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The Yellow Pages Game: Playing to Win

Feb. 1, 2008
While 98 percent of dentists hate the Yellow Pages, the other 2 percent quietly laugh all the way to the bank.
© Paul Cowan |
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While 98 percent of dentists hate the Yellow Pages, the other 2 percent quietly laugh all the way to the bank. It’s a zero-sum game, and some rules have changed.

by Stewart Gandolf, MBA, and Lonnie Hirsch

It’s like the line attributed to Mark Twain: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Nearly 100 years later, the same is true for the stodgy, old Yellow Pages.

These days the Internet seems far sexier than the Yellow Pages, and the Web will become increasingly important in the future. (We’ll talk more about that in coming articles.)

Even in its heyday, most dentists liked the subject of Yellow Pages marketing about as much as their patients looked forward to a root canal. At best they thought it was a necessary evil, and at worst they lost a bundle.

Today, the “Yellow Pages experience” can feel even more excruciating. Too many options, pushy sales reps, short deadlines, ugly ads, monthly expenses … and for all too many practices a pitiful return on investment. It is easy to understand why so many dentists incorrectly conclude that “Yellow Pages is dead.”

Coincidentally, about an hour before we wrote this, a long-time client called who wanted desperately to say goodbye forever to her Yellow Pages sales rep. (A tidal wave is coming and many in the Yellow Pages industry still don’t get it.) Sure, Yellow Pages had been extremely profitable for her in the past, but now it seemed old fashioned and too expensive.

Hold on, tiger. Let’s do some quick math before you do anything drastic. You say you spend $3,000 a month and your calls are down to about 30 a month. Of those, about 10 become new patients, each spending better than $1,000 each in their first year. That translates into more than a 300 percent return on investment. Nothing to write home to mom about, but 290 percent better than your mutual funds – not to mention the occasional full-mouth reconstruction, ongoing referrals, and subsequent business that comes from these new patients.

So, while we will begin investing a larger percentage of this client’s marketing budget into the Internet and other tactics, she’ll need to be careful before saying goodbye to one-third of her new patients just to “get even.”

“No one reads the Yellow Pages anymore …”

Let’s explore that myth: It has been said that people don’t change their minds; it is just that the old generation dies off. As a result, it will likely take decades before this medium finally expires.

According to a detailed study (“How U.S. Adult Consumers Use the Yellow Pages for the Heading on Dentists,” Knowledge Networks/SRI, October 2007), here are the numbers:

  • Last year, U.S. consumers made 246 million Yellow Pages references (one consumer often references several ads) in the “Dentist” section, making it the eighth largest heading out of more than 4,000.
  • 43 percent of users had a decision to make, and on average, these consumers considered seven ads. Surprisingly, 45 percent of consumers who already had a name in mind still considered more than four ads.
  • 83 percent of consumers who looked in the Yellow Pages contacted an office, and of those, 40 percent indicated contacting one or more places they had not contacted before.
  • What’s more, according to Larry Small, director of research for the Yellow Pages Association, more people still reference the Yellow Pages more than the Internet when looking for dentists (19 percent compared to 11 percent).

“I would never pick a dentist from the Yellow Pages ...”

We hear that all the time, but remember you are not your target audience. You look at dentistry and health care vastly different than they do. Yes, it is true some laypeople don’t use the Yellow Pages, but in the end, a whole lot of people did and do reference the Yellow Pages, especially for a dentist.

The notion that “old media is already dead” does not square with reality. Given this misinformation, your competitors may be leaving or downsizing print Yellow Pages, and thus opening a golden “old school” marketing opportunity for you.

Here are some rules to help you come out ahead at this bare-knuckle game.

Yellow Pages can produce one of the highest returns on investment among your external media. But if you don’t plan and execute properly, you can quickly throw money away. It’s essential to understand the primary rules of the game. Unfortunately, few truly know how to play, and those who do won’t tell you. Until now…

Be in “The Big Book” (probably) – The choice of “which book?” can be a challenge. For any speck on the map, there are usually several publishers, different rates, different territories, etc. And if you can only be in one directory, it is usually best to start in “the big book.” (The highly familiar and well-established directory is often the most used.)

