Answering my own questions since 2001

From the Front Door Directly to the Recycling Bin

Our latest phone book arrived today. I picked it up off the welcome mat, carried it through the house, out the back door and deposited it in the recycling bin. Pulling the plastic wrap off the thing, I noticed a little card affixed to the front of the book. It’s called the “ecoFinder”:

Phone Book, From Front Door to Recycling Bin

It’s a little card with advice on how to dispose of things like batteries, old phone books and the like. Apparently it’s also promoting a directory of “over 1,500 environmentally responsible businesses” that’s new to this year’s phone book. Or maybe the directory is just a pilot project in Quebec? I’m a little unclear, based on the media release. Hang on, here’s a hilarious release mentioning the directory in Victoria’s phone book, as well as the “noteworthy” news that “the residential and alphabetical business listings has been increased from 6 to 7 points”.

This is a classic case of greenwashing. Aware of their reputation as a big waster of paper, the Yellow Pages Group is trying to deflect attention toward their ham-handed efforts to ‘green’ their brand.

I was at a friend’s place last week. They lived in a big apartment complex, and the phone books were arrayed around the edges of the foyer like sand bags holding back a flood. If my own Yaletown apartment is any measure, dozens of those phone books end up in the recycling bin.

You Can’t Opt Out Yet

This is the first phone book we’d received at our current address. I decided I’d call the Yellow Pages Group and opt out of future phone books. Here’s the thing: you can’t.

It’s 2009, and you can’t choose not to receive the phone book. In July, 2007, Annie Marsolais, a Yellow Pages Group spokesperson said there were no plans to implement an opt-out program: “The print book is here to stay because there are advantages to the format.”

Less than two years later, the Yellow Pages Group has changed their tune. Ms. Marsolais recently said (and I’m translating with my dodgy French), “since certain people expressed a desire not to receive our directory anymore, in 2009 we’ll put in place a mechanism which will permit people to remove themselves from the list.”

It’s pretty shameful that it’s taken them until 2009 to apparently consider an opt-out process.

The Arguments For Phone Books are Dwindling

A couple of years ago, I remember wholeheartedly agreeing with Lee’s proposal that phone books should go from opt-out to opt-in. There’s some interesting debate in the comments, but just like newspapers, the writing’s on the wall. The yellow pages needs to transform itself, or die.

One of the more robust arguments is that phone books are a basic service that everybody, even those without internet access and cell phones, enjoys. That’s true, but it gets less convincing with each passing year. Consider that, in 2007, 73% of Canadians had internet access. That’s up from 57% in 2003. I suspect that we’ve nearly reached 80% in early 2009. At what point does the phone book simply have too few users?

To a lot of Canadians I know, the Yellow Pages is just a huge brick of junk mail that arrives all at once. I recognize that they use recycled materials to print the book, but there’s still a ridiculous amount of waste in the manufacturing, distributing and waste management of the books. The Yellow Pages Group is proud of the fact that they publish about 30 million directories. That’s pretty much one for every Canadian. I wonder how many of them never get opened.

How long do you think the Yellow Pages will last? 2012? 2020?

25 Responses to “From the Front Door Directly to the Recycling Bin”

  1. Al

    In Vancouver, we get TWO Yellow page books: One from Yellow Pages [Telus] the other from CanPages. The latter is better, from what I’ve seen

  2. Saul Brown

    Great post! I’ve been thinking about this too, so much waste and hardly any value. Transform or die! So how do I opt out of the program? I can’t seem to find out how?

  3. Derek K. Miller

    Remember that the Yellow Pages (whichever version, and whoever publishes it) sells ads based on the old rules: how many copies of your ad it distributes. If they switch to opt-in, or too many people opt out, they’ll have to lower their circulation numbers substantially, and their ad rates will have to go down massively, which will drop their revenue.

    That’s the real reason this switch is slow. Yes, there are third-party circulation and readership audits, but those are rough estimates anyway, and usually only happen every few years. Because they lack direct measurement of clicks and responses like online ads, magazines and newspapers have similar incentives to inflate their circulation and readers-per-copy numbers in order to maintain ad rates.

    That’s especially true for the many small businesses that advertise in the Yellow Pages — they don’t have advertising or marketing departments or formally measure return on ad investments, so for decades they’ve essentially relied on Yellow Pages salespeople to convince them that their ads are worthwhile.

    Maybe they still are for pizza delivery and a few other categories, but I think by the end of the decade, paper directories will be vestigial, especially as more and more people get smartphones that can provide more relevant and up-to-date results wherever you happen to be.

  4. Gregg Gordon

    I came to say a lot of the things Derek already said, and so I’ll just agree; putting a phone book in every business and residence whether they want one or not is all about circulation numbers.

    I had a temp job years back sitting at a desk in the Yellow Pages building that had every single ad cross my desk. Basically my job was to take the ad copy from the art department, quickly glance at it to make sure there weren’t obvious mistakes such as mis-alignment, and then stick it and a copy of what the future invoices would be into an envelope. I could not believe the size of the invoices. Businesses such as restaurants would pay more than I ever thought it cost for a 1/2 page ad, then extra for being in the coupon section, even more for being listed in another section (think pizza or Chinese plus restaurant), and then pay it all over again so they could be listed in the Vancouver, Burnaby, Kits, Richmond and New West directories.

    I can’t see them wanting to give up any of that sort of circulation; there is no way you could convince someone to pay that amount of money for an online listing.

  5. Kirsten

    This is something that fills me with silent rage every year when I see the yellow bricks sitting unwanted in my lobby. It is such a criminal waste in this day and age, and I can’t believe more enviro groups aren’t making a fuss about it.

