Today’s Strategic Imperatives For Directory Publishers

Flick picture by disoculated

Yesterday, I gave an interview to the Globe & Mail about Canada’s Yellow Media / Yellow Pages Group, the incumbent directory publisher and my former employer (I worked there from 1999 to 2007). Even with the challenges they’re facing, I’m still a fan of the company (and of the industry in general) but the interview gave me the opportunity to put in writing what I think are the core strategic imperatives today for any directory publisher, not just Yellow Media. The list won’t surprise anyone in the industry but it’s always good to remind ourselves what they are.

  1. Change the culture. “Internet culture” must truly permeate every aspect of the organization. Concepts like speed of execution, innovation, quick iterations, coopetition, risk-taking, failing fast must become second nature (other people on Twitter & Google+ suggested “internet culture” also meant constant learning, openness, willingness to help each other out, adaptability to constant change, sharing, crowdsourcing, diversity, immediacy, learning, and expectation of access)
  2. The sales force. I believe the sales force is now the major asset of all directory publishers and this sales force needs to be able to sell print directory products as well as a variety of online products including third-party ones like Google AdWords or Facebook advertising. This means recruiting and training are critical success factors. I use to believe the brand was a major asset but not anymore.
  3. Reinvent the Print. I still believe print business directories have legs and they won’t die tomorrow (and by the way, stop it with “Yellow Pages are dead” please, nothing ever dies, it just becomes niche). Even I still use the neighborhood book once in a while. But the book needs to be reinvented to become more locally relevant, more about the consumer. As Francis Barker (SVP at Dex Media at the time) said in 2004 at a BIA/Kelsey conference, print books design should be influenced by online local search patterns/usage. I’ll add that they now should be influenced by mobile local search/discovery apps. On a related note, book distribution in apartment and office building should be improved to avoid the PR disaster pictures like this.
  4. Continue investing in the Web. Beef up your dev and product management team, invest in R&D, try things. Facebook has shown that you can continue innovating even when you have huge consumer usage and ad revenues.
  5. Focus on mobile.  The Web is extremely fragmented and some players like Google and Facebook have managed to capture gigantic market shares. There’s probably a bigger opportunity to support the franchise by focusing on mobile and launching various vertical apps. Directory publishers need to invest and build up their mobile team and technology.
  6. Get serious about social media. I’m obviously biased because of the work I’m doing on Needium, but the time for experiments in social media is over. This is serious business now both from a consumer and an advertiser point of view.

Am I forgetting anything?

Needium: The First 6 Months and Answers to Your Most Burning Questions

This blog has been extremely quiet in the last 6 months and there’s an excellent reason for that. Turns out it’s much more work operating a company that’s successful than one that’s not! Six months ago, Needium, our social media lead generation service officially came out of beta and it became the sole focus of our company. With a full-team in place (currently at 16), we’ve started conquering the local/social space. But before we talk about where we are now, after 6 months, let’s go back a bit in time to explain the insights that lead to the creation of the service.

When I joined Yellow Pages Group (YPG) in 1999 (actually, its ancestor Bell ActiMedia), one of the first things I learned, talking to an experienced sales manager was that, the biggest competitor to Yellow Pages was actually word-of-mouth, that small merchants get most of their referrals through personal recommendations. At the time, it served as a great answer to show there was indeed “competition” in the business directory space but it wasn’t a real threat (yet!).

That thought stuck with me as we saw the arrival of new social media sites like LinkedIn. I was one of the early adopters in late 2003 (user #46,750 in fact) and I started using the site as a rolodex, adding all my contacts in there. When I quickly reached 200 direct contacts (I’m now close to 2000), I discovered that LinkedIn had become extremely useful in my role as head of online business development at YPG. I could reach out to almost anyone working in the Internet industry and it proved very convenient many times.

I realized that there was something bigger in this nascent social media space. If you could assemble a network of contacts readily available at your fingertips, you were really building this huge word-of-mouth network that you could use to ask any questions, find answers, connect with people, get recommendations and interact with brands and businesses.

