Cast your mind back. Not that far, say 15 or so years. At that time the Yellow Pages and its smaller competitors ruled the small business advertising roost.
Try as they might, smaller business operators simply couldn’t come up with an advertising medium that reached as many people at the time they were ready to buy as the directory market leader.
In advertising terms it was monolithic. In business terms, a monopolistic cash cow.
Surprising really that majority owner Telstra didn’t go the whole hog and call it ‘Gold Pages’ – as that’s what it really meant to them.
A love/hate relationship.
The directory was loved and loathed simultaneously by its advertisers. Loved because it was so easy and effective. Loathed because they were at the mercy of its monopoly and the ever increasing rates that were positioned in a prominent fashion.
But for some time, many small business operators have been seriously reviewing their expenditure on what was once this mainstay of many of their promotional efforts.
Despite beating Google to the punch by licensing then search leader AltaVista in Australia, owner Sensis has since struggled to keep its products as important or ubiquitous, as it has experimented with a range of different products and business models.
Some, like the online version of Yellow Pages, have worked quite well. Others, like the abysmal GoEureka, were expensive flops.
SMEs redirect their advertising expenditure
In the marketplace, those businesses who sell to other businesses (B2B) are likely to have culled their directory spend some time back.
Quite simply, a tome limited by the print medium it once ruled can’t compete with the search and multimedia capabilities of the web at large. Because most business operators have their computers powered up most of the day, it’s far easier to search for a supplier using Google et al than the now quaintly old fashioned means of poring through the printed equivalent.
At home, the impact was less severe. Because computers often weren’t available or switched on at the time a supplier was needed, print directories have been able to hold their own quite well – particularly the handy local editions.
Just when they thought it safe…
But just as Sensis executives thought that print could hold out for at least their tenures, an unexpected new candidate has snuck on stage left.
In much the same way that iPod and iTunes came under the music industry’s radar, could Apple also turn Sensis’ rivers of gold into an intermittent yellow trickle?
The catalyst for such a cataclysm is that iPhone and its competitors now allow for easy web browsing via its web interface. Whereas in the past consumers may well have picked up the Yellow Pages books to search for a supplier, now all they have to do is hit the Safari icon on their iPhone touch screens to quickly find a supplier and browse its website.
Even better, web ‘sites’, especially reconfigured for portable devices, are now coming online, making better use of the limited screen space available.
My own household habits demonstrate what is happening around the world.
Despite our relative resistance to trends, both my wife and I were unable to resist the amazing capabilities of iPhone (particularly given neither of us had BlackBerries) and have both purchased one.
Therefore whenever we are at home and are compelled to find out about a product or service, we reach not for Yellow Pages but for our iPhones. Within a few seconds we have as much information on products, prices and suppliers as we could hope to poke a USB stick at.
Sorry Sensis et al, but it makes even the biggest and most colourful print ads look like the directory equivalent of Beta videotape or eight-track audio cartridges.
And there is no end in sight to the rapid pace of iPhone development.
Where will the changes end?
Apple has already had crowds fighting to get Version 2 of the device. And as you read this, clever ‘App’ developers are coming up with new and unprecedented ways of finding products and suppliers.
Before long we’ll be put in touch with suppliers in ways we’d only dreamed of in the past. Already, free services like Twitter provide a seamless interface between ‘word of mouth’ and an online sale.
So where does that leave smaller businesses once heavily reliant on directory advertising?
Well there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that it not only can cost a lot less to create a professional web presence and accompanying online advertising – usually via the search engines themselves, but most of this advertising is paid only when someone clicks on your ad.
In traditional directories, this is the equivalent of paying only when someone dials your phone number – a far fairer and more accountable means of paying for your advertising.
A multitude of online players
The bad news is that unlike the good old days of Yellow Pages advertising, there is no single dominant player in the online space.
Yes Google is the leading search engine by a long shot, but you may get more cost effective leads from social networking, email marketing, banner advertising, blogging or a video on YouTube.
In other words, while the cost per lead may have reduced significantly, you will need to understand which of the eMarketing techniques, or at least which combination of them, are right for your particular business.
Which may have some less informed business owners secretly yearning for their trusty annual call from their Yellow Pages rep!
Of course the migration to iPhone et al won’t happen overnight. Not everyone has the desire or skills to readily adopt these multimedia devices.
But as we move through the next decade and Gen Ys move into phases of more serious financial decision making, it can be seen that the touchscreens of their devices will be the very first place their fingers will be walking over.
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Craig Reardon is a leading eBusiness educator and founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which provide the gamut of ‘pre-built’ website solutions, technologies and services to SMEs in