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.

Nominated for a 2010 SEMMY Award!

2010 SEMMY Nominee 

I’m ecstatic! I just learned that I’ve been nominated for a SEMMY award in the “Local Search” category for my I Have Seen the Future of Local Media blog post. 

From the web site, “The SEMMYS are an annual awards event started in 2008 to honor the great content produced across the search and online marketing industry.” They reward “the year’s best post in search engine marketing”.

I’ve very happy to be nominated alongside industry luminaries like Chris Silver Smith, Matt McGee, Steve Espinosa, Bill Slawski, David Mihm, Gregg Stewart, Mike Blumenthal, Andrew Shotland and Greg Sterling (amongst others).

Public voting on the finalists is just around the corner and I’ll let you know when it’s happening.

Seat Pagine Gialle: An Overview of Their New Strategic Plan

PagineGialle_LOGO

Last Friday, the exec team at [praized subtype=”small” pid=”7a4e7f1586dc54f8f2f5f0da536a084d” type=”badge” dynamic=”true”] presented their 2009-2011 plan to financial analysts. I just read through the presentation and here are the interesting highlights:

2008 Overview:

  • Difficult year 2008 for the group (total revenues are down 4.8%) but they met their ebitda guidance (nonetheless down 6.6%)
  • In Italy, print revenues were down 1.1% but online revenues were up 18.4%. Online revenues represent more than 15% of all Italian revenues.
  • Interestingly, Seat experienced explosive online revenue growth (+27%) in Q3 and Q4 2008 because of new Internet offers launched in September. I believe those new products are priority placement and SEO/SEM offers (see slide 10 of this presentation).
  • Online product gross margins (72%) are almost as high as print margins (75%)

Usage and advertiser data:

  • 22M print users
  • 11M online users
  • 500M look-ups per year (print & online)
  • 500,000 advertisers

Ongoing strategy:

  • Their main strategy: “Invest in the Italian core business and protect Seat’s strong cash flow generation to position the Group for successful refinancing of debt in 2011”. It could be summed up as “Italy and Online” + “International assets not core”.
  • 2011: they expect Internet revenues to be higher than 25% of total revenues
  • Online usage will be driven by improved functionalities, SEO and branding
  • Online revenues will grow through product innovation and new salespeople
  • Move to pay-for-performance in their voice product

ReachLocal Opening Sales Office in Toronto

ReachLocal logo

I’ve heard from a well-informed source that ReachLocal is opening a sales office in Toronto, to better serve the Canadian market. I was able to confirm it when I found these employment ads. Steven Woods, senior recruter at ReachLocal, posted the ads. ReachLocal is a well-funded local search engine marketing firm. According to the Kelsey Group blog, their latest funding round ($55M in October 2007) will be used “to continue the company’s rapid expansion both in the U.S. and overseas, and for technology. In the past 12 months alone, ReachLocal has opened 11 sales offices in the top 10 DMAs. It expects to open a top-down DMA rollout in one market per month throughout 2008 and 2009. The company now claims to have “several hundred ad sales reps.” It sells for most of the local portal and sales engine leaders, including Yahoo!, Google, MSN, AOL and Superpages.com.”

A Conversation with Patrick Marshall, YellowBook’s Chief New Media Officer

Pat Marshall has been in the online directory industry basically since it was created. In fact, when introducing him, John Kelsey and Charles Laughlin (both from the Kelsey Group) called him “the father of Internet Yellow Pages”. According to the press release announcing his Yellow Book nomination, ” Marshall has spent more than 28 years in marketing leadership positions, including as a senior executive with Verizon, Frontier Corporation and R. H. Donnelley. At Verizon, Marshall led the launch and management of SuperPages.com.” So, it was with great pleasure I sat down to listen to this conversation between the Kelsey Group folks and Pat Marshall.

Q: Why did you get back into the Internet yellow pages (IYP) business?

A: I did not want to get back in IYP, I wanted to get back into local search. I also wanted to get back into action (as opposed to the consulting I had been doing in the last few years)

Q: So, is Yellow Book in the local search business?

A: Today we’re more IYP than local search, but the trajectory is going towards local search. IYPs are really good at finding who but not good at finding what.

Q: What are the areas you need to move into to to go into local search?

A: Three things: 1) Infrastructure. Business directories are yearly things and this does not work in the local search world. 2) Traffic. a key directory publisher axiom: advertisers advertise because users use. You need a qualified audience and we’ve done well with that (see this Comscore release). 3) Having inventory. Present a merchant in a context that’s appropriate for him. We don’t have enough inventory today.

Q: Where are you now on a scale of 1 to 5?

A: We’re at 3. We’ve made a lot of progress but I would like to move at twice the current speed. As a senior executive, I need to create the environment where that can happen. We need to focus on the collective IQ.