In the summer of 2006, when I first met with my co-founders Sylvain Carle and Harry Wakefield (who left the company in 2009), we knew something big would be happening at the intersection of local and social. We set out to build technology to capture, aggregate, structure and make sense of local content being generated in social media, hereby creating value for local media companies and/or local advertisers. Over the years, we developed core technology expertise in local questions & answers, real-time local search and real-time local content which would become the backbone of Needium.

Early 2010, I was fascinated by reputation management software but felt these technologies were too reactive for most small businesses. I’ll oversimplify but with reputation management, you wait until someone express an opinion about your brand/business, the technology detects it and you reactively jump in to thank the person or try to solve a problem. This is not how small merchants see the world. Small merchants are proactive; they’re always promoting their business. They’re not sitting on the sidelines waiting for people to comment on them. They want to engage consumers; they distribute leaflets on the streets, they offer samples in grocery stores, they give away their business cards in networking events. Why would small merchants behave differently in social media?

Another key insights that lead to Needium was all those questions publicly being asked in social media (take a look at one of my 2008 post for an early look at that insight). You’ve all seen them: “Can anyone recommend a North East photographer for a wedding on Sat 27th August?” or “Can anyone recommend a cool/modern or cosy/lovey hotel in Berkeley, CA?”.

Thinking about local search and Yellow Pages usage, we started thinking about those explicit needs but also about life events and situations that trigger an implicit need. You’ve seen those as well. “I need to eat .. I’m hungry”, “Well Since My Laptop Got Stolen Guess I’ll Get A Macbook Or iPad .”. Taken all together, this means that, every day, millions of needs are expressed by consumers in social media. These represent a huge amount of potential leads for local businesses. Yet, very few of these needs get acknowledged or answered. What if businesses could quickly identify local leads that are relevant to them? Could they convert those into real customers? And this is where Needium steps in. We’ve created this short video to clearly explain what we do. Watch it before you continue reading this blog post.

Whats is Needium?.

Needium is a customer discovery service that monitors, identifies new local business opportunities in real-time based on expressed explicit and implicit needs found in Twitter. These opportunities are surfaced in a dashboard where Needium community managers select which consumers to engage with and we do that using the merchant’s own social media presence. Needium is invisible in the whole process.

Basically, with Needium,

  1. We create the social media presence of a merchant if they don’t have one (Twitter and occasionally Facebook and Foursquare)
  2. We identify business opportunities in social media for them
  3. We engage in conversations with potential consumers
  4. We transform those conversations into sales.
  5. We listen and reply to existing consumers.

Our retail price for the service is $150 per month, no set-up fees.

Using hundreds of keywords and expressions, our semantic formulas surface relevant tweets based on merchant categories (restaurants, hotels, bars, auto dealers, plumbers, etc.). We currently cover 88 business categories in 73 cities in North America. Altogether, we cover 197,548 Km2 of North American metropolitan areas.

We currently have 300+ advertisers using Needium and are growing at 30% per month in the last few months. We’ll reach a thousand advertisers by the end of the year. Our sales strategy uses a two-pronged approach. First, a small local sales force in Montreal has enabled us to quickly build up revenues but most of all, it has allowed us to refine the sales process iteratively.

That’s key because our core sales and distribution strategy is executed via large-scale local media sales channels. We have a white-label platform and processes and a wholesale price based on volume. Reseller either bundle the service within an existing offer allowing them to increase share of wallet by having a solid proactive social media solution or as a standalone service. Eight sales channels are presently reselling the white-label version of our service. That includes four large North American local media publishers who have started reselling the service in the last 8 weeks and we’re starting to see some explosive sales from a few of them.

We’ve pitched the service to hundreds of potential advertisers, sales channels and venture capitalists. Here are the most frequently recurring questions about our business:

Q: Right now, you’re mostly focused on Twitter. Is there enough activity in Twitter to create a robust and scalable lead generation business?

A: Yes. Twitter recently disclosed that they generate 200 million tweets a day. Out of those, in all the cities we cover, we’re indexing 10 million tweets a day (and growing as we expand into new cities).

Q: How do you know if a tweet is “local”? And are there enough “local” tweets?

