A Phonebook Eulogy

by Travis McGinnis

I had one of those “Oh my God!” moments the other day. I was listening to one of our stations on my way into work. It was a commercial for a locally owned gas station chain. The owner was asking listeners to call him personally if they received less than excellent service at one of his stores. “Find our local office in the White Pages under [gas station name]…” he instructed at the end of the spot.

Great, I thought to myself. He didn’t use a phone number. It’s something we’ve all been telling our clients for years. Unless your phone number is super easy to remember, or getting phone calls is crucial to your business model, then leave it out. Nobody will remember it anyways; let alone write it down. But here’s the caveat: I threw away our phone book.

My wife and I recently moved to a new place. In our madness of packing, organizing, sorting and downsizing, she pulled the phonebook out from the black hole that is our junk drawer. “Keep or toss?” she asked. Without hesitation, I told her to toss it.

So there I found myself on the way to work that fateful morning. Flabbergasted. I have no way to get hold of this business. Here we’ve been telling our advertisers for years to drop their phone number and direct listeners to use the phonebook. After all, if you’re USP (unique selling proposition) is good enough and the message is right, people will find you in the phonebook like they’ve been doing for years.

Another caveat. Been doing. You know what else we’ve been doing for years? Search Engines. I for one have not touched a phonebook (except for when I threw it in the garbage last week) in about 3 years. Now, I’m still in the younger generation of folks out there. I’m a rocket surgeon when it comes to the technical stuff. So of course I use the internet to find phone numbers. But how many other people are like me?

At the time of this writing, a (still active) 2009 poll at PollDaddy showed that 76% of responders no longer use a phone book. 20% rarely use one and a whopping 3.8% use one frequently. This wasn’t a small sample size either. Over 10,000 people had responded by the time I got to it and tacked another vote for ‘No.’

There’s no way to know how many websites ran this poll or what the demographics of those websites are. So I’m going to take some liberty and assume that many of the respondents are like me and have probably skewed the results from reflecting how society as a whole still uses phonebooks. So let’s assume 50% no longer use a phone book. Even at 25% the numbers are still enough to make any advertiser stop dead in their tracks. If their call to action leaves out 50% of their audience, they have some seriously troubled waters ahead.

With the days of the paper phonebook numbered, what are we to advise our clients on? We could certainly go back to the old way of doing things and just include the phone number again in our copy. Or not. How about we get with the times and start directing people to look down at their Smartphone instead of up in the phonebook? That’s what they’re doing anyways.

When I got to work that morning, the first thing I did was to Google the client name of that gas station I heard. There it was; number one in the search results. Houston we have liftoff! And thanks to Google, the phone number was listed right there along with the street address and a handy dandy little map.

I suppose I kind of lied to you when I said at the beginning that I have no way of getting hold of this advertiser. I have the Internet. Google. Bing. Yahoo. Even one of the various online incarnations of the phonebook like Dex or Yellow Book Online.

I have yet to hear a commercial in our market instruct the listener to “Google [business name]” for more information. Perhaps I’m ahead of the curve with my radical interactive way of thinking, but the time has already come when we turn to our mobile devices for instant information gratification. I for one am going to start using Google as a call to action in my ad copy from now on.

This however leads into a conundrum. What if your client isn’t easily found via Google? Or worse yet, what if they don’t even have a website? It means we have to do some extra research before we put words to paper. I’m alluding to bigger fish than can’t be fried in this little article and topics that I’ll write more on later. But the conclusion is this:

We, as Radio Creatives, need to take the word “radio” away from what we do. We are Creatives. We’re marketers, wordsmiths and branding experts. It is our job to drive traffic to our client’s business. Through any means necessary. With that comes furthering our knowledge about how people tick and getting in touch with what they do every day. We need to be able to consult our clients on the best ways to grow their business. As we all know, when their business grows, so does ours.1

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