Q: What are you doing to develop a local search solution supported by research?

A: When people are using local search, they’re not shopping. They’re hiring. You don’t shop for a pool service, a lawyer. You hire these people. The process is three dimensional: urgency, risk, satisfaction.

Q: Let’s talk about verticals. Would the IYP product be further ahead if verticals had been developed earlier and deeper?

A: I don’t think we would have been better off. The industry has gone through enormous changes to get to 2008. In 1995, sales forces were unidimensional. The first year of Superpages.com, we generated $100K in revenues. We missed our target and it was the first time in my life I missed my target. Sales was afraid to bring Internet in conversations because they were afraid merchants would know more than them.

Q: Where is the value in Yellow Book’s online offers? Is it search engine marketing, is it YellowBook.com?

A: It really depends what the customer wants. In some situation, they only want what we called “Googlecaine”. So, you should sell what people are buying.

Q: What kind of partnerships are you looking for?

A: Anyone that can help me solve my three problems listed above. 1) Infrastructure products/services that reduce our costs (but bring a business case), 2) traffic (we’re always interested but talk about the quality of the traffic and how it fits with us), and 3) advertising/inventory products (talk to us about why it’s good for our customers, what skin are you willing to put in the game).

Q: Is it important for Yellow Book that Google, Yahoo!, MSN be successful in local search?

A: Yes, definitely. I doubt that they will invest into a local channel. So, they will come to us to resell their products.

Small Business Owners Hit Hard by the Economic Slowdown

Found some interesting SME data in (of all places!) an article about sandwich board signs in today’s USA Today.

Small business owners have been hit hard by the economic slowdown. More than 30% of businesses with 500 or fewer employees have seen a decrease in gross sales and nearly 40% have seen a decrease in net profits in the past 12 months, according to a National Small Business Association. As a result, the NSBA says 54% of merchants will turn to new marketing strategies. Sandwich boards are among those techniques, Molly Brogan, NSBA vice president of public affairs, said.

What it means: directory publishing has traditionally been more immune to slowdowns and recessions than other media. It’s going to be interesting to hear experts at the Kelsey conference talk about this topic (I hope it comes up!). Some experts are predicting that this slowdown in the US might the first one where print publishing is really hit hard. I’m not sure it will be the case. Print is very resilient and is a core element of small business owners’ marketing strategy. I think every directional media (whether print or online) will fare better than other media in this difficult economic situation in the US (and that includes search engine marketing).

The Kelsey Group’s 2008 Local Media Trends: “A Pivotal Year for the Global Yellow Pages Industry”

The Kelsey Group (TKG) just released their 2008 Local Media trends. They believe 2008 will be a pivotal year for the global Yellow Pages industry. Here are the highlights:

  • Print local media: TKG wonders if the directory business will continue to be as recession-proof as it used to be, as more ROI-driven online local ad products are launched. For large US urban areas, they also talk about the creation of print opt-out plans, important market rescoping and the launching of new directory formats. They also expect higher cannibalization of traditional media sales, mostly from search engine click packages.

  • Online local media: 2008 is the year where user-generated content becomes a critical aspect of consumers’ decision-making process. Merchants will be widely invited to join that conversation as well. In addition, auto and real estate verticals will continue to develop in the local search context, new devices will lead to new sources of searches and local search inventory will increase drastically.

  • Sales: 2008 will continue to see the uphill struggle to build independent local sales channels.

  • ROI/Performance-based products: this year, we will see the beginning of the untethering of print and online usage and more use of robust ad reporting. TKG thinks that 2008 is the year where the promise of pay-per-call gets realized as multi-channel management becomes a critical success factor.

  • Verticalization: from a seller perspective, high ad spend categories will attract lots of sales competition from many different sources: SEO/SEM firms, newspapers, vertical sites, start-ups, etc. In national sales, we will see more ad localization.

  • New products: Video, Mobile and Outdoor, with a mention that “video is where the immediate action is”.

You can find the Praized blog’s 2008 predictions here.

What it means: As a regular attendee of Kelsey Conferences, I am usually well aware of most of the local media trends but there are a couple of surprises in there for me. First, the creation of opt-out programs for print directories in some US markets. I did not realize the pressure was high on US publishers to create these mechanisms. The second one is Outdoor as a new product. I wasn’t aware that local media companies were looking actively to sell “outdoor” products. In my mind, it’s the kind of interesting opportunity that’s always discussed but is never “low-hanging fruit” enough to execute. Will be interesting to follow. I also like the call to disconnect print and online usage. TKG was the first organization to warn directory companies not to couple print and online value for too long (back in 2001-2002). What they’re saying is: there used to be a time where bundling print and online usage was useful to sell but online is now strong enough to sell on its own.