A: we use implicit and explicit geo-location. Explicit is obvious enough. It’s the location shared by the Twitter user. Implicit is derived by words used in tweets like city names, neighborhoods, points of interest, merchant names and local events. And if you’re wondering about volume of local tweets, these examples are telling:

  • Los Angeles: 1 million+ tweets
  • London, UK: 1 million+ tweets a day
  • Atlanta:  800,000+ tweets per day
  • Chicago:  700,000 tweets per day
  • Washington, DC: 600,000+ tweets a day
  • Toronto: 500,000+ tweets a day
  • Boston: 400,000+ tweets per day

Q: Are there enough local needs being expressed?

A: Yes in every B2C business categories. For example, we’ve been able to extrapolate that about 10% to 15% of all local tweets are related to food, entertainment and travel needs. Right there, you find a substantial volume to sustain thousands of advertisers in every large metropolitan area in North America and the UK. Other more specialized categories like dentists for example will see a few hundred leads per day. We are also working on integrating other social networks where “needs” are expressed: Facebook, Yelp, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Localmind, etc. to increase that number even more.

Q: Do small merchants understand what Needium does? Do they require a lot of education?

A: They understand quickly because they already know what Facebook is and they’ve heard of Twitter. They’re often Facebook users through a personal account and understand that Twitter is similar. Most of them don’t have a corporate Twitter presence. We show them in real-time the local opportunities they’re missing out and they understand the need to have a proactive presence. Our direct sales team can close the sale in one meeting if the right decision-maker is in the room.

Q: Is Needium generating return on investment for the advertisers?

A: Yes. Needium helps increase consumer awareness, strengthen loyalty, increase social media follower count and drive store visits and sales. As soon as you can show a few great conversations where consumers say they’re going to come visit you or tweet that they visited following a merchant suggestion, advertisers are extremely happy. Most telling, our churn rate is in the single digit percentage, much lower than other popular online products.

Q: Can you prove that you’ve generated an actual sale?

A: Yes and no. We can anecdotally but we don’t purely sell the product on “leads”. We sell the service on a variety of metrics, number of tweets sent, conversations, number of followers being three key ones for most merchants. Advertisers see the value of the conversations we’re generating but they also see the value of having an active Twitter account and new followers joining month after month. We’ll soon be indexing Foursquare and Facebook check-ins to track actual visits following a Needium conversation but we want to get closer to a pay-for-performance model. We want to explore the pay-per-call model and the pay-per-action model. Is there a pay-per-check-in model in the future? A revenue share on transactions? Maybe.

Q: Don’t consumers think what you’re doing is spam?

A: We’ve sent over 40,000 tweets so far and only a few hundreds have generated a negative reaction. This is much lower than I expected originally. This is key for us as we don’t want to create a product that’s seen as spammy or in a negative light. We want to add value to the ecosystem and even if that number is extremely low, we’ve learned from them and know which situations trigger negative reactions.

Q: How different are you from the hundreds of social media monitoring tools out there?

A: We don’t see ourselves competitive to social media monitoring solutions. We’re focused on “consumer need” discovery, which leads to commercial conversations for our advertisers, something that’s highly monetizable. It certainly has more upside in the long term than pure social media monitoring usually priced at $10 to $50 a month. We’ve shown that the service can sell for $150 per month and a performance-based component will probably bring us higher revenues. My experience with local merchants has shown me that only a small percentage (5%?) will be sophisticated enough (or have the time) to operate social media tools themselves. By partnering with large local media publishers, we’re going after that other 95% who will not buy self-serve and will not operate tools themselves.  Finally, through the API we’re developing, we will be able to integrate Needium in any social media monitoring solutions providing instantly the local lead gen portion as a paid service.

Q: Any additional learnings?

A: Yes.

