Well, it’s not quite a ban, but it’s close. A few days ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to restrict delivery of the Yellow Pages to residents and businesses who specifically request a copy.

The vote is a preliminary one – legislation in San Francisco is not final until it passes a second vote – but the 10-1 margin of the May 11th vote is a strong indication that the measure will shortly become law in the environmentally-conscious city.

The legislation sets up a three-year pilot project to limit distribution of the Yellow Pages to those who request a copy by phone, Internet, or by leaving a sticky note on their door. The law mandates special outreach to low-income, non-English-speaking, and elderly people who may not know how to request a copy online.

Supporters of the restriction on Yellow Pages deliveries say that it will be a good thing for their city. They argue that in the age of computer and mobile devices, most people (some say as many as 70%) no longer want or use paper telephone directories. Building managers are annoyed by the unsightly piles of unused copies left in lobbies and on doorsteps. Environmentalists point to the more than seven million pounds of waste generated by the nearly 1.6 million copies of the Yellow Pages delivered each year. (If the books were stacked up, they would be 8 ½ times as high as Mount Everest.) Recycling helps, of course, but the thick volumes frequently clog up recycling equipment, requiring expensive repairs.

Opponents of the measure highlight possible negative impacts on small, local businesses that rely on the Yellow Pages as their primary advertising medium. In particular, businesses without websites would be hit hard by the loss of advertising opportunities. And, not surprisingly, the Local Search Association (until recently known as the “Yellow Pages Association”) has been very vocal in its opposition to the possible law. Instead of the opt-in system mandated in the new law, the Local Search Association supports an opt-out system, which is already in place on the Yellow Pages website. If the legislation passes the second vote, it’s likely that the Local Search Association will challenge it in court. (In Seattle last year, a similar law was struck down on free speech grounds.)

San Francisco may be the first city to succeed in restricting Yellow Pages delivery, but we don’t think it will be the last. What impact will limited Yellow Pages delivery have on your business?

  • First, it will make it absolutely crucial for your business to have a website. If you don’t have a website already, you need to get one ASAP to make sure that you’re ready for any changes to your city’s Yellow Pages policy.
  • Second, you’ll need to make sure that your website can compete in online local search. This makes sense no matter what happens to the Yellow Pages in your city. As we noted in our last blog post on the Yellow Pages (“The Yellow Pages – Your Grandmother’s Inbound Marketing?”, April 6, 2011), the vast majority of consumers – perhaps as many as 97% - use the web to evaluate potential products and services before buying them.
  • Third, it might make advertising in the Yellow Pages a good idea again. No, you read that right. It sounds like a paradox, but limiting the circulation of the Yellow Pages might make it a much more viable advertising medium for service companies. Right now, we believe that advertising in the Yellow Pages is grossly overpriced for the number of leads it generates. But if the Yellow Pages limits its delivery to only those who really use it, advertising rates will almost certainly drop to reflect its smaller circulation, while the number of leads you get will probably stay about the same. This will make for a much better ROI on your Yellow Pages advertising. (Of course, the secret to being sure that you get the ROI you’re looking for on all your advertising is to use a specific, designated, trackable phone number for each kind of advertising you do, so that you can assess the number and quality of leads generated by each medium.)

The Yellow Pages industry is buzzing like a hornet about the possible restriction on its distribution, but we hope it settles down and starts to see the advantages of the change. The web is here to stay, and there’s no doubt that it’s supplanting paper phone books for many people. All indications are that the Yellow Pages industry, as it currently exists, is doomed to financial ruin. However, if the Yellow Pages scales down its business model to focus on serving the small percentage of consumers who still use paper directories, it will set itself up as a valuable complement to online search. If this happens, we’ll go back to being enthusiastic supporters of the Yellow Pages as part of a comprehensive marketing program for service businesses.