Is your Yellow Pages advertising costing you money rather than making you money? Does it ever seem like the competition is getting all the calls? Or maybe that nobody is getting all the calls, and that big bill you pay every month is little more than a monthly donation to the directory company?

That’s certainly the way a lot of businesspeople feel. The simple truth is million of companies — including thousands and thousands of hvac contractors — could be generating more business if they only stopped breaking the Ten Commandments of Yellow Pages advertising.

So if you sometimes think you’re in Yellow Pages hell, maybe it’s something you’re doing to yourself.

1. Thou Shalt Not Whip It Up

Most Yellow Pages ads are whipped up in the few minutes the sales rep has left after he finishes trying to sell you a bigger ad. The unspoken assumption is that what you put in the ad is far less important than the size you buy.


Content is critical. You and your rep can whip up an ad in no time. But is that what you’re paying all that money for? If your ads look dated and disorganized, potential customers will feel your business is, too.

Remember the kind of money you’re paying for that Yellow Pages space. You need to do everything you can to have the best ad under any heading you’re in. And you want to make absolutely sure that — at the very least — you have one of the best ads under the heading.

Insist that your directory publishers develop an ad for you that justifies the cost. If they can’t do better than standard Yellow Pages block lettering, a cluttered and jumbled layout, and 1950s clip art, you can and should have the ad produced yourself.

2. Honor Thy Headlines

What’s big and bold and runs across the top of a Yellow Pages ad? Most people would answer, “The name of the business.”

Your Yellow Pages ad is competing for attention with five or 10 or 20 other ads, all offering much the same products or services. The first piece of copy that readers see — the headline — has to be powerful enough to drag them away from those other ads, and get them reading yours.

Acme Air Conditioning Inc.? How about Farnsworth & Sons Heating & Air Conditioning? Or Midtown Refrigeration Services? Sorry, but the average business name — unless the reader is already familiar with the company — doesn’t have much selling power.

Most of the people who look at Yellow Pages display ads are shoppers. They’re looking for information to help them decide what contractor to call; they aren’t seeking a specific business by name. Never use your company name as your headline unless that name is truly the most important selling copy in the ad.

Give them your strongest selling point — the single piece of copy they’re likely to care about most. Then you can tell them your name.

3. Honor Thy Illustration

Nothing can turn a mediocre Yellow Pages ad into a great one faster than the right illustration. It can be even more of a grabber than the headline.

Far too often Yellow Pages ads have no illustration, or one that’s far too small to command attention. Others are hackneyed — from too many appearances in too many bygone directories.

If your picture isn’t worth a thousand words, find one that is.

4.Remember All Key Products & Services

If your ad doesn’t mention a product or a service, readers often assume you don’t provide it.

You have to include all the hard, factual information potential customers need to make a decision to call or drop by. This could include information about your company, be it about image, market niche, services, products, features, brand names, pricing, quality, reliability, speed, hours, service area, insurance, credit — whatever it might be.

Make sure to include features that are unique to your company. One firm even includes, “Tagalog spoken.”

5. Thou Shalt Not Overburden the Eyeballs

There’s an old but persistent theory of advertising that says, “You’ve got a lot to say, and ad space is expensive. So why pay for white space that sellsnothing?

If your Yellow Pages ad is difficult to read, it isn’t going to be read. Savvy Yellow Pages advertisers used to give their ads the squint test. “You open the directory and take off your glasses or just squint,” one of them told me. “Then you decide which ad you’d pick. That’s the one that will get the calls.”

Your ad is competing for visibility and readability with every other ad under the heading. Which means you’ve got to hone your copy, then hone it some more, until you can provide all the information directory users want and need in an ad that’s so uncluttered and inviting that reading it becomes automatic.

6. Thou Shalt Not Forget Placement

You can waste a small fortune buying more Yellow Pages advertising than you should. And you can lose even more buying less than you need.

The bad news is that ad size is important. All things being equal, bigger ads get a greater response. They also get the best placement — closest to the front of the heading. And placement can be even more important than size.

The good news is that all things are seldom equal. The biggest ad under the heading is not always the most effective. A well-designed, visually appealing ad can make up for a lot of size, especially under a smaller heading where all the ads are on the same page or two. It’s much more difficult, of course, to compete with ads on an earlier page. That page may never even be turned.

Always consider placement when you’re deciding on ad size. Have your sales rep show you where the size you’re considering would fall in this year’s directory. That should give you an approximate idea of the position, relative to the competition, you’d have next year. Sometimes going up a single size and spending just a few more dollars will move you much closer to the front of the heading. Sometimes you can cut back in size without losing much at all in the way of position.

7. Remember, Position Over Color

Red, blue, green, full color. All are eye catching. All are expensive. And the more color is used in a particular directory, the less effective it becomes. If the money you’d be spending is approximately the same, you’re far better off significantly improving the size and placement of your ad than the color.

8. Thou Shalt Track

Perhaps the surest way to waste money is to advertise in a directory no one’s using. Or in a well-used directory under “Powder Puffs” or “Animal Eyes — Artificial,” or any of the hundreds of other Yellow Pages headings where virtually no one ever looks. Headings that the directory industry considers appropriate for hvac contractors include gems like “Stokers,” “Combustion & Heating Consultants,” and “Dust Collecting Systems.”

Always make your rep prove value — especially when you’re considering an independent (non-phone company) directory or a questionable heading. If he can’t, don’t put any real money there, no matter how many of your competitors you might see. You may be just repeating their mistake.

Instead, if the heading seems worthwhile, try something small: perhaps even a simple in-column ad alphabetically under your name, or even just a listing. Track your response, one way or the other. Survey your customers to discover how they discovered you — and next year you’ll have your own proof. If, like many advertisers, you keep buying ads even though you have no idea how well they’re working, you can follow all the rest of the commandments and still end up in Yellow Pages hell.

9. Thou Shalt Not Squander Yellow Pages Dollars in the White Pages

You bought that costly new ad in the white pagesbecause? If you’re Albany Heating & Air Conditioning and you’re in the midst of seven white pages of Albany this and Albany that, you do need something beyond a bold listing to make it easier for your customers to find you. Or perhaps you’re Ralph’s Refrigeration and Randal Refrigeration Service usually falls on the same page, and you want to siphon off a few of their calls. Otherwise? If your customers are looking for you alphabetically in the white pages, they will find you and call you. You don’t have any competition in the white pages. A bold listing is sufficient. Save your hard-earned advertising dollars for the Yellow Pages.

10. Never Rely on Faith — Get a Proof

Some sales reps and publishers don’t like to send out proofs, even on display ads. Proofs cost money and often create additional work.

Get a proof. If you’re ever tempted not to, remember the small error one publisher made in an advertiser’s ad. Instead of reading “Dan Hadley, therapist” it read, “Dan Hadley, the rapist.”

Get a proof.

Maher is a speaker on management, sales, and Yellow Pages advertising. He can be reached at 805-962-2599; barrymaher@ (e-mail); or (website).

Publication date: 01/29/2001