This month marks the 130th anniversary of the first published phone book, and despite a growing reliance on online directories Google Maps, Bing Places or Yelp, publishers of the classic “yellow pages” say they are not going away anytime soon.
“Phone books are definitely not dead in rural America,” said Robert Culpepper, president of Indianapolis-based Premier Directory Services LLC. “There is still a lot of phone book usage once you get away from the large cities.”
He’s betting on his observation by launching a new printed phone book in the Springfield market this April.
Here’s the dilemma: Phone book usage has declined in recent years, according to research by Market Authority Inc. Between 2011 and 2015, usage dropped in rural areas to less than 70 percent from above 80 percent, whereas in metro areas usage fell to about 40 percent from around 65 percent, according to a Market Authority study.
Then there’s the Google and Siri effects.
In a 2016 survey of U.S. internet users, sponsored by the Local Search Association, 80 percent of respondents said they used online search engines at least once a week to find businesses. Comparatively, searches in online “yellow pages” were 18 percent a week and printed phone books were used only 16 percent a week to locate businesses.
Yet publishers like Culpepper are not deterred by the trends; rather they’re motivated to try new tactics to stay in the directory game.
While other entrepreneurs are setting up crowdfunding campaigns to bootstrap startups revolving around 3-D printing or virtual reality, Culpepper partnered with Joplin resident Fred Martino to launch a phone book publishing company. The two men have decades long careers at other directory services, most recently at The Berry Co., where they met.
Premier Directory Services has developed and distributed two phone books so far, one in rural, southern Vermont and one in northwest Arkansas, Culpepper said. Another in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is scheduled for delivery March 1. The company targets smaller communities, he said, with a significant population over the age of 50.
The new Springfield Metro Premier Directory will contain phone numbers – purchased from phone companies that deal in landlines and cable-based phone systems – within Springfield, Nixa and Ozark, Culpepper said. Without disclosing the investment, he said the new directory will be printed in Illinois and sent by mail to 125,000 area households and businesses.
“We do include all of the area’s residential and business customers listings – the ones that are published,” he said, noting many other phone book companies have stopped printing home phone listings – commonly known as the “white pages.”
Culpepper said he set up a satellite office in Springfield and hired Pat Finn and Linda Goodwin to handle advertising sales.
Pivoting in publishing
Another challenge on the industry has come from environmental interests. Some who find phone books to be an antiquated use of natural resources have actively worked to reduce the number printed.
The cities of San Francisco and Seattle tried to ban phone book distribution in recent years, according to published media reports, but the moves were struck down as a violation of publishers’ constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
The industry has responded to consumers’ concern for the Earth. YellowPagesOptout.com, developed by trade organizations The Local Search Association and The Association of Directory Publishers, allows people to voluntarily block the delivery of phone books to their home.
To cater to more technologically minded users, Premier Directory Services also offers a website and mobile app with the same phone listings and advertisements found in print, Culpepper said.
Other phone book publishers have added similar online directories – and even more internet-forward solutions.
Pittsburg, Kansas-based Names and Numbers has continually added web-based products to meet the changing needs of business owners, said Marketing Director Tom Spurgeon.
The 40-year old company still prints 4 million phone books annually for its 68 markets in 11 states, he said. Spurgeon said the volume is on par with last year but was unaware of historic data. About 200,000 of those books are sent to Springfield-area door steps.
A mobile-friendly website and smartphone app complement the phone books, Spurgeon said, but the business has developed other products to satisfy the advertising customers that feed the bottom line.
Names and Numbers salespeople sell custom-designed websites directly to customers. They manage online listings for each client, Spurgeon said, which involves taking a survey of a business’ online presence, including search engines, mapping websites and social media. Names and Numbers also partners with Google and third-party camera operators to give users an inside look at area businesses, Spurgeon said.
“A panorama of 360 degrees is taken,” he said of the interactive images uploaded to Google Maps. “It can be of the interior, it could be out in front of the business – wherever the business owner wants.”
Phone directory competitor YP Holdings advertises similar web-based services, such as site design, online listing management and promotional video production.
More technologies will be added in the future, Spurgeon said, to help provide marketing solutions to the advertising customers that phone books have been serving for generations. “It’s cool the way technology is going,” he said.
But technology is not meant to replace printed books, Spurgeon said, and the primary product is still printed phone books at Names and Numbers. Spurgeon said sales managers had to get creative.
To help keep phone books in the minds of consumers, Names and Numbers pays its advertising customers to refer to the phone book in their traditional media advertising.
To qualify, businesses must spend at least $2,000 on advertising within the pages of Names and Numbers and then mention those phone book ads in other print or radio, television and billboard promotions. In return, businesses can receive partial refunds on their outside advertising expenses for up to 30 percent of their annual Names and Numbers advertising bill, he said.
Where megaretailers abound and more development is coming
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