Educating the Public About Phonebook Opt-Out with Local Search Association’s Neg Norton

July 20, 2011

Neg Norton’s entire career has been based in the local search arena — transitioning from Yellow Pages and local marketing to digital local search with Local Search Association. Norton mentions yellowpagesoptout.com, a handy online tool that helps save valuable materials and energy by allowing users to opt-out of phone book delivery at their home or business. By supporting both digital and print location services, Local Search provides options for each segment of its user base. Despite what one may think, the print Yellow Pages is still referenced every day — nearly 11 billion times a year. “Delivering phone books to people that don’t want them is an irritant to the consumer,” Norton says. “It’s expensive and it doesn’t create any value for our advertisers. It’s just the right thing to do.”

 Transcription

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so thrilled and honored to have Neg Norton on with us today. He’s the President of the Local Search Association, which is leading the best local search marketers to deliver cutting edge solutions with regards to digital, print, mobile, and social media, which helps local businesses succeed. Welcome to Green is Good, Neg Norton. NEG NORTON: Thank you very much. Great to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Neg, all of our guests are just such wonderful people with fascinating journeys that got them to where they are today, and you’re just like all of our other wonderful guests. I’d love you to share with our listeners, before we get going, to talk specifically about all the great things you’re doing and your brands are doing, to share your journey. How did you get to be the President of the Local Search Association? How did that journey go? NEG NORTON: Sure. It’s interesting. I grew up in Albany, New York, and used to caddy at a country club where the guy who ran the directory department for New York Telephone used to play, so I got to know him a bit and caddy for him. When I graduated from Penn State, he hired me into the management trainee program at New York Telephone Directory. He liked me and had the opportunity to move me around a bit, so I worked in different capacities in the business, from sales and marketing and production and finance and business development, so I really had a pretty well-rounded background in the business. One of the jobs I had the opportunity to do was a management program called Marketing the Medium, which was a really big national program that was designed to help national advertisers really understand the value from Yellow Pages advertising. I got a chance to work with the publishers across the country, and that program was actually housed within the Yellow Pages Publishers Association, which is the predecessor organization to the Local Search Association. I got a chance to become familiar with the Association, and they became familiar with me. They had a search for a President about eight years ago, and hired me. I’ve been here about eight years, and really enjoying it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: No kidding. Let’s just be clear, though. There are two different properties we’re going to talk about today, your wonderful property that Mike and I are on right now called localsearchinsider.org, and I want you to explain what that does, and then also another great online property called www.yellowpagesoptout.com. Can you just share a little bit about the two hats you wear there, and what they both do? NEG NORTON: Sure. The localsearchinsider.org site is our blog. This is a very, very fast-moving space, and our members are into a lot of different products and services. Obviously, they’re very much involved in print yellow pages, but also in different Internet products like Internet Yellow Pages. They all have relationships with search engines like Google and Bing. They do online video. They build websites for small businesses. They’re into a number of different things. So, the space is changing so rapidly, and I think people are looking for insights into how the space is changing and what different companies are doing to be successful. We blog about that stuff pretty regularly. I think that’s a nice way to keep our members up to speed on different things. A lot of that content is also put out on our Twitter feed, and a lot of people can follow us on Twitter at Local Search Association. The other site that you mentioned, which is www.yellowpagesoptout.com, is really our site that’s all about consumer choice. As the market has fragmented and people can get business information in a lot of different places today, some prefer to get it through search engines and other devices, we give consumers the ability to stop getting phonebooks to their home through one very simple and easy process. You go to yellowpagesoptout.com, you simply put in your ZIP code, and then you’re presented with a number of different selection in terms of the directories that are delivered into your ZIP code, and you can easily opt out of all or one of them in a couple of mouse clicks. That’s really one of our major programs around consumer choice, around source reduction, and it’s just the right thing to do. If people don’t want phonebooks and they’re just going to recycle them, why bother sending them to that consumer in the first place? It’s one of our big programs, and it’s working great. