How to Avoid a Yellow Page Marketing Disaster

Feb. 22, 2005
Could there be a life-changing message in this article? I went to a funeral today. Funny thing about funerals: Whatever seems really important at work

Could there be a life-changing message in this article?

I went to a funeral today. Funny thing about funerals: Whatever seems really important at work before I go is greatly demoted afterward. Yet, it was a celebration of life - not death - that spawned this article.

The eulogy was about the distinctions of this man. Ups and downs were covered equally. Accomplishments and character were spun through the message, stories supported the findings, and a summary about setting an example found its way to each listening ear. I heard. Yes, I heard.

In my admittedly warped marketing mind, I interpreted the message that differentiation gets noticed and remembered. It’s true in life, in death, and —heaven help me for the corollary — in marketing. For those of you glancing nervously away at this seeming “disrespect” of a dearly-departed friend, please know that he had a 40-year career in advertising. He’d approve.

Criminal Activity

Ordinary cannot stand out. The same-old same-old hasn’t a chance to get noticed. Differentiation, my friends, is your chief aim in marketing.

Done well, it gives your readers, viewers, and listeners a reason to call. A reason to remember you. And a reason to pay more. Sameness gives people a reason to bid you relentlessly, forget you at will, and move on, one yawn at a time. Give them no reason to remember you, and they won’t.

Nowhere is this crime of sameness more apparent than in the Yellow Pages (YP). Contractors pour mountains of money down a Yellow hole in hopes of raking in the leads, not realizing that the sheer volume and sameness of all the other advertisers with the exact same hope binds them to disappointment at best, bankruptcy at worst.

Think I’m being dramatic? Grab a Yellow Page book from 5 years ago and find the full page advertisers no longer with us. No, the Yellow Pages didn’t cause their bankruptcy, but a horrifically poor lead count per dollar probably didn’t help.

Have I Gone Nuts?

Wait, don’t answer yet. What if I, your elected marketing person, proposed that you sink more than half your marketing budget into one media?

What if I further suggested that this ad blend in with all your competitors, and virtually screamed “unprofessional?” Oh, and lastly, let’s say I suggest that you do this for a full year, with no possibility of changing it?

You may now render the identical opinion for what more than 75% of HVAC contractors do in the Yellow Pages.

That’s right. More than 75% of contractors pour half their marketing money into the Yellow Pages. Many are stunned to find that a picture of a condensing unit or a perspiring polar bear doesn’t get them the distinction or leads they want.

I support advertising in the Yellow Pages. The traffic is there, the need is there, and so is the sense of urgency aspect. (More than 50% of YP shoppers buy within 48 hours.) Yet, I don’t support wasting your marketing dollars on a low performing ad.

5 Ways to Change It

Headline — Although a headline is worth 80% of your ad’s ability to pull leads, most companies’ ads fail to even have one. Your company name is NOT a headline. “Since 1952” isn’t either. Nor is “Heating and Cooling.” A headline is a clear, concise statement of meaningful benefits to the customer.

You can even be alarming in your headline by saying, “Don’t Call Any Contractor” and complete that headline with “Who doesn’t offer all this…” and go on to list your benefits.

The only person who matters in your headline is the reader. Not me, not you, not how many trucks you have, not the smiling face of an unnamed man, nor the brand you sell. Direct your ad to the person with a need and a phone by using a powerful headline that benefits him or her, right now.

No Bragging Allowed — Sure, it’s natural to want to say great things about yourself so people will be inclined to call. That’s why 90% of the ads start off with “We” and “Our” or “ABC Air is great at XYZ” type stuff. However, people don’t care about that.

People only care how your qualifications serve them. Therefore, the subject line becomes “You and Your.” It’s not “We have…” It’s “You get…” This alone can mightily improve your message.

Instead of “We’ve been cleaning and unclogging drains for over 20 years” you can change it to “Got a pain in the drain? Let 24 years of skill solve your drain problem swiftly and cleanly.” The first one is a “So what?” reaction; the second one puts them in the statement. (Editor’s note: These are ad lines that may already be licensed in your area, so do not use verbatim.)

Organized Message — Crack open the YP right now. Look at the clutter of starbursts, logos, random sentence fragments, and cartoon penguins. Oops, I hope your ad isn’t among them!

Your message needs an organized flow, not a lot of stray thoughts. If it’s too much trouble to read, they’re gone. Help people understand what you offer, quickly and cleanly.

Try this: Grid your message by drawing a tic-tac-toe board through your ad. Number spaces 1-3 across, then all the way to 9 in the bottom right.

Spaces 1-3 are the most valuable, as they include your headline. Then, eye pattern studies show that the viewer’s eye goes quickly on the diagonal back through the ad, (3,5,7), hopefully stopping at something interesting, then landing on #9, which is surprisingly next in value to the headline space. A very good idea: Put your phone number in space #9.

Also known as “Z-pattern” advertising, your ad should look like a small magazine article with pods of interest that entertain, not confuse.

Benefit Blocks — The benefits you offer should be in an easy-to-find line up. Remember, DO NOT tell your customers what the benefits are; tell them what the benefits will do for them, such as solve problems. That’s how customers attach value. If you just tell them what they are, you invite comparative shopping.

A Call to Action — No person in their right mind reads the Yellow Pages. They flip, hoping for a solution.

Give customers that solution hard and fast, then tell them what to do, such as “Call now,” “Call for instant service,” Call if you want…”

If you dump a bunch of money into a losing ad, well, that’s what you’ve got. You also get to live with the resulting poor performance all year.

My advice: Make your Yellow Page ad a winner now. As a start, I’m offering a free critique. CB readers can merely fax their YP ad to us at 334/262-1115, with a polite request for a free critique and it’s done. Be warned: The critique may not be as polite. We just want to improve your results.

Does Any of This Stuff Actually Work?

Recently we rewrote an ad for Midwestern contractor who had been using the same full- page, full-color ad for years. He was sick of it and the money it cost.

He radically reduced his full page all the way to a 16th-page ad. He chose to use his savings toward other lead generation methods, which was a good move.

At first, he was skeptical. However, after making some much-needed adjustments, this new ad outperformed its predecessor, not just in cost per lead but in actual lead count. In fact, he saved $21,870 on the ad and got more leads (324 vs. 272 in the exact same period).

Therefore, you too can do this with creative, lead-generating techniques.


For the amount of money invested, and the length of time the ad runs, your Yellow Pages ad must pay off. So if you don’t like the results you’re getting, either yank it, change it, or send in for a critique. Let the next funeral you attend be one for old ideas and bad habits.

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a top marketing firm for contractors. For a free
critique, readers can fax their Yellow Page ad to 334/262-1115 or e--mail to[email protected]. Some lucky submitter will get their ad redesigned free. Also call 800/489-9099 or visit for many free marketing articles and reports.