  • SMB advertisers are hungry for social media solutions tailored for them but they need managed service. For the bulk of SMBs, self-serve still doesn’t work.
  • Small merchants can outsource their social media efforts without losing credibility or their voice.
  • At the intersection of local and context (need expressed), consumers welcome conversations with businesses.
  • B2C works much better than B2B because companies and company owners are not yet expressing corporate needs in social media (although nothing prevents them!).
  • Large local media companies sales forces can easily sell Needium

When we set out to pivot Praized Media to Needium last year, we knew we were unto something big. I had created DirectoryPlus at Yellow Pages Group, an online ad product that’s very successful, and I know what a great local ad product feels like. Needium is my next DirectoryPlus. This will be a huge space. Our early success has generated a lot of good buzz. We’ve shown the product works, that advertisers will buy it, that it’s generating ROI, that sales channels can sell it and that it can generate explosive revenue growth. We’re now heading for breakeven and, with the support of our current VC firm, we might not need funding from a new VC. Still, we’ve had meetings in Canada, in Silicon Valley and on the East Coast to see if there’s an opportunity to raise a new round of funding to accelerate our growth. The best compliment we often get is “We’ve never seen this” and “you guys are onto something” (if you’re a VC, you can see our AngelList page here).

In addition, we’re always looking for new sales channels to resell our white-label service. If you’re interested, send us an e-mail at sales@needium.com. This has been an interesting ride and I’ll try  to keep you updated regularly over the next six months.

Yellow Pages Association Morphs into the Local Search Association

I’m a little late covering this (the news was announced on Monday) but the Yellow Pages Association just announced a rebranding as the Local Search Association.

From the release:

The Yellow Pages Association (YPA) today unveiled a new name – Local Search Association – alongside a new visual identity, reflecting the industry’s transition from print publisher to a provider of local search services to small businesses and their consumers.

The announcement is an important step in the right direction for the industry but is not surprising. Major directory publishers had started making the transition from “directory” to “local search” as early as 2002-2003 (I was part of the team that made the change at Yellow Pages Group). Most of them now behave like large local search agencies who also own media properties. So, the name fits perfectly the new strategy (by the way, anyone else thinks it’s amazing that the name was still available?)

I would have liked to be at their conference this week, to take the pulse of the attendees regarding the change. As I told Neg Norton, the Local Search Association president, when we discussed the announcement, the real litmus test will be when new local search industry stakeholders become members en masse on both sides of the spectrum. First the big players like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and maybe Twitter. And then, small local search engine marketing agencies. These guys will infuse new cultural strains and help propel the association forward. But a clear “what’s in it for them” needs to be presented and event/membership competition in the very sexy geo-space is fierce (I counted at least 12 different geo and local conferences in 2011). I think they can do it but there’s a lot of work ahead.

The Evolution of Merchant "Presence"

Flickr picture by Andrew Atzert

Fifteen years ago, if a merchant wanted to make sure he’d be found when people were doing shopping research, it was very easy. You simply needed to have a free basic listing in your main business category in the print Yellow Pages of your city.  Advertisers could extend that presence in different cities or business categories by buying additional basic business listings and if you wanted to stand out when consumers were doing comparison shopping, you could make your listing standout by making it bold or buying an informational listing (lines of text) or a display ad (graphics + text).  Some people were trying to game the system by changing their name to AAAAA Joe Plumber and appear higher in the listings but buying a display ad would insure a ranking improvement in your category.  Life was simple and/but choice was limited. Directory publishers were making tons of money with huge profit margins.

Things certainly have changed since then.

Fast forward to the search engine era (2000-2010), search is the main method people use to do comparison shopping now. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), having a presence in the search engine era means having a Web site but ranking in search engine results pages is very random. It’s probably the equivalent of a Yellow Pages basic listing.  The discipline of search engine optimization (SEO) was invented to try to improve Web site ranking in organic search results. This is probably the equivalent of print bold listings (white hat SEO) and AAA merchant names (black hat SEO). And if you want to make sure you appear above everyone else, you bid on specific business keywords in, for example, Google AdWords (search engine marketing or SEM). This is the equivalent of the Yellow Pages display in the Google era. The search engine from Mountain View is now making tons of money with huge profit margins.

The complexity of this search ecosystem means most small merchants need to rely on service providers for Web site building, SEO and SEM, three products of very high interest in the Yellow Pages space in the last 2-3 years.

But that’s not all. In the search engine era, local search sites have multiplied as well. Merchants need to make sure that their basic listing information is everywhere, that it’s correct and is the same everywhere. That’s quite a challenge given the dozens (hundreds?) of sites out there. Companies like Universal Business Listing, GetListed and Localeze have risen to the challenge to help SMBs. Search Engine Watch recently said “Your address is the new link”.