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s fascinating. The name of our show is Green is Good, and you’re doing great things, not just good things. I want to talk a little bit, now, about the integration, the convergence of what you’re doing, and the incentivization of the local publishers and members that you represent, your constituents, and incorporating sustainability practices into their business life. Can you explain how you manage that whole process and how you message that to them? NEG NORTON: First of all, I think our publishers don’t want to deliver phonebooks to people who don’t want them. They’re trying very, very hard to get directories into the hands of those consumers who do want them, and not into the hands of people who don’t want them. In fact, we’ve got some companies that are incentivizing their employees to really get it right, to make sure that they don’t put out too many directories, they get just enough out there to make sure that those are getting into the hands of the people that want them. We’re very much motivated to do that. Delivering phonebooks to people who don’t want them is an irritant to the consumer and it’s expensive for us, and it doesn’t create any value for our advertisers. We think it’s just the right thing to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK, and it is. On its face, it seems like it’s counterintuitive though, that it’s going to hurt your ability to sell advertising. Talk about the backside of that. NEG NORTON: We’re not a circulation-based media, so we’re not like newspapers and magazines that make money on circulation. The way that we create value for our clients is when somebody goes into the phonebook. Most people that go into the phonebook already have a need in mind. They’re looking for a place to make the purchase decision, so when they use the yellow pages, they look at the ad and they pick up the phone and call that merchant. That’s how we create value for that advertiser. We have a number of different ways where we can prove that value, but for us to deliver phonebooks that just simply don’t get used doesn’t help our advertisers at all, and simply drives up our own costs. We’re just trying to get it right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m looking at your great sites here on my iPad. Mike’s looking at your great sites on his laptop while we do this show with you. Talk a little bit about the value of a paper product, the tangibility of a good old paper product in the iPad age. NEG NORTON: It’s a great question. It’s certainly not a sexy product like an iPad is, but it’s still very, very effective. Most people keep the phonebook in a very handy place. A lot of people keep it in the kitchen drawer. When they have a need for a product or service, if they don’t want to fire up the computer, they simply go to the phonebook, go to the category that meets their particular need, and there you see five to a half a dozen different local businesses that offer that product or service. You can easily scan the ads and size up those companies that are for that different product or service, and within a couple minutes, be smart enough to have a reasonable conversation with a merchant about buying that product or service. It may not be particularly sexy, but I think it’s a very, very effective product. Our usage studies indicate that in spite of all of the fragmentation that’s occurring in the local media market and all the different places where people can get business phone numbers, whether it’s Google or even social media sites now, the print yellow pages is still used by almost three out of four adults in 2010, and it was used 11 billion times. It still works very, very well. Because of that, the advertisers continue to support it with advertising and they get a good return on investment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re in this fascinating vortex that you get to bridge both the analog and the digital worlds and sort of bring them both together for success for your client base. To you, Neg, what does sustainability mean? How do you define sustainability, and what’s your vision for economic and environmental sustainability with regards to the business ventures and the entities that you represent? NEG NORTON: First of all, as I mentioned earlier, the market is fragmenting quite a bit. Our companies are, in addition to publishing print directories, they also have relationships with lots of different companies, so they can go to that local merchant, that plumber, and offer them leads from a wide variety of sources. That plumber, for example, can continue to focus on what they do best, which is plumbing services, and leave the local marketing decisions to an organization that is much more expert about it. With respect to the sustainability practices for our print directories, I think they fall into a couple of different categories. Certainly, source reduction and our yellowpagesoptout.com site is a major commitment to consumer choice that we’ve embarked on. The publishers are really doing a great job in terms of offering press releases in advance of when their directories are delivered so consumers can have the opportunity to opt out prior to delivery. They’re putting the URL on the cover of their directories. They’re reducing the trim size. Many companies have gone from 9×11 directories to 7×9 directories. Many companies have, in fact, made the residential white pages opt-in, so there’s been a big source reduction in terms of residential white pages. All of that has resulted in some 35% less paper in the market today than there was back in 2007. Certainly, source reduction is a big aspect of that. Our companies are doing a real nice job in terms of using very eco-friendly-based production processes. They use all soy-based inks, which pose no threat to the groundwater. As you know, printing and paper suppliers use renewable energy systems for their operations. In terms of recovery, there’s a number of different recycling programs that they get involved in in their local markets involving schools and community organizations. And, then the funniest thing from my perspective, anyway, is the upcycling that occurs in our business. Recycled directories obviously are used to make new directories, which is one of the major component pieces of new directories, but there’s a secondary market that’s used for the darnedest things like insulation and egg cartons and animal bedding, and there’s all sorts of crazy products and services that are made from recycled phonebooks. I think our sustainability practices cover a number of different areas, and I think the industry is really doing a nice job in all of those facets. