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A phonebook is an alphabetic directory of telephone subscribers within a geographic region. This directory can also include a section for commercial organizations, organized by service. This section is commonly referred to as the yellow pages. The general motive of these directories is to give free access to local information paid for by relevant advertisements. With almost 130 years of history since the 1878 birth of the phonebook, this media may be in decline, but is dying a slow death.



Origin & Development

The telephone directory was born on February 21, 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut. Printed on a single piece of paper, the first printing included 50 exchange subscribers, 11 of whom were residencies. These early directories did not include numbers since operators were responsible for making connections. The origin of the term “yellow pages” is the result of running out of white paper in 1883. Since it was easier to read black ink on yellow, rather than white paper, the term and practice stuck. Reuben H. Donnelly constructed the first yellow pages organized by business type in 1886. In 1909, St. Louis was the first to include coupons in their version in the directory.


Market & Fragmentation

From 1934 until 1984 AT&T enjoyed a regulated monopoly with the Bell System. Under this system, AT&T was accused of leveraging its monopoly to make moves into other industries, including directories. In 1984 the divestiture of regional operations opened up competition in the telecommunications industry and the boom of private directory publishers made for geographic overlap.


Advertising drives revenues in the directory business where books are given away for free. Correspondingly, higher circulation means higher ad fees and leads to higher overall revenues. Here the incentive is to get the phonebooks to as many subscribers as possible, not those who would make use of it.

From 2005 data the largest independent distributors are Yellow Book and TransWestern Publishing, but there were estimated to be over 2,300 different directories from over 250 publishers. At that time the advertising sales were amounting to over $14 billion annually. Surprisingly, research has found that directories with more ads have higher usage suggesting a Network Effect where advertisers value consumer usage and consumers value advertising.

Unlike some other forms of print media, yellow page advertising is a directional, not a creative vehicle. The lifecycle for the placements, typically reprinted yearly, is also the longest in print and finds itself to be the home for small businesses who can realize a high return on investment from a smaller absolute number of leads.


  • 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.
  • For services that one needs rather quickly (see plumber and bondsman), yellow page listings are sound investments.


  • The internet has made it much easier for small businesses to target consumers directly, rather than spending on advertisements.
  • Ad placement in phonebooks doesn't incorporate consumer feedback in relevancy.


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The alphabetic organization of the directories has created naming wars over alphabet supremacy. Many companies have changed their names to begin with one or more A's (See AAA, the American Automobile Association) in order to get prime billing in directories. One prime example is the case of an organization simply known as "A". This trucking company took advantage of rule change by the publisher of yellow and white pages in Quebec and Ontario. Under the new approach, a company with more A's would be given a lower listing. In order to prevent charges of misleading advertising, "A" also lists itself as 50% Off Towing and Half-Price Towing, but this is just one example of how a medium can effect both content and naming.

In crafting advertisement, certain elements have been connected with increased lead generation.

  • Sans serif fonts in headlines
  • Dotted line boxes when uses in moderation
  • Caption with photos of the owner or satisfied consumer


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Yellow = Commerical Listings The revenue engine of the industry, this section lists businesses and organizations under section headers such as Electric or Trucking. Within these sections relevant ads are placed among listings.

White = Residential Listings This section is typically organized alphabetically by last name and often includes a street address for a listed number. Subscribers can opt-out of listing, sometimes for a fee. Depending on the country this is regarded as being “unlisted”, “ex-directory” or “private”. This section is being discontinued by many phonebook publishers with the increased move to mobile.

Blue = Government Listings This directory included government offices at the local, state, and federal level, but is no longer supported by the federal government.

Grey = Reverse Telephone Directory This listing organizes by phone number instead of by last name. This was much more popular before the invention of caller ID and *69.

Pink = Gay/Lesbian Listings These are local opt-in listings traditionally geared towards large cities such as Boston or Chicago.

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Golden,Rainbow = International Foreign countries sometimes adopt the name yellow pages, as is the case with many Latin American countries where they are known as Paginas Amarillas, but in Sri Lanka the directories go by rainbow pages. Most of Europe translated the book to the Golden Pages.

Fun Facts and Myths

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Phonebooks don't usually inspire excitement, particularly in younger generations, but a competition has brought the declining media some attention recently. A dutch competition challenged viewers to recreate the MythBusters model. Two dutch students tested the phonebook myth that states if two phonebook's pages are interwoven they will be near impossible to pull apart. Beginning with human force, the students eventually attached the books to two cars driving in opposite directions. At 615 KG/m of force, the material degraded to the point that the books broke apart, but the pages remained intertwined. Beyond this myth, phone book tearing is also a popular party trick. This test was later recreated on the Discovery Channel show and was only busted using an army tank and an armored personnel carrier with over 8000 pounds of force.