There are some exceptions, according to Larry Small, who points to new data from Knowledge Networks/SRI that an increasing percentage of users also look in “the small book” (for specific regions or smaller zones). So begin with your foremost YP book, and be aware there may also be other good options for your mix.

Survey if you don’t know – If you’re not sure which is the dominant publication, here’s how to check on who’s the boss. Put a copy of each directory for your area on your counter and ask a steady stream of patients to point at the book they use most often. (People will easily recall “their directory” by appearance.) A leader will emerge. Plan your game to win in the book most people use.

Position is everything Virtually all directories put the largest ads first in each category, and to win at this game you want to be first. The bottom-line reason you want to be in the leading spot is because the largest ads get the lion’s share of the readers.

If you can, pick an ad size just one size larger than any other practice that competes for the same patients. In some cases, good ads early in the display and/or in-column sections may be a worthwhile compromise, but generally you’ll want to be aggressive if you want home run results.

Your Yellow Pages heading is “Dentists” (probably) – The most common, popular, and obvious heading for a general dental practice will be “Dentists.” For specialists, there are other heading options (“Orthodontists,” “Periodontists”). In addition to the “Dentists” heading, look for secondary categories the public and publisher might use – nonclinical terms such as “braces” or “teeth whitening.”

Yes or no to color ads? – Color is an option worth considering, provided you don’t sacrifice size and position. Yes, color can attract attention, but if you’re not in the lead position (based on size), a smaller color ad will not outpull larger and dominant placement.

Test, track, and adjust – Begin with your best shot – the best position in the best directory. Track your ROI carefully each month. Multiple books and multiple sections may eventually make sense, but position yourself to win with basics first. Your receptionist can ask the source of each phone call, or use unique phone numbers for each ad. For some YP publishers, there are metered ad lines that automate part of the tracking process.

Yellow Pages is a one-year game – With only a few exceptions, Yellow Pages are an annual contract, which makes the stakes even higher. Make a mistake and you’ll be paying the fee and not getting the benefits of what you’re paying for during the year. But done right, your Yellow Pages ad can be an amazing breakthrough for your practice. And it will be a working annuity for you for 12 months and beyond. But re-evaluate your tactics every year using hard data.

Negotiation know-how – Contrary to what you may think, it is possible to negotiate better rates and freebies from the Yellow Pages. But you’ll probably need help from someone who knows the game from both sides of the table. One of the people we work with is a former Yellow Pages rep turned consultant, and he often can negotiate discounts – even performance guarantees – from YP publishers that the typical advertiser cannot.

Critical ingredient: professional ad design – After you capture the right Yellow Pages size and placement, fill this premium real estate with a professionally created message. Unless you want your ad to look just like the dry cleaner or plumber, get professional creative help with the design and writing. And don’t (repeat don’t) let your YP rep prepare your ad. The Yellow Pages reps are just that – sales reps – not advertising experts.

A good ad costs exactly the same to run as a bad ad, and the design and words need to push the right hot buttons. And that takes years of practice and experience to do. (Don’t e-mail complaints if you ignore our advice and your ad subsequently bombs.)

Final thoughts – If you play Yellow Pages, you are going to have to play aggressively and correctly. If you aren’t able or willing to do that, that’s OK; simply find a different game. There are really only two outcomes in the serious game of Yellow Pages advertising. We assure you that it is a whole lot more fun being in the victorious 2 percent rather than the losing 98 percent.

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Stewart Gandolf, MBA, and Lonnie Hirsch are co-founders of Healthcare Success Strategies, and two of America’s most experienced practice marketers. They have worked with dentists for a combined 30 years, have written numerous articles on practice marketing, and have consulted with more than 3,000 private health-care practices. Reach them by calling (888) 679-0050, via their Web site at, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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