Saturday, June 22, 2013

Our future is paper, not digital

It’s an interesting life, spending my days in the computer department of a Yellow Pages publisher, while my evenings and weekends are taken up with preparing for a lower-resource lifestyle that the end of cheap energy will bring us.  That’s a dichotomy that took a while to come to terms with; I love technology, enjoy working in the digital and mobile realms, and have invested significantly in my I.T. and Management skills, yet my vision of the future is a world that is lower energy, lower resources and considerable less affluent than the one we inhabit today.

Nothing has highlighted this conflict of expectations as much as the planning for new digital products. Currently there is significant demand for digital - in fact it’s the biggest objection our sales force hears when selling Yellow Pages – “I don’t need to be in the book, I am on the internet!”  Recently we ran a series of training course for our sales people, so they can explain better to our customers the value of print over digital, why those customers are seeing a lack of returns on their digital products, and a number of digital fallacies with the “adwords” model which I highlighted almost two years ago on this blog.

Our salespeople were very surprised at how poorly Google Adwords perform; by using Google's own tools, teaching them the Google keyword finder, they know how to calculate how much each it costs the advertiser each time the internet sends a customer their way.  We’re training our staff to impart that knowledge to our advertisers, because we want the businesses in our local communities to be informed consumers of advertising services, and that means giving them the tools to determine for themselves the return-on-investment for each advertising dollar.

so far our digital products to date have been very limited.  For an extra ten percent of the cost of the printed directory adverts, we can replicate the print advertising package online, and in our mobile app.  If that seems cheap –and it is –it reflects how much value we place on digital – worth perhaps a tenth of what the same exposure is worth in the books we deliver to all the households in a community.  Since we do not have a national presence, we have a local customer base around 5% of that of national yellow pages brands, we don't always score on the first page of Google's results. 

So how do we deliver value compared to them?  If the advertiser has a website, another link with the same name, address and phone number (NAT) increases the confidence Google has in their web site being "trusted".  I also suspect, from patterns in the data, that has a lot of business people visiting it, perhaps up to a third of the traffic being B2B.

We regularly look at other digital products. Web sites are an obvious example, with many Yellow Pages publishers selling web sites, SEO services and other digital media, often from a third party.  Vanity mobile applications for businesses, and interactive ones that allow appointment setting, billing and a host of other services between consumer and business, have caught our eye.

So far, nothing has convinced us that it's a good enough value for the consumer, the advertiser, or ourselves, to adopt more than one product: SMS messaging. What I like about this is the level of technology required to support it: it works on the older "flip" style phones and will work on the older models that supported text messaging, even those limited to twitter-length messages.   

I like it because it is resilient for an electronic product.  It can work on a large number of phone platforms, including ones we made when there was still technology manufacturing in the United States. Even an eighties car phone, complete with brick battery, could receive the marketing blast with the addition of a "modem" of the same era.

Am I disappointed we won’t get to play with the latest and greatest digital products? Perhaps a little.  I still think there is time for a mobile application that helps refocus the consumer on his or her local community, reward local loyalty behavior in shopping patterns, and provide alternatives to the dollars hemorrhaging from our communities to Wall Street via the big, publically traded corporations. Products like punchcard are already a long way down the road, and I’ll be posting my predictions on what any “game-changing” application might look like soon.

Products and services are not the only area where technology meets the advertising world.  Our techs and programmers have their hands full making sure we are helping our sales force provide the best value-for-money we can, to design, test and deploy the systems that keep errors to a minimum, streamline the gathering and presentation so those customers can make informed choices, and deliver those choices to a still-loyal consumer base.

In the last few years we have taken our sales system electronic, deployed mobile internet access for salespeople on the road, and just last year we even gave our sale force smart phones.  Tablets are under consideration and who knows, the challenges of managing a few hundred iPads, Android tablets or Windows 8 slates may be in our future.  They will be used to sell a product that has changed little in over a century, and having stood the test of time will still be bringing value to advertisers when our grandchildren are coping with a world defined by resource depletion.

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