Yellow Pages: Will the Madness Ever Stop?

Special Delivery

This post gets easier to write every year.  As I’ve reported many times in the past, a truckload of yellow pages has been dropped off at my apartment building. This year, there seems to be a new technique – actually putting the individual bags at each apartment’s door instead of just dumping them in the foyer.   This likely increases uptake of the books since no one wants to be blamed for having debris in the hallway in front of their door.

Turns out the timing was quite good this year as I have a broken slat under my bed.  The phonebook fits nicely underneath it and gets rid of an annoying sag that I’d noticed last week.  This is probably the most well-used phonebook in the building.

On a more serious note, let’s think about what all these phonebooks amount to.  Millions upon millions are printed every year for an ever decreasing number of users.   The best statistics I can find suggest that a little less than 50% of Americans used the print yellow pages in the last month.  That’s actually a lot higher than I would have thought, but considering the source of that data is the Yellow Pages trade association, it might be a wee bit optimistic.  Needless to say, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that printed directories are quickly going downhill.  Furthermore, judging by the number of phone books that never left my foyer last year, and the scorn with which my neighbors discussed them, it’s obvious that an increasing number of people view the books as little more than a public nuisance.   I also argue they are a scam on advertisers who think they are reaching far more people than they actually do.

But I have an idea…

Since opt out programs clearly don’t work (I dutifully tried this last year), yellow pages should be required to stop all deliveries.  In return, a nice card should be mailed to everyone in a given area explaining that tomes of paper would not be sent any more, but that the website,, would be available for most any need.   In fact, is actually pretty useful – if they could just figure out how to grow their audience (I hear is available for cheap).

Consumers who still wanted a directory would simply return a postage-paid card to voluntarily opt in for future deliveries.   They could even increase conversions by offering a free local coupon book or something like that.  They could even ask basic demographic questions to know their audience much better than ever before!

And the real winning element to my idea?  Yellow pages would need to print far fewer directories for much lower cost.  Not only that but they could radically increase the rates they charge advertisers knowing that they’re now going to happy and willing customers whose demographics are better understood.

Trees saved, nerves saved, costs saved, labor saved, more money for everyone… what’s the problem?

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has 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, 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.

8 responses

  1. I think that the problem is that it’s a win-win for everyone except the yellow pages companies. They know that once an opt-in service will be enacted they will find out that the number of users is actually much smaller than the one they provide. I also suspect the demographics of the users won’t be as attractive to advertisers, so you will probably see a large decrease in the number of advertisers who are still willing to pay for ads on the Yellow Pages. I believe that the yellow pages companies would try to preserve the status quo as much as they can – just look at their reaction in court to the effort in Seattle to create a city-based opt-out program –

  2. While I agree that phone books are just another outmoded tradition that we should be letting go of with all due speed, I don’t think yellow pages is in any hurry to jump ship yet. In the end, they’re probably making more money on printing more copies than they would save on the cost of making less. Advertisers have to be more impressed by circulation numbers. I feel like the free papers I see in New York are a great example. Metro and A.M. cost nothing to readers and every day they sit in stacks waiting for commuters. The circulation size alone makes it attractive for advertisers.

    An interesting study would be a comparison for the amount of customer traffic a business gets by putting the cost to be in the yellow pages into Google ads/search results instead. For many businesses, I imagine the scales would point towards digital which could quickly dissuade advertisers from paying for paper real estate.

  3. The opt out actually worked for me. I found a little card on my door a few months ago informing me that because I opted out, I was not receiving the book. Your idea is still good though.

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