But lo and behold, Google’s search query volume seems to be plateauing. Compete says it has dropped 0.6% from December 2009 to December 2010.

Things are changing yet again…

Enter the social media era (2010-2020?), the conversation age. Consumers are now spending more time using Facebook and Twitter than anything else on the Web, even beating e-mail. As I write this, Facebook claims they have more than 500 million active users per month.  25 billion tweets (messages on Twitter) were sent in 2010.The rise of these powerful social networking and communications tools means that merchants need to be present there as well.

So, what does SMB presence means in the social media world? It mostly means building a Facebook page and creating a Twitter account. It’s actually fairly easy to do and many of them have done it already. I can also tell you every local media company and SEO/SEM firm is thinking of offering (or already does) the creation of a social media presence for small merchants who are not there already. We’ll probably see the arrival of technology companies enabling mass-creation of those pages/accounts. This is the “basic listing” of social media.

Next, how can merchants be found in social media? They’re able to buy Facebook ads or Twitter promoted ads (tweets, trends, accounts) and we’re already seeing the arrival of technology providers to enable campaign management (like we saw search engine marketing). This will be the equivalent of Google AdWords for the social media era.

What about organic “search results”? How do smart SMBs get found “organically” in social media? They join the conversation. They broadcast information about their store, they reply to consumer comments and questions, they identify potential customers and invite them to their store. Small merchants are all about relationship-building and the human touch. They just need to port this to social media but they need help. They need to understand the tone that’s required but mostly they don’t necessarily have the time to engage in and monitor social media. They need support and they need to filter the noise.

I think this space is going to be huge. As SMBs easily create their basic presence en-masse on Twitter and Facebook (BIA/Kelsey says close to 50% of SMBs have created a Facebook page and close to 20% on Twitter), they’ll be wondering what to do next. This is the space we’re trying to crack with Needium, helping SMBs figure what happens next organically after the basic social media listing. By identifying business opportunities in social media, by monitoring merchant name mentions and by offering white-label community management services, we’ve shown small merchants that there’s value in social media and exciting business life after the account creation. We hope you’ll be with us along for the ride!

Yellow Pages Industry Makes it Easier to Opt-Out of Print Delivery

The Yellow Pages industry today launched an upgraded website at www.yellowpagesoptout.com that allows consumers nationwide to easily manage the delivery of phone directories. The website, developed by the Yellow Pages Association YPA and the Association of Directory Publishers ADP, gives consumers a single location to select which phone directories they receive, or to stop directory delivery altogether.

via Official press release.

What it means: with the new Website, US residents can now easily opt-out (or select delivery) of any print Yellow Pages book delivered to their door in one convenient location. 158 publishers are in the site database. To opt-out, simply enter your zip code on the home page. You then get a page showing all directories delivered in your zip code with pictures of the covers to eliminate confusion. The association does a nightly update to directory publishers.

I think this improves the opt-out process drastically. It’s important that the industry self-regulates given the pressure coming from various cities to create regional directory delivery law (read about the Seattle situation). In a discussion yesterday with Neg Norton, President of the YPA, I suggested that the association should penalize publishers who don’t respect the opt-out (even by mistake) and this should be publicized to the public. I think the industry should also crack down on bad distribution practices. Everyone has seen those piles of Yellow Pages books being dropped on the first floor of an apartment or an office building. It took me two seconds to find someone who had recently posted a picture on Twitter. These inefficient distribution methods hurt the industry.

By the way, if you live in Canada, the opt-out form is here.

Will Yellow Pages Face a Sales HR Issue?

Flickr picture by Dok1

In my recent travel, I bumped into a couple of young entrepreneurs (early/mid 30’s) who just launched their local search engine optimization (SEO) / search engine marketing (SEM) firm. Very knowledgeable about online advertising, it turns out they’re ex-Yellow Pages sales representatives.

They tell me they quit to create their own company because they were tired of having to sell online Yellow Pages ad products they didn’t believe in. They were reading about Google, Facebook, Twitter and felt the products they were offering to SMBs wasn’t up to par with other online options.

