Long-disputed phone book usage figures key to ad rates

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For most people, the yellow pages are those hefty, rather bland books that land on the front step semi-regularly. The biggest issue is what to do with the old ones.

But for the two main companies that produce the directories in this region, Yellow Book and Verizon, the issue is much more serious than that. The yellow pages are an intensely competitive business, with each side seeking the claim as most popular while accusing the other side of having the wrong number on that measure.

The latest volleys in this ongoing battle came this week, when Yellow Book officials released data showing their single Allegheny County phone directory has a usage rate of 40.1 percent, meaning 40.1 percent of people in the county using phone directories were using its book.

By comparison, Yellow Book's data showed that the three main Verizon books -- a Pittsburgh North version, Pittsburgh East and a Pittsburgh South and West -- have a combined 41.7 percent usage rate, meaning Yellow Book's single edition is nearly comparable to three from Verizon. The publisher of the Verizon books disagreed, saying its own figures claim a 56 percent usage rate vs. only 20 percent for Yellow Book.

Consumers may not be too concerned but advertisers are. It's not cheap to buy premium space next to the attorneys page or the one with phone numbers for moving companies.

While dueling numbers among directories have been the norm for years, the $14 billion U.S. industry appeared to make headway on ending the bickering a couple of years ago by launching a third-party research program to get an unbiased number.

There has been progress, said Blanche McGuire, a senior vice president at Ketchum Directory Advertising's Pittsburgh office. Her company buys advertising space in directories around the country for national clients and has been happy to get the results of the new research from California firm Knowledge Research/SRI.

"The yellow pages industry needs to have credible third-party data that can support media buys," said Ms. McGuire, who was involved in establishing the standards and expects to serve as the next chairperson for the American Association of Advertising Agencies' telephone directory committee.

In her view, it doesn't matter which directory is the largest in a market as long as both represent a significant piece. Advertisers generally need to be in any book that has a strong share.

But for those whose business centers on making their yellow pages the most popular, the debate over leadership in the market is deadly serious.

Yellow Book's new statistics for Pittsburgh came from the research done by Knowledge Networks/SRI, which should prove they are more credible, according to Gordon Henry, the company's chief marketing officer. "It was really set up to be the gold standard," he said.

Idearc, the publisher of the Verizon books, is not participating in the Knowledge Networks research here, although it is doing so in other places. Its local numbers are from the Gallup research firm, which has studied this market for 10 years. "The reason we don't use [Knowledge Networks] in Pittsburgh is because of the established relationship with Gallup," said spokesman Andrew Shane.

It would take an old-fashioned operator to help the average person sort through the points and counterpoints over whose numbers are better.

In Pittsburgh, Knowledge Networks researchers use the agreed upon standard, but they only surveyed the area covered by one participating publisher because that's who agreed to buy the research. That means there can be discrepancies because competing books may not cover the exact same territories.

On the other hand, when a company does its own research, it can be hard to determine how good the data is. If, for example, a survey is taken just after one book is delivered, it's likely to be the one consumers think of first. That's why the ad groups wanted the survey done over 12 months.

No matter how the numbers are sliced, the industry nationally is very competitive. New directories appear regularly, companies work to perfect their online phone directories and consumers try to sort out the old ones before they turn into a mountain by the telephone.

The Verizon book publishers yesterday touted their efforts to make their books more useful, more local and even more interesting. There are features on local heroes, such as Amy Katz, whose battle with leukemia helped launch a drive to find bone marrow donors. There's also a table of contents. "The phone book becomes more representative of the local community," said John Klein, director of marketing for Idearc's Mid-Atlantic region.

But back at Yellow Book, Mr. Henry was still focused on those numbers. He saw his rival's decision to provide its own data as a sign that his product is gaining market share. "They didn't like the answer."

Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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