How analytics helped Yellow Pages optimize its products and distribution strategy

Yellow Pages is Canada’s most consulted print directory. The company publishes more than 300 Yellow Pages directories in every province across Canada and more than six million people have downloaded the YP app.

Like many of its 240,000 small business customers across Canada, Yellow Pages (YP) has been challenged by the digital age. While many consumers and advertisers are embracing online search and social media, traditional print media remains an important component of the marketing mix. In an effort to better meet the needs of its users, YP wanted to determine which of its customers preferred printed directories, which liked to let their fingers do the clicking on the website and which would rather use e-books—YP’s printed directories in a digital, searchable form. With this information, YP planned to optimize its products and streamline distribution, in both the physical and virtual world.

But the sheer scale of YP’s production and distribution operations is daunting in itself. With 43% of Canadians using a Yellow Pages directory, the company compiles nearly 300 different directories covering every province and territory in Canada—from urban to rural communities—all available in both print and digital-replica formats. Every year, the company delivers over nine million white and yellow page directories to homes and businesses. More than six million people have downloaded the YP app and a growing number qualify as dual print and digital users. With this large and varied audience, YP needed to make sure it was targeting the right product to the right customer through the right channel.

Indeed, the days are long gone when YP could simply drop a directory on everyone’s doorstep. And for some green-minded consumers, that change is a welcome one. Concerned that too many directories end up in landfills, some 200,000 households have opted out of receiving YP printed products. To ensure that its advertisers earn a good return on their investment, YP needed to reduce the number of directories that went directly from doorway to recycling bin.

“We wanted to find a tool to identify the individual who wants our product and get rid of the waste in our supply chain,” says Dwayne Rutherford, YP’s senior manager of distribution. “The better we can target, the better we can get advertisers to achieve their ROI.”

Yellow Pages teamed up with Environics Analytics to develop customer target groups and identify which ones preferred print directories, which liked to let their fingers to the clicking and which would rather use e-books. Analysts then mapped neighbourhood delivery routes that indicated where YP distributors should drop off books at home, and where they shouldn’t.

The solution came in the form of a custom segmentation and geo-spatial tool developed by Environics Analytics (EA), the Toronto-based data and analytics company. In early 2016, YP and EA began an initiative to better understand YP’s users. Analysts integrated the company’s opt-in and opt-out data with third-party survey data from Numeris to identify the heaviest users of YP’s print and online versions. The Numeris information identified consumers who not only used YP directories but also engaged in activities related to YP’s top advertising categories, such as home improvement.

“We wanted the users who would take action with Yellow Pages,” says Franca Nassivera, YP’s senior product manager, product optimization. “It was a mix of external data and internal data that provided us with a good segmentation and options.”

Analysts identified several target groups of users, noting differences between those living in cities and rural areas. The biggest fans of Yellow Pages are middle-aged and older families with mixed incomes living in smaller, semi-urban and rural markets. But the company also found strong users of Yellow Pages among older singles and families with below-average incomes in the suburban and urban communities of metro areas. Meanwhile, YP found average Yellow Pages users among those slightly younger, middle-aged families with above-average incomes who lived in urban and suburban neighbourhoods.

“A lot of book users are in the non-urban markets,” explains Nassivera. “The smaller markets will have an older demographic and part of the story may be that they may not have good Internet access or, as older people, they’re just not as web savvy. There are pockets of book users in the urban markets, too, which is why the targeting and modelling helped us out.”

Once they’d defined YP’s target groups, analysts then mapped neighbourhood delivery routes across Canada so YP’s distributors knew where they should drop off books at homes, stock them in racks on street corners or offer them in grocery stores. As Nassivera puts it, “We wanted to make sure that a user has a book if they want it—and in the medium of their choice.”
YP’s large staff—including 1,000 people on the sales force and 1,200 on the distribution team—found the data especially useful in understanding the nuances of local markets. “The data had to go down to the street level with the routing and targeting 365 days a year,” Nassivera continues. “We have the distributors bringing our product to consumers and businesses all the time.”

As part of the project, EA analysts also created an innovative modelling application that automatically creates routes and associated packages to support both delivery and planning. The process drew on three essential factors to create the most cost-efficient routes: Yellow Pages’ consumer opt-in and opt-out information; the presence of target households within that specific market; and the quantities of books assigned to that specific market. The analytical tool included a zoom-in feature that allowed distributors to better plan deliveries in rural areas when higher-level maps proved unusable. One key feature of the project involved “a continuous feedback loop,” allowing EA analysts to incorporate information from distributors, advertisers and customers to refine the analysis and targeting. EA used tools like Alteryx and Python to bring new information from the field into the methodology.

The analysis also yielded some surprises: Some maps showed where YP should have been delivering books but hadn’t in the past. “We heard reports from some people that they were happy to be getting books for the first time in years,” says YP’s Rutherford. “And we’re getting fewer complaints from households that received the books even though they didn’t want them, which is a good sign. We also found that in instances where local knowledge from distributors conflicted with the data, the data really held up, which is a really good sign.”

The data-based analysis also helped YP save money and improve logistics by reducing the volume of books it places in the marketplace—while saving a lot of trees as well. Now that the company knows more about the habits and interests of the book users, it’s incorporated those insights into their editorial content to keep the directory relevant and deliver engaged audiences. And it’s recently begun to profile the users in order to provide better content for them. The analysis will help YP understand who those users are, where they live, what they’re doing and how to reach them with the online app.

Early results from the analytics initiative are encouraging. Even though fewer directories are being printed and distributed, advertisers have not experienced a decline in the level of customer contacts, according to Rutherford. In fact, YP’s Canadian experience has become a model for Yellow Pages companies in other countries. Not long ago, Rutherford’s team shared their analytics approach with their counterparts in Australia. “They’ve adopted a similar approach to identify their users, understand their characteristics and develop a methodology for targeting users,” he says.

YP’s experience also offers a promising message for marketers concerned that new media is causing consumers to bypass traditional products and channels. Instead, consumers today enjoy more options for engaging with businesses, which means it’s more important than ever to understand what they want and how they want to get it. Data analytics illuminates the paths that consumers are taking, helping businesses connect with them in myriad ways

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. “Every time one channel closes, another one is opening up,” Rutherford says. “That’s how we’ll stay relevant with YP users.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Michele Sexsmith

Michele Sexsmith is senior vice president and practice leader at Environics Analytics, specializing in the media, retail, real estate and entertainment industries.