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Let Your Fingers Do The Walking, Typing

by Alf Nucifora

Increasingly, I get the question "Should I still advertise in the Yellow Pages?" To many a small business, the Yellow Pages have always been of questionable value... expensive, and with no way to measure the effectiveness of the medium. But, the small business was trapped... had to be in the book. For a start-up, it was quite often the primary source of new customers.

Then the Internet arrived, with its information-heavy web sites, updated information (no more waiting a year between print cycles) and less expensive maintenance cost. The Yellow Pages were no longer the only game in town.

BAPCO (the Yellow Pages arm of BellSouth) is one of the nation's largest Yellow Pages publishers, distributing four hundred directories in nine states of the Southeast under the brand name, The Real Yellow Pages. As a sibling of one of the original RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies), BAPCO sets the pace in Yellow Pages marketing and is considered a "best of breed" in the business. According to Ken Ray, BAPCO's VP of Marketing, Yellow Pages usage has been in the decline. On a national basis, references or searches across all categories have experienced a gradual drop-off in the range of 3-5 percent annually in the past five years. But, signs of change are in the air.

Usage in BAPCO's territory was up in 2001 vs. the previous year as a result of a determined strategy to make The Real Yellow Pages more relevant, or as Ray notes, a medium "with enhanced usability and searchability." He references such changes as spiffier layout, color coded sections, more community information, and a move to make the directory more upscale, particularly in the enhanced Fine Dining guide which now supplements the traditional, but pedestrian Restaurant listings. However, it's the Internet that has poached former Yellow Pages users and forced the greatest shift in strategy and execution.

Most Yellow Pages publishers saw the writing on the wall and have made the decision to co-opt the enemy rather than fight it. There is a recognition that the Internet is here to stay and that the only guarantee of the Yellow Pages sustainability over the long-term is to link with the Internet and create a an online-offline hybrid that delivers the information according to current consumer need for speed, detail and user-friendliness.

In BAPCO's case, significant investment has been made in the development of an online delivery system RealPages.com. With PC (Internet connected) penetration in the home currently projected at 55-65% nationwide, that decision makes sense. In order to seduce the small business advertiser, BAPCO offers a 2-for-1 deal... buy a Yellow Pages listing and with it get your web site featured on RealPages.com, which in turn provides a link to the advertiser's web site and an opportunity to feature more in-depth information outside of the constraints of a limited display ad.

According to Ray, references in BAPCO's directories grew to 1.9 billion while searches on BellSouth's online service doubled to 94 million in 2001. BAPCO has also inked a deal with Yahoo! to provide its data to Yahoo! subscribers in the Southeast.

But the move to new technology doesn't end there. BAPCO also offers its directories on a CD-Rom, now made available to 6,500+ businesses for corporate Intranet use. The result…the need for fewer books and the availability of information at every employee's desk. BAPCO is also offering an online version of its Real Yellow Pages (with streaming ads and web site links) to the corporate sector and plans to take it to the general consumer within the next sixty days. Users will be able to access both the White and Yellow Pages directories at www.therealyellowpageslive.com. Says Ray, "We want them to use it just as they would the phone book." With wireless Internet as the coming wave, no doubt BAPCO wants to see its directory information freely available and easily accessible by the laptop and PDA crowd.

Will the Yellow Pages directory disappear like the dinosaurs? Probably, but it will take time. Let's say 10-15 years. In the meantime, for the average small business, the Yellow Pages directory is still on of the best sources for linking buyer and seller at the local level. And the Internet has made it even more effective. Growing Internet acceptance on the part of the consumer has forced directory publishers like BAPCO to rethink their existing strategies and justify their still expensive advertising rates with more value-added premium…better measurability and accountability (the Internet does that best), better customer service and wider message distribution delivered in a more aggressive and user-friendly fashion.

Small businesses still need the Yellow Pages. And they will still pay a hefty price to advertise in them. The difference today... more negotiating leverage and a better product. Thank the Internet for redefining the rules.

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