Death, taxes, and Yellow Pages. Some things are almost unavoidable for service contractors.

As a writer on Yellow Pages issues, I speak with hundreds of small business people, and very few have positive things to say about their experiences in Yellow Pages advertising. Over $15 billion is spent on Yellow Pages advertising in the United States each year. From what I hear, the common perception is that Yellow Pages advertising is a necessary evil that many businesses are afraid to discontinue.

Advertisers complain of feeling bullied by the phone companies. Getting a straight answer from a Yellow Pages salesperson as to the actual publication date, ad rates, and competition can be a maddening experience.

Paul Venya, owner of TV Plumbing in Santa Monica, Calif., called me asking for advice on an advertising program proposed by a telemarketer. He wanted to assess the real value in placing a large ad in the directory, and he wanted to know some ways that would make his ad stand out from the competition.

Ad #020: First-place winner.

Pick The Best Ad

I invited the readers of the Yellow Pages Commando News to create a full-page ad for TV Plumbing. Thirty-eight ad designers submitted ads for the contest. Then I invited the general public for their input. Seven hundred eleven people voted on the ads that they would call first, second, and third. I also interviewed several experts including Steve Pollyea, vice president of marketing at Roto Rooter Services Corp., who oversees upwards of $30 million in Yellow Pages advertising.

I compiled the results into a downloadable book that really delves into designing an ad that works and understanding which directories an advertiser should support. Here is a summary of my findings.

First of all, if there is one glaring lesson from this exercise, it is that humor does not make the phone ring. The consumer using the Yellow Pages is looking for a solution to a problem. In other media, humor works to distract the audience and divert attention. The Yellow Pages is a reference book similar to an encyclopedia. If the information and content of your ad would be inappropriate in the encyclopedia, it doesn't belong in the Yellow Pages.

I should point out that only one person out of 711 voters selected all three ads in the winning order, and only seven others selected all three winning ads in any order. That just goes to show you that we can look at trends, but individuals differ on what they find appealing.

Every ad received some votes, even if it was just the designer and his mother. To weigh the votes, first-place votes counted for 3 points, second-place votes received 2 points, and third-place votes received 1 point. Many voters included honorable mention selections, but these were not considered in the vote totals.

Ad #030: Second-place winner.

The Top Draws

Here are some of the comments made.

Ad #020 - First Place

  • The baby caught people's eyes and made them read further.

  • Owner's photo and comment a strong positive.

  • Large BBB logo had a strong impact.

  • Includes several consumer benefits.

  • Communicates trust, competence, and professionalism.

  • Easy to read with lots of white space.

  • Performed better among males than females.

    Ad #030 - Second Place

  • Entire ad solves customer's need for fast service.

  • Large, powerful graphic.

  • Large phone number, credit cards, and hours of service.

  • Top choice of male voters.

    Ad #001 - Third Place

  • Very content rich but still readable.

  • "You know the price before we start" was the most often cited reason for voting for this ad.

  • Performed better among males than females.

  • List of the cities being served, which is critically important when advertising in a directory covering a large geography.

    Ad #001: Third-place winner.

    Elements For Great Yellow Pages Ads

    This entire report on great Yellow Pages ad design can be condensed into a single statement. I call this the Golden Rule of Yellow Pages advertising. Successful ads make a customer feel that "This company really cares about serving me."

    Conversely, less successful ads focus on the advertiser, not on the customer. It seems simple, but look through any directory, and you will find thousands of ads that violate the golden rule.

    Here is some advice from the experts and industry research:

  • Every element in a successful ad should solve the customer's problem.

  • Ads that would do well in other media typically will not do well in the Yellow Pages because the work that other media needs to do in capturing attention and creating interest has already been done in the Yellow Pages.

  • Ad size, content, and composition are far more important to success than positioning within the heading.

  • Color ads generate more calls, but usually not enough to justify a substantially higher price.

  • Use the money to place additional black and yellow ads under secondary headings or in alternative directories before investing in color.

  • In directories that do not offer color, white knock out and yellow highlights are effective at increasing the calls generated by the ad.

  • Advertisers should advertise in every directory that demonstrates strong usage regardless of publisher.

  • Track every ad with a metered telephone number to measure how well it is performing.

  • Customers want to do business with local companies. Multiple local numbers and cities in an ad will increase the overall call count.

  • Publishing only an 800 (national toll free) number without including a local number is the kiss of death.

  • Hard to read equals few calls.

  • Good photos and illustrations equals lots more calls.

  • Bullet points are better than paragraphs.

    Dick Larkin publishes the Yellow Pages Commando News, an electronic newsletter covering small business marketing. Visit

    Publication date: 10/17/2005