    I was going to start a Facebook group about it, but got distracted, and now I see someone already has – it’s called “Stop Forcing Us to Accept Giant Unsolicited Phone Books” and I’m about to join it right now.

  6. Davin Greenwell

    I think I opened the phone book perhaps once in the last two years. Maybe it was a dream, I have no idea. The new phone book is still sitting outside our front door. I haven’t found a need to bring it in yet.

  7. Jessica Doyle

    They’ll most likely last until the generations before us pass on. My dad is in his early 60′s and has never used a computer. He does use a cell phone but it is 8 years old and he has never programmed it to save phone numbers. He carries around a little piece of paper with all his numbers written on it that in turn gets tucked into his wallet.

    Happy Valentine’s Day!

  8. Derek K. Miller

    @Jessica: We’re sidetracked there, but one benefit for your dad is when his phone dies or he needs to get a new one, he won’t lose the numbers or need to reprogram anything. Yeah, he should have a backup, but a photocopy would do it.

    While I program numbers into my phone, I usually dial (dial?! man, I’m old) the most common ones out in full, not because it’s faster, but because that way I remember the numbers in case my phone isn’t working, or I don’t have it, or I need to use someone else’s.

    @Gregg: I too was astounded when I saw the display ad rates for Yellow Pages listings. I even paid a (small, but still outrageous in retrospect) amount to get a plain listing for my non-incorporated proprietorship back when I was freelancing. (Incorporated businesses got them free, but I had to pay — another dumb thing.) You know what kind of calls it got me? Junk calls trying to get me to buy more ads, or list in other directories, and so on. Not a single bit of new business, which all came from referrals or my website. I cancelled the next year.

  9. Travis

    Darren,

    I noticed the ecoFinder as well — such chutzpah these companies, yes?

    I say, let the Yellow Pages be Opt-In or Opt-Out — but require them to be sustainable. If they plant 2.2 trees (or whatever) for every book you deliver then I’m fine with it.

    Also, if they’re charging by raw circulation, then their advertisers deserve what they get. I know when I worked at a newspaper, you had the circulation rate, and then also the “pass-along” rate, basically a madeup number that said every newspaper was read by 2.1 people because of coffeeshops, multiple people households where the kids read the comics and the lady read the “style” section, etc. The number was, as far as I can tell, a big imaginary lie created so advertisers could feel like even more people were looking at their ads. Free papers had really high pass long rates. Just like the Yellow Pages’ circulation number, it was necessary to justify the ad rates .

    TTFN
    Travis

  10. Adam Snider

    About the only time I use the phone book is when I want to order Chinese, because for some reason a lot of local Chinese restaurants don’t have websites, but they do have a full page menu in the phone book.

    If I could find websites with full menus for most of the local Chinese restaurants, I don’t think I’d ever open the phone book again.

  11. Heather

    The delivery person at my apartment building decided to take things one step further and physically deposit a phone book in front of each apartment door. I brought mine inside to balance out an unstable bookshelf. I’d say 75% of my neighbours have left theirs in the hall. That was more than a week ago. What a waste.

  12. colleen

    Love the yellow pages, and I use it often. I’ll be very sad when it final stops being published.

    Old copies of telephone books are collected by a few people I know to make archery butts. Once they are perforated to such a state they cant be reused, they finaly get recyled.

  13. Annie Marsolais

    Full disclosure, I am the Director of Communications for Yellow Pages Group. We recognize that there are some people who aren’t satisfied with our print directories. We listen to consumers and will therefore be offering them the choice to be removed from the distribution list later this year.

    It is important to note, as some of your followers do, that the print version of our directory is still very important to some consumers. In fact, a majority of Canadians still use the print version. While the local search needs of Canadians have begun to change, this isn’t happening nearly as fast as many might think. Yellow Pages Group continues to harness the latest technologies. In addition to http://www.YellowPages.ca/ and http://www.Canada411.ca/, you can now get directory listings through your cell phone (mobile.yp.ca), by texting 411411 and even via instant messaging at poynt@yellowpages.ca.

    We’re also committed to minimizing our environmental impact. We now distribute our residential directory every two years in certain large urban markets, including Vancouver. We also work with municipalities, businesses and environmental groups to improve our environmental performance. See more at: http://www.ypg.com/environment/

  14. Betsy Kent

    For so many years, one of the most valuable places where a local business could invest their advertising dollars was the Yellow Pages. After all, everyone had it in their home, the information was arranged according to business category so it was easy to use, and the ads weren’t too expensive.
    The Internet has now replaced the Yellow Pages and it’s getting harder and harder for the companies who publish those big books to justify themselves to advertisers and users alike.
    One questions I have is this: do you use the online versions of the Yellow Pages (such as SuperPages, etc)?

  15. Anonymous

    [...] that they print approximately 30 million directories. That’s what it said in February, 2009 when I wrote about it, so maybe they haven’t changed that number? In any case, going from 30 to 25 million is a [...]

  16. amanda mathews

    The other days a group of us were talking about all the uneccessary waste we pollute our earth with every day & we decided we wanted to do something fun to help…So we each chose something we could collect & recycle & decided to have a little competition to see which one of us can collect the most recycleables. I am collecting Phonebooks,( All old telephone directories, Yellow Pages, White Pages, SuperPages, whatever) So if Anybody has any old phone books wanting to be recycled email me antc@mail.com , You’d be not only saving the landfills from all the phonebooks but you’d also be helping me to kick my friends recycling butts! Please email me at antc@mail.com with where &when you want me to pick up your old phonebooks..
    thanks alot & have a nice day!
    Sincerely, Amanda

  17. Jon Pelissier

    That is very fascinating, That you are an excessively specialist blogger. I’ve joined your feed and stay up for searching for a lot more of your excellent post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

Comments are closed.