Small Business Marketing- The Yellow Page Directory’s Place in your Marketing Mix

The recent post “Does your small business need to invest in yellow page advertising?” a comment was left stating that “the internet is for browsing – the yellow pages are for buying. ”

I’m sure that comment was left by someone who makes his or her living selling yellow page advertising.  It’s a GREAT line – but it exposes an essential “truth” .    It acknowledges is that people – in general-  are going to the internet FIRST to research their purchasing decisions.   When they don’t find the answers online that’s when they pick up the yellow pages to buy.

With that in mind, yellow page advertising does have a place in the marketing mix for many businesses.  However, the printed yellow page directories are making the death march to extinction and if that is the sole way you advertise your business – you might want to start working on a new marketing strategy .

I got my start in a  “traditional” advertising agency in the mid 1980’s because there wasn’t any other KIND of advertising agency way back in the stone age.   In those days we wore primitive clothing fashioned from animal skins and chipped pithy marketing messages onto cave walls and onto stone tablets by firelight. Even as we battled sabre tooth tigers along the way to client meetings, we still recognized the need for our client’s business to be listed in directories.

In those days (as now) the yellow page advertising representative’s opinion was that our clients needed a full page, four color ad in the yellow pages.  As the appointed keepers of the advertising budget – we at the agency held a different point of view.  The result were many heated and lively exchanges and as a result, I have few friends in the yellow page advertising industry.  😉

It’s my belief that a business (big or small) that is engaged in a strategic marketing campaign created with the target customer in mind doesn’t NEED a huge display ad in the yellow pages.   Those dollars can be much more effective when spent in other media.

In my book,  Beyond the Niche: Essential Tools You Need to Create Marketing Messages that Deliver Results, I recommend business owners devote about 7% of their marketing budget to listings in directories.  That’s not a lot but it’s more than enough if you’re spending the other 93% wisely.

For example, if you are a brick and mortar business owner who is in the heating and air conditioning business – then I would NEVER recommend that you stop advertising your business in the yellow pages.  However, I would also not recommend you spend the majority of your advertising budget there either.

Remember – by the time someone is looking for your business in a directory – they’ve already made a decision to purchase.   That’s why I recommend that the other 93% of your marketing budget should be spent influencing people to choose your business BEFORE they decide to purchase.

Wouldn’t you rather be talking to prospective customers BEFORE they’ve decided to buy?

The yellow page advertising rep desperately wants you to believe that the prospective customer who is picking up the yellow pages is operating from a “clean slate”.   In this fantasy land, your yellow page advertising rep will provide LOTS of “documentation” which “proves” your prospective customer opens the yellow pages and INSTANTLY picks the largest, most colorful ad. However, that’s not how advertising works in the “real” world. The example I use to get people thinking about how the yellow pages really work is to choose something they don’t need every day -like  finding a roofer.

The exercise goes something like this- pick up a copy of the yellow pages and start looking for a roofer.  Pay attention to what’s going through your mind as you scan through the pages.  Chances are you’ll notice that you’re searching for is a name that is FAMILIAR!!!

See, the only way the largest most colorful ad in the yellow pages is going to “win” is if you have absolutely NO CLUE of what roofing company is reputable in your area.  Otherwise, the race is going to to go the business with the “best” reputation – the one that is MOST familiar!

For example, yesterday as I was driving to the grocery store, I heard an ad on the radio by a local roofing company.  Right now, I can’t tell you the name of the company – but if my roof started leaking tomorrow – that ad would be having an influence on me.  It would be working on my subconscious as I began my search for a roofing contractor.  That roofing contractor’s name is going to be familiar and I’m more likely to call him than anyone else in the directory.   If I hear his ad again today, that familiarity will be strengthened.   If I hear that ad another 120 times I’ll probably be able to recite the roofing company’s name off the top of my head.   (That is how advertising works.)

Here’s the rub: If I were to pick up the phone and call, if  the receptionist were to ask how I “found” their business – I’d say, “The Yellow Pages!”  While that would be true – but that wouldn’t be the WHOLE truth!   The roofing contractor’s radio ad would literally be the unsung hero of his marketing campaign.


Smart business owners will have a marketing strategy in place with the goal to build familiarity with their customers.  One way to breed “familiarity” is to create a website that reaches customers while they are searching for answers!  Grab customers at that point and they’ll rarely find their way to the yellow pages!

The problem is that most small business owners have websites that do NOT come up when people are searching for answers to their GDP – Goals, Desires and Problems.