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  • Approximately 540 million directories are printed in the United States annually. This averages out to about 1.8 directories per person!
  • Loren Berry was one of the foremost telephone directory publishers and became known as "Mr. Yellow Pages"


Recycling & Waste

Dated Phonebooks are discarded annually

While the number of print Yellow Page users may not be increasing, the tons of phonebooks thrown out each year are growing at an increasing rate. With over 660,000 tons of telephone books thrown out last year, the increased distribution and geographic overlap of competing companies has created a disposal problem. While recycling is an option, it is the taxpayers who are footing the bill as the books utilize natural resources and are a burden to community funds.

Still the Yellow Pages Association maintains: “Phone books produce only 0.3 percent of the household waste stream—while "newspapers, in comparison, represent 4.9%."

In rebuttal to such a claim: Newspapers, many of which are printed 365 times more per year, are bought by choice, rather than pushed upon consumers.

Discriminatory Listing

In 1967, New York Telephone listed birth control related counseling for the first time, much later than contraception became widely accepted. Along the lines of gender bias, women also had to fight for equal billing in household listings. The Bell System claimed the dual listing would take up limited space and require excess ink.

Aside from these discriminatory practices was the issue of losing items after storing them in phone books for safekeeping. Bell urged customers to doodle on their phonebook covers in case of such an event. One anecdote cited a Boston jeweler who had to check over 75,000 directories that had been thrown away to find $1,500.

Legal Action

Opt-out has become a legal issue. North Carolina, Minnesota, Maine, and New York have considered making the option to be unlisted a state law. The legislation is obviously opposed by publishers in fear that circulation will fall substantially. Surprisingly, the opt-out law appears to be to the benefit of directory printers. After such legislation was adopted in Norway, only 7% of the population took steps to keep their information private and the printers lost culpability for the byproduct waste. An Opt-In strategy is an alternative that is being explored.

Contemporary Obstacles

411, Caller ID, & Reverse Phonebook

411 was the first step away from the traditional directory. Now instead of getting the free phonebook out of the cupboard, one was able to call a person to get the information they needed. In recent years, this has displaced the need for pay phones and the yellow pages that service them. Beyond the Grey Pages (Print editions organized by number rather than last name), the demand for reverse directories has come with services such as caller ID and *69. Previously used by emergency services to locate callers, reverse directories allow you to play detective when you have a missed call. Unknown or unlisted numbers have become available for a price. Some reverse services will give you limited information, such as the city where the number is registered, and then charge a fee for more specific knowledge. All of these new inventions surrounding telecom information are pushing the print yellow pages further out of reach of most consumers. With the move online, local and national information are equidistant.

Online Search Gets Local

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Sidewalk was Microsoft’s early attempt into local search. Aimed at listing timely information about specific cities, Sidewalk tried to compete with urban newspapers. The venture ultimately suffered in the transition online with weak content. Full of ads and classifieds, the journalism lacked editorial perspective. The aim of making a city guide to supplement a newspaper and cannibalize the Yellow Pages to a degree was a lofty goal that fell victim to poor timing. Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, was quoted in 2007 saying, “Sidewalk was really aimed at what we now call local search... Sidewalk is one we should not have gotten out of." AOL rolled out a similar city guide strategy with Digital Cities to middling success. Following in these footsteps, tech giants Google and Facebook are pushing into local search a decade later.

Mobile Directory Solutions

Unlisted cellphone numbers have long been an issue, but with comprehensive phonebook functions on mobiles, the next step for phonebook publishers has been apps for smart phones. These best selling digital versions have allowed for more flexibility regarding ad placement and updating.

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Future Outlook

The Yellow Pages Association claims its level of reliability makes its services indispensable for even young households when the occasion-for instance a wedding—demands dependable listings. Beyond this idealistic outlook, there are businesses that have not made the move to digital search. So long as there are situations without internet access or local search online isn't perfected, the telephone directory industry will continue to be of some value. Much like blockbuster, the phonebook publishers might have foreseen the problems internet adoption would bring, but they weren't quick enough to change their business model in time. Only time will tell, but until then kids can continue using phonebooks for more realistic prank calls.


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