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It sounds like it. Can you share some specific examples of new paradigms or new partnerships that have been forged between your member companies and some environmental groups also? NEG NORTON: Yeah, sure. One in particular that comes to mind is the relationship we have with Conservation Minnesota up in Minnesota. It’s called Don’t Trash the Phonebook. One of the goals of that program is to really protect the environment by providing phonebooks only to people who want them, like we talked about before, but also giving them community information about where to recycle their products and so forth. They can go to that site, they can manage their deliveries, they can access local recycling information, they can get information in general on what Conservation Minnesota is all about and their overall stewardship efforts. That’s been a very successful program. Another one that we’re involved with is called RecycleMatch. I think the best way to explain that is it’s really like the eBay of recycling. If you’re a publisher and you have some unused phonebooks, you can basically post what you’ve got to offer on the site and through an auction process, people can actually bid on those phonebooks, again, for that secondary market that I talked about. That saves phonebooks from going into landfills and creates an economic value for the publisher and economic value for the buyer as well. Those are a couple of examples of programs that are working quite nicely for us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: As you explained earlier, with regards to source reduction, soy-based inks and things of that such, the production efforts have changed over the years with regards to production of the yellow pages. Are there any other things that they’ve done besides the soy-based ink and maybe making them smaller? Are there any other glaring and great examples of sustainability in the production side of it? NEG NORTON: I think the other thing that I would add there is that they’ve got much more efficient pagination systems so there’s less waste, which results in less paper. They’ve really invested quite a bit of money in much more efficient pagination systems, how the actual page of the directory is laid out. The more efficient they do that, obviously, the less paper they use. I think that’s been the other leg of that production process that’s producing good results. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For those of you who just joined us, I want to just share that we’ve got Neg Norton on the phone with us right now. Neg is the President of the Local Search Association, and he’s doing great things. You can look at his two websites that we’ve been talking about earlier today, localsearchinsider.org and yellowpagesoptout.com. Neg, it seems as though your organization has embraced sustainability. Can you explain the beginnings of that process and how long it took to really embrace the green and sustainability revolution and what your association now does with regards to your sustainability committee? How long ago was it formed, and what does it look like and how does it operate? NEG NORTON: Well, I think we’ve been very good environmental stewards for quite some time. I think it’s probably getting more noticed these days because of the green movement, because consumers have the ability to stop getting media, whether it’s phonebooks or direct mail or telemarketing calls. The consumer is in control of this and there’s more options for consumers these days to get local business information. I think it’s something that we’ve been doing quite a bit of work on all the way around for quite some years, and probably just getting more noticed now because the topic is so much more in the forefront than it was before. I think having said that, I think it’s fair to say that our members have even increased their efforts in that regard. Certainly the yellowpagesoptout.com site is a great example of that, and the promotion that they’re doing around that to make that consumer choice noticeable is an example of a more recent enhanced effort. I think we’ve been doing the right things for a long time, but I think that the topic is just much more germane to people more and probably getting more attention for that reason. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How big is the committee? How many members do you have on the committee? NEG NORTON: It consists of all of the major publishers. Our board member companies comprise probably 90% of the market in terms of industry revenues, so we’ve got all the major players. We’ve got our paper suppliers on the committee as well. I think we’ve got all the right players there to make the decisions that need to be made. We’ve got a lot of very effective committees that we work together with at the association, and this one is off to a good start as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Obviously, you’re doing great things, and obviously you ‘ve had a lot of success along the way. As Mike and I have learned with all of our great guests in the last two-and-a-half years, this is a process. Can you share the journey a little bit, Neg, in terms of some of the greatest challenges that you faced along the way and also some of the great opportunities that lay in front of you with regards to sustainability? NEG NORTON: Yeah, I think one of the challenges that we’ve faced, to be honest with you, is getting our members comfortable with the opt-out process and that was a bit of an unknown, I think, for many of our publishers. Letting