Phone Books: A Slow Agonizing Death

Ask 9,856 people on the question, “Do you still use a phone book?” and you will find out that a whopping 7,498 (or 76%) people will tell you that they never do. 20% will tell you that they rarely use one, and a meager 4% of them will tell you that they still use the old fashioned tool for locating local resources. No, phone books have not yet officially received their time of death, but the evidence is clear: phone books are old, outdated, and unusable.

Why Do People Still Use Phone Books?

Simply put: habit. Consumers and business people alike have been conditioned for decades in the intricate dance that is finding a resource in the local yellow pages. Some claim their use of the phone book is caused by circumstances regarding a place of employment (i.e. their boss doesn’t allow them to use a cell phone on the job, or their “internet access” is limited to the company’s home page, etc). Others state that they are essentially too lazy to get on their computer to look up the number they seek and they don’t have a cell phone with internet access.

Interestingly, though, these comments all point to a recurring theme: people are aware that phone books are antiquated and that the same information (in an updated and more accurate format) can most assuredly be found online via a standard search on a major search engine. This does nothing more than provide further evidence of the ensuing demise of the recycled yellow papers bound together in a mildly organized categorization structure. About those categories: I’ve often wondered, who the heck comes up with those anyway? They sure don’t seem to make sense to me about 70% of the time.

Small Business Makes the World Go Round…

Especially in the phone book world. Most consumers don’t comprehend the expense that goes into the phone book delivery machine. Unless they are a small business owner that has advertised in the yellow pages, and/or they are involved in the marketing industry on some level, most people probably don’t know how much small businesses pay for the privilege of displaying their company information in bright colors on that full-page ad. In some cases, it may cost a small business $10,000 a year for a quarter of a page. That’s $10,000 to share advertising space with their competition. Ironically, most businesses aren’t comfortable spending more than $1,000 on their company’s web site­ – the very thing that all of their marketing should be taking advantage of to further engage the prospect after they have encountered the ad in the phone book (or anywhere else for that matter) in the first place. This thinking is backwards.

So why do they continue to do it? For several reasons:

  • People that make the decisions to place ads in the local phone books are exactly that: people; and as I mentioned earlier, people (or consumers) are in the habit of using phone books.
  • Comfort. Phone books have been in use for decades; people know they are there, they know how to find them, and they know how to use them. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of “going with what you know.”
  • For some businesses, it may actually not make sense to get out of the phone book yet. For those with customers in older demographics, or otherwise non-technical people, the phone book is still a valid source of inbound business. Though not for much longer.
  • They get sold. I’ve touched on this before. Business people that are otherwise smart make stupid marketing decisions because they have a well-trained salesperson telling them that the circulation numbers of the phone books “cannot be ignored.”

Business People: Consider Yourself Warned

The businesses that fail to realize the dramatic shift in consumer/business connections away from phone books to online and mobile will also fail to survive. People are increasingly not using phone books for their information gathering. Instead they use a multitude of online powered utilities, such as:

  • Google (or Yahoo, maybe even Bing). The powerhouse search engine didn’t become a powerhouse by not delivering the best possible results when someone pecks the keys on their keyboard “Italian restaurants [insert city/town name here].” Less known, but just as powerful is Google’s free 411 service in which users may ask Google for information and have it provided almost instantaneously.
  • Mobile Devices (iPhones, BlackBerries, Droids, and the like), in the last 3-5 years, have made the shift away from phone books move from a casual stroll to an all-out sprint. With the ability to pull up a map on a phone and type in a search for a restaurant nearby (using permission-based location services on the same device) becoming commonplace, even services such as a traditional Google search on a mobile device will become outdated. With apps on the iPhone such as yelp and urbanspoon, and many similar others, people don’t even have to think about what restaurant they are looking for, all they have to do is shake their phone, and urbanspoon will tell them what restaurant to dine at. If the user doesn’t like the choice, they continue the shaking until they do.

The Ensuing Gold Rush

Everyone knows that in order to make it big in a gold rush, being a first arrival is key. Businesses that realize now that phone books are dying, and online and mobile brand presence will be the key to success in the not-so-distant future, will be the businesses that people discover via their mobile devices when the itch to eat sushi hits them in a new city.

Doubtful? Ask anyone under the age of 30 if they use a phone book to locate resources in your town. You might be surprised what you find out.