Time was, only strong man competition entrants would exert themselves to tear up phone directories for expectant crowds.
Now publishers themselves are this month twisting their books and businesses in to new shapes, to find relevance amid ongoing digital disruption…
- Yell Group: the Yell.com, U.S. Yellow Book and UK Yellow Pages operator has proposed renaming the company “Hibu”, “reflecting our increasing focus on the digital consumer”.
- YP Holdings: AT&T Advertising Solutions, which publishes the printed U.S. Yellow Pages, and AT&T Interactive, which operates YP.com and YPmobile, are spinning the efforts out in to a single separate company, YP Holdings, which Cerberus Capital invested in to gain a controlling stake.
What has gone wrong?
Though each company has, over the years, embraced online listings for its core local classifieds business with growing websites and mobile offerings, neither has fully translated digitally the status as go-to business directory it enjoyed in the print days.
Each has struggled as ubiquitous search engines and, latterly, local review and check-in services have become the default providers of local business discovery. Google made 17 times more than YP and 87 times more than YellowBook.com did in the U.S. in 2011.
In Yell’s case, annual company data for the last 14 years shows 2004/05 was the year UK advertisers started to flee its Yellow Pages directory. Growth continued apace, until the U.S. Yellow Book directory also began losing advertisers in 2009.
What is Yell doing to survive?
Yell is now trying to branch out from the threatened area of simple online classifieds, where Yell.com and Yellowbook.com Q4 sales dipped by 15.7 percent from last year.
New CEO Michael Pocock has hired MSN’s Scott Moore as chief digital officer, opened new digital offices in Seattle and refocused on providing customers marketing services like website creation and SEO. Yell built 337,000 of those sites in 2011, with a 112 percent growth in digital services revenue helping to hold overall digital sales up at nearly a third of the total.
But now Yell wants to go one step further. Like so many other fundamentally challenged businesses, it wants to break with the past and move on, by rebranding the company “Hibu”.
“We need a dynamic new brand to signal that we are a digital business of the future,” the company says, explaining: “By using bold lower case typography with soft edges we project a human and approachable company.”
The move may be mocked by British nostalgists and those who observe that even Yell bosses acknowledge the new name has no logical meaning. But brands themselves including Yellow Pages (UK) will remain. And adopting a new allows Yell to focus on being something that is no longer defined by what Yellow Pages once was. At Netflix, a name change with the same motivation proved controversial; on the other hand, the same spirit of dispensing with the past has allowed post-war Berlin to flourish as a gleaming, modernist cityscape.
Next, the company will have to think outside of the “Yellow” box by finding a more valuable place in online and mobile.
What is YP Holdings doing to survive?
After successive amalgamations of its Real Yellow Pages from SBC and Bell South, AT&T has taken one foot out of the game. Cerberus Capital this month bought a controlling 53 percent of AT&T’s Tucker, Georgia-based Yellow Pages outfit for $750 million and assumed $200 million in debt, formulating the new-look entity as YP Holdings.
It was the last divestment of a phone directory business from a U.S. regional phone company. And, though details of post-divestment plans remain scant, the move appears designed to extricate YP from the more lumbering corporate practises of a large telco. AT&T retains 47 percent.
“We have a great future in front us,” said new CEO David Krantz, the former AT&T Interactive president. “We are ready to invest in this business, innovate and provide excellent service to our customers.”
The move allowed YP to disclose that it clocked around $1 billion in 2011 digital and mobile revenue, from YP.com, YPmobile and other initiatives – around 30 percent of its $3.3 billion total. The challenge will now be flipping that proportion. The company is already offering search engine marketing, video advertising, direct mail initiatives and website development beyond its core business listings.
Each company is going to have to find a way of existing and innovating that is no longer about merely replicating its old business in digital form.
That will involve playing a part in many more sectors of the online advertising and marketing value chain. It may involve complementing rather than competing with powerful search rivals. And it must involve inventing new products and outlets for business marketing that might keep the publishers ahead of the game next time.
Frankly, the odds in their favour are not great. But now is the time for the publishers to prove critics wrong.