Hmmm…

In the last 10-12 years, directory publishers’ sales organizations went through huge changes. Most of the publishers had to go through a re-engineering of the sales personnel ranging from hiring online-savvy sales individual, giving packages to older employees who couldn’t adapt, offering training, training, and more training to the sales force to get them to sell online YP ad products (outside of print) and then a new basket of products that includes web sites, videos, Google AdWords, etc. Huge efforts. But it’s a well-known fact that directory publishers still don’t really like to re-sell third-party branded products like Google AdWords (which partially explains why Google recently launched their own telesales effort).

Thinking about these entrepreneurs, I was reminded of this interview I did with Seth Godin two years ago. Godin had told me “Google is the Yellow Pages” which would make a jump into SEO/SEM natural for ex-YP reps.

And it got me thinking. Smart merchants want to buy smart advertising but the corollary is true also: smart reps want to sell smart advertising. Sometimes it’s print Yellow Pages, sometimes it’s internet Yellow Pages but sometimes it’s Google AdWords. And if smart entrepreneurial reps don’t get the products they think their customers will buy, they might choose to leave and create their own company.

This means two things for directory publishers (and probably for other local media sales forces as well):

1) Sales rep retention might become an issue if publishers don’t properly execute their multi-source product strategy, by offering best-of-breed ad products.

2) This might force them to fully embrace their “one-stop shop for SMBs” sales strategy, without looking back, even if it means selling Google AdWords without any directory component.

After Groupon, What's Next for Google?

Unless you’ve been living on a deserted island in the last 10 days, you’ve heard about the presumed $6 billion Google bid to buy Groupon, the leading daily offers player. Groupon walked away from the opportunity on Friday and will probably do an IPO in the next12-18 months (like Facebook). I gave a couple of media interviews last week on the phenomenon, one in the Montreal Gazette (here and here) and the other one in La Presse (in French), but I didn’t have the chance to blog about the story yet. Let’s fix that.

Why did Google want to buy Groupon and at such a huge valuation? For a couple of reasons.

1) Google wants to make sure they’re not seen as one-trick poney by Wall Street. Because they’re a public company, they need to show huge growth to meet expectations and expand into many ad vehicles. At their last quarterly call, they highlighted the success of their display ads business. Groupon is rumoured to have annual revenues of $2 billion and it certainly would have added interesting top-line revenues and great growth rates. Not sure Google would have liked the lower margins than what they have in search advertising, but it is what it is.

2) Google wanted to buy a local sales force. Groupon is present in more than 300 metropolitan markets and 35 countries and they’ve used their capital to scale the sales team and acquire regional players in Europe and Asia. Google has signaled many times in the past couple of years that they haven’t been satisfied with their large volume local sales channel partners (read Yellow Pages) and they’re probably wondering about having their own local sales force. Over the years, many rumors have surfaced about Google buying Yell and other large directory publishers. With the Groupon acquisition off, directory publishers stock has risen in value. According to The Street, “Three small-cap companies soared on Friday. Dex One Corporation ended nearly 49 percent higher, boosting its market cap to $335 million. It owns Yellow Pages and White pages directories. Meanwhile Supermedia, which pushes Superyellowpages.com and other local ads, soared 20 percent on a huge spike in volume. Its market cap is still just around $105 million. And Local.com, a business search engine and ad network, added 8.3 percent with a $90 million market cap.”

Both Supermedia and Dex One still have huge debts pushing the total cost of an acquisition higher (probably $3 billion +). Interestingly enough, Greg Sterling reported yesterday that Yell was thinking of selling Yellowbook, their US arm. Good timing!

Could a transaction to buy a directory publisher happen? Yes, it’s possible but I wouldn’t say it’s probable. There’s probably an underlying culture clash issue, trying to match Google with a Yellow Pages company. Google will probably be tempted to look at other options before including building their own sales force. After all, if Groupon did it, Google has all the capital it needs to create their own. It might take 12-24 months, but it would probably cost less than $3 to $6B required to make an acquisition. Could they look at ReachLocal? They had 641 salespeople as of Q2 2010 and a much smaller market cap / debt (under $1B). Maybe. One thing is sure. Google will make a strategic move in that field in the coming months.