Yellow Pages Still Thinking Backwards: Sues for the Right to Distribute in Seattle

Everyone here knows how much I hate the Yellow Pages. Not the company, per se; believe it or not, they have a growing and reasonably sophisticated online service which is very much what you’d expect from a modern directory service. Still, if you’re like most people these days, you almost never use a physical phone book for anything other than a door stop.

Seattle recently passed a law allowing consumers to “opt out” of receiving phone books at their doorstep. No sooner was it passed than a group of Yellow Pages publishers filed a lawsuit arguing that the distribution of phone books is protected under the first amendment.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the Yellow Pages companies may have a point, in a sort of abstract way, notwithstanding citizen’s rights to live free from junk mail, litter, and the cost and hassle of disposing of unwanted phone books. If Yellow Pages loses, the resulting “patchwork” of local ordinances regarding distribution will indeed be a nightmare for them to deal with. Smells like high potential for a long, wasteful legal battle.

At the end of the day, however, this should not have to come to a lawsuit. Dumping useless tomes on people’s doorsteps is a wasteful, invasive act regardless of whether you have the right to do it. It’s expensive, rude, and an offense to Yellow Pages advertisers who are footing the bill for a shotgun approach to reaching customers who could be much more targeted if Yellow Pages took the time to figure out who actually wants a print copy.

In their defense, the Yellow Pages Association has created a website (not yet fully functional) called “www.YellowPagesOptOut.com” which, come 2011, will supposedly streamline the opt out process without the need for municipal legislation. Unfortunately, the current state of the site makes “patchwork” seem optimistic: try it yourself here. and I find it very unlikely that it’ll work for multi unit apartment buildings like mine where the bulk of yellow pages delivered this year sat in the foyer for weeks.

Here’s my 2 cents worth of advice:

1) Yellow Pages companies should cancel all deliveries for 2011. Instead, they should mail an attractive letter to consumers, and call them up as well. It should announce the fabulous, value filled YellowPages.com online resource for everything imaginable. Yellow Pages should brag about how up to date they are and what a thrill you’ll get by going online right now to look up deals and services in your area. People might even start using it instead of Yelp! It could be hip!

2) Yellow Pages should include in the mailing a nice little form offering the print edition to people absolutely free! They could increase conversions by offering a free coupon book if you opt in! A basic demographic survey could be included so Yellow Pages knows exactly who’s at what address.

3) Yellow Pages massively cuts printing and distribution costs and DOUBLES, hell, QUADRUPLES advertising rates because for once advertisers are getting to people who have willingly opted in, and whose demographics are now much better understood.

Rocket Science baby. Everyone Wins.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.