Walk into any home 10, 20 or 30 years ago and pretty much the first thing you’d notice – even before the slight over-obsession with pine furniture, huge hi-fi systems and pot pourri – would be the presence of the Yellow Pages.
This weighty tome was a staple of hallways, telephone tables and bookshelves up and down the country – a go-to guide to get access to anything from plumbers and electricians to takeaways and cinemas. It would be side-by-side with the Phone Book and Thompson Directory but, in eye-catching yellow, this massive missive stood out like a sore thumb.
Fast-forward to today and the Yellow Pages has gone in the same direction as the pot pourri, massive hi-fis and pine furniture – swept aside by the impact of progress, in this case in the shape of the internet. It wasn’t just that the internet was able to jump into the ‘directory’ business space occupied by the big old book: it was able to offer all that the Yellow Pages did and much more besides.
By examining the strengths of digital marketing we can look at how the Yellow Pages lost its dominant position in the market but also, in a wider sense, at how the traditional is being superseded and replaced by methods that embrace the digital age.


The internet has simply become quicker and quicker – with increasing numbers of people connecting to a superfast services and millions of people benefitting from the speed and ease of 4G mobile phones. Many people can now reach the answer to a question before they’d have even reached the hall to dust off their Yellow Pages.
From a marketing perspective, digital methods offer speed when it comes to set up (a digital campaign starts as soon as it is needed, not when a print publisher decides) and can be more flexible to change. An alteration in premises or contact details can be made and circulated via email, social media and text instantly – a Yellow Pages directory entry needed to wait for the next edition.

On the go

Coupled with speed comes the ability to get the information you need while ‘on the go’. Chances are – unless you possess Mary Poppins’ bag – the Yellow Pages wasn’t coming out with you. 

The same was true for newspaper adverts. The information they contained was handy, but the format meant it wasn’t always possible to possess the facts at the right moment.
The consumer can fit the entire Yellow Pages in their pocket now, thanks to their smartphone. 

This has wider lessons for marketing in general. The power of the smartphone for the consumer (and its popularity as a result) means it cannot be ignored in marketing.

The debate when it comes to mobile marketing now has to be over. Instead of whether a company should try to target its customers on their mobile, it’s now a question of how best to go about it.

Targeted for advertisers

It’s this focus on the customer that gives digital a big advantage on the traditional ways of doing things. A newspaper advert, poster, leaflet or indeed Yellow Pages listing, involves a business reaching out to customers, but in many cases relies on those customers knowing that they can find the information they want in such places.
The beauty of digital has come in making this process much more focused. It’s easier than ever to collect data on your target market and use this to build up a profile of customers. That means finding out when and where they are and reaching out to them on a platform and device that suits their needs.
In particular, digital campaigns can take example of the changing face of Google’s algorithm that recognises and delivers information based on location. That change of emphasis from ‘they’ll come to us’ to ‘we’ll go to them’ has been part of the big shift brought about by digital.


At the end of the day, marketing should always have the audience as its focus. Who do you want to talk to and how should you reach them? Answering those two questions invariably leads along a digital path these days since it’s easier to use online tools to track and engage with your audience.

Ogilvy tried to update the 1960s maxim that marketing was about the 4 Ps (product, place, price, promotion) – by proposing the 4 Es (experience, everyplace, exchange, evangelism). This may not be a perfect definition but at least shows how marketing has evolved to engage the audience more, rather than simply expecting them to be wowed by a good product. Digital marketing is able to do this much more naturally than ever possible before.


At the height of its powers, the competitive nature of the Yellow Pages meant that it felt more like being printed on gold than on yellow. The sought-after prominent colour ads commanded high fees and, for many businesses, you simply couldn’t afford not to ‘be in’.

Digital marketing has blown a hole in that cost structure. There are a great many cheap and easy ways to effectively get a message across. From a website to social media, companies have a platform to shout about the products and services they offer with little cost.

Text messages outperform many other marketing methods and that is partly due to the cost. With the likes of GlobalMessaging offering packages from just a couple of pence, it’s hard for printed leaflets to keep up. SMS campaigns also benefit from speed, focus and flexibility. They’re able to reach a big audience on the all-important mobile device people have by their side at all times – with chance to target a specific time and section of an audience.

People are also statistically more likely to open a text than marketing mail, regardless of whether it’s electronic or ‘snail’ mail. This example shows just how compelling the case was against the Yellow Pages generation. Cheaper, quicker and more effective methods are impossible to ignore.


The Yellow Pages is dead… or is it? The company behind the book reckons that the newer slimmed down version is actually still popular among many people. It’s easy to get carried away and declare things dead. After all, even digital marketing, the prime suspect for ‘killing’ the book (with its DNA all over the murder weapon) – has, itself, been prematurely declared dead.

The Yellow Pages’ own website declares that 76 per cent of the UK still has a print copy of its directory – with recent figures showing that the book is still able to generate 179 million leads.
Considerable life in the old dog perhaps, on those figures, but it’s clear that the old business model is well and truly gone. We are no longer reliant on directories for assistance. We might have a copy lying around somewhere but it’s not the first port of call (the figures, importantly, don’t say how many of those 76% ever look at their book).
For now, the smartphone reigns supreme as the vital device at the heart of the modern marketing experience. It has overtaken the desktop in terms of internet use and, crucially, is the way in to a customer’s social media accounts and text message inbox – where valuable direct relationships can be formed.

The road ahead

Whenever a revolution such as this occurs, analysts and experts try to pinpoint the next big change, the next ‘death’ to declare and the next heir to the throne to anoint. When it comes to marketing it’s hard – at least in the short term – to consider such a drastic change as ‘print to online’ being in the pipeline. Instead constant change sees the status quo evolve on a rapid basis.
As Forbes points out, what’s new at 1pm is old by 1.05pm – but that doesn’t mean 1pm’s innovation is ‘dead’ – just that it’s no longer the newest and freshest thing on the market. If the fact that the Yellow Pages in its printed format still exists at all tells us anything, it’s that change is slower than some of us appreciate and – above all else – that the traditional marketing methods are alive and well. It’s simply the way in which this is deployed that has changed.
The ‘life’ left in the Yellow Pages is in the traditional methods of marketing – especially the desire to find a service close by. The ‘death’ comes in the method of delivery, which was too slow, expensive and unfocused to satisfy customer or marketer.
It’s this that will continue to move forward as ways to deliver marketing messages quicker, easier, cheaper and in ever-more targeted ways emerge.
Mobile and digital are still important but shorter ‘alert’ type messages will probably work better on things like wearable tech, creating the need for strong, snappy phrases that catch the eye and encourage you to pick up your smartphone and explore further.
Perhaps in the future we’ll look back in surprise at how reliant we all once were on the humble smartphone. Newer devices will have to go some way to knock this off its perch and edge it in the same direction as the print giants of old, though. 

It’s too simple to say that digital marketing has replaced traditional marketing. Instead it has built on the principles of the past with newer, quicker, cheaper and easier ways of promoting a product of service in a way that customers want. Whatever comes next will need to do likewise. 

The legacy of the Yellow Pages will live on, not only with its own website but with the desire for a directory in whatever format.