to be one into the foreseeable future.  People predicted the end of radio when television came along.  Radio is still here.  It is hard to say what form yellow pages will take in the future, if any at all, but until they stop becoming profitable, businesses are making money from yellow page advertising.  Don’t let the perception that the industry is dying prevent you from profiting from the medium while profits still exist.


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