people opt out of phonebooks, there’s a bit of uncertainty there. There wasn’t an awful lot of experience anywhere across the globe in terms of what the opt-out rates would be. I think it took us a while to get our members comfortable with the opt-out process, and now that we’ve gotten it started, I think they fully realize that that was just the right thing to do. There’s some 500,000 directories that have come out of the market in the last couple of months just through our site alone. Again, these are people that prefer not to get as many phonebooks as they do or simply prefer to get information from the Internet or from their cell phone. We think that’s probably one of the most recent examples of where we’ve had to work to get our members comfortable with that, but now that they’re there, they’re very comfortable promoting it. As I said, they’re doing press releases prior to delivery. They’ve promoting the site on the cover of their books, and that’s just a great, great step. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is good. Talk a little bit about tangible results. When you look back now on what you’ve accomplished historically, what are the tangible results that you’re the most proud of and accomplishments that you want our listeners to really understand? There are so many legacy fallacies with regards to sustainability and green that we’re always trying to get our listenership to overcome with regards to green is expensive, green doesn’t make sense, green negatively affects your bottom line. Talk about the tangible results and accomplishments that you’ve accomplished and your partners and your constituents have accomplished, and why being green is really good. NEG NORTON: I think it’s just the right thing to do. I think, like I said before, we’ve got some 500,000 directories have come out of the market through our efforts, and that’s just pure cost reduction for our publishers. We’ve reduced our amount of paper in the market by some 35% over the last five years. That’s probably going to go to 50% in another year-and-a-half or so. We’ve increased our recycling rates from 21% in 2009 up to 37% in 2010. That’s the result of community by community, town by town hard work from publishers with different civic organizations and schools and religious organizations and community leaders. These companies are really part of the fabric in all those local towns across the country. We win as they win. I think a lot of the recycling efforts have enhanced that community feeling that we’ve had. We’re a big part of that community. In terms of our own employment, we employ tens of thousands of people across the country with some $2 billion in annual payroll, so we’re a big part of those local communities. We’re a big part of helping people buy local, helping those local businesses be successful and stay in business and generate tax dollars for those local communities, which has a wide array of benefits in those local communities. That makes us feel good. We can support those local towns. We help businesses grow. As you know, small business is the engine of our economy, and we’re all about helping small businesses be successful. This is really one of those win-all-the-way-around scenarios. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, obviously, as you shared with our listeners earlier, 11 billion times a year last year speaks for itself. The numbers don’t lie. That’s a huge success. Neg, we’re down to the last two minutes or so. There’s a lot of young people, not only here in the United States, but around the world that listen to our show, college students, high school students, etc. We get e-mails all the time. Share a little bit about some pearls of wisdom for the next people coming behind us that want to be the next Neg Norton. What are some pearls of wisdom with regards to becoming the next guy in your position? NEG NORTON: That’s a great question. You know, I think for me, the one thing that I have always tried to do is to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences to me personally. I think if you are able to operate in the most ethical way and make the right call even though it may not be the best thing for you personally at the time, if it’s the right thing to do for the organization that you’re working for, I think people start to take notice about that. That takes some managerial courage. Sometimes it’s hard to do, but I think that’s been one of the things that has really helped me over the years, just to continue to do the right thing. For people that are thinking about our space in the future, what’s really kind of fun about it is that if you’re in our business and you’re calling on a plumber and a lawyer and a landscaper, you get to learn a lot of different things about a lot of different types of businesses. Our space is changing so fast. If you really like media and you like helping small businesses grow, which was really one of the main reasons that I got involved in yellow pages, it’s such a great feeling to help small businesses grow, that’s going to be something that’s important in the future as well, helping these small businesses navigate that complexity and helping them win in the marketplace and giving them the advice and counsel that they need to be successful. I think it’s a great way to learn. I think it’s a great way to learn personally, and I think that the space is changing a lot, but it’s changing for all the right reasons. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Neg, we’re out of time today, but Mike and I and our listeners are so appreciative for you taking time to join us today on Green is Good. For our listeners out there that want to see more of Neg’s great work, please go to www.localsearchinsider.org or www.yellowpagesoptout.com. Neg Norton, you are a sustainability search marketing leader and truly living proof that green is good. NEG NORTON: Thanks, guys.