As long as your competitors don’t have a website that provides answers to the GDP of the target audience, then it becomes a game of one upsmanship within the confines of the yellow pages.  However, if you discover how to reach customers BEFORE they head to the yellow pages – how to put your website in front of those prospective customers when they’re researching their decision – long BEFORE they’ve decided to buy – well – then suddenly  the size of the ad in the yellow pages really doesn’t matter at that point, does it?

Does your small business need to invest in yellow page advertising?

Yesterday, the phone rang.  It was a company doing “market research”.  You may think it’s a smart small business marketing strategy to hire a research firm to poll your potential customers.   You may think that outsourcing this market research taskis the key to making money.  You may also be tempted to think that advertising in the yellow pages is the smartest use of your advertising budget.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the past year, I’ve been “polled” at least 6 times by various yellow page companies in the name of “market research”.  The polls are obviously geared to try to provide some proof to small business owners that yellow page advertising is a smart investment of your advertising dollars.

Long ago, there was just one “yellow page directory” but these days there are several – each more worthless than the last.   The only difference between the last the yellow page directory delivered to my doorstep and a bag of flaming dog poo was the yellow page directory wasn’t on fire.

Why would ANYONE with an internet connection use the yellow pages?

The answer – if you’re looking for a business that doesn’t know enough about the internet to create a website that can be found by the search engines.

Who still uses the yellow pages? Baby Boomers – that’s who.  Baby Boomers who have acquired the HABIT of looking to the yellow pages for information.   I get it.   However, as the market research dude kept pushing me as to why I didn’t use the yellow pages – I was forced to inform him that I have a perfectly good bathroom indoors and that’s why I don’t relieve myself in my back yard!!!

In other words- I have the internet – why would I EVER use the yellow pages?

Because it wasn’t on fire when it arrived,  I did pick up the last yellow pages dropped off at my house and flipped through it on my way to tossing it in the recycling bin.  I was literally  STUNNED with what I saw.   The last yellow page directory delivered to my home was a new “condensed” version.  You’ll never guess that they did to “condense” it –  REDUCETHE FONT SIZE OF THE PRINT!!!

So why in the WORLD would a business that is obviously targeting the Baby Boomers decide to reduce the size of the font in the directory?

Most businesses targeting Baby Boomers are scrambling to make things easier to read.  They are  increasing the keys on remote control units, creating cell phones that have larger displays and adopting larger font for websites targeting Baby Boomers.  With that being the case, why would you buck the trend and adopt a 4 point font size for your directory?  The answer has to be that you’re not even trying to fool yourself anymore.

I talk a lot around here about creating a target audience profile and keeping your target audience in mind as you market your business.  I harp on keeping your target audienc in mind ALL THE TIME.  It’s an essential exercise in not only my 8 Week Power Blog Launch course but also in my book Beyond the Niche: Essential Tools You Need to Create Marketing Messages that Deliver Results.

Keeping your target customer in mind is definitely something big businesses tend to forget to do that small business can’t afford to forget.

Yellow page advertising is definitely a product which is on it’s last legs.  It a buggy whip in the era of the horseless carriage.  The only people still using yellow pages as a directory are Baby Boomers and the only businesses relying on yellow page advertising are businesses who don’t know what else to do to promote their business.

During my 15 minute “battle of wills” with this marketing research dude – it was painfully obvious that there was an “agenda” in mind behind this so called “market research”.

In the end, I’m certain that the “results” of this “survey” will end up as sales material for the next advertising sales “blitz” in our community.  Prior to the blitz, billboards will begin proclaiming the value of yellow page advertising.  Radio and television stations will begin airing commercials with testimonials from businesses using the yellow page directory.   Then, the yellow page advertising reps will be unleashed.   Small business owners will be presented with “tangible” evidence of how their version of the printed yellow page directory is THE one where small business owners should invest the majority of their advertising dollars.

I often advise my clients to watch what great marketers are doing rather than buy what they’re selling.  In this case, watch what media the yellow pages uses to promote their directory.  THOSE are the media choices YOU should make when promoting your own business rather than investing in an ad in the yellow pages.

In my series “Steps to Starting a Small Business” you’ll notice that hiring a company to perform “market research” is absent from the list.  Most “market research” is performed by BIG businesses who are intent on either fooling themselves or creating “proof” for marketing materials.   In most cases, small business owners can’t afford the luxury of such “fluff”.

What’s your take?  Do you still use the Yellow Pages?  If you do use them, has a yellow page ad ever influenced your decision? Had you already made your buying decision when you opened the yellow pages?