Technical hitch

Contrary to predictions, printed directories are holding their own against technological alternatives. Michele Witthaus reports.

It was the revolution that never quite took off – the total eclipse of paper publishing by the electronic media. Several years ago, opinion leaders such as US directory guru Russell Perkins warned that companies would not survive into the electronic age unless they embraced the online lifestyle – and quickly.

Yet on a recent visit to Europe, Perkins appeared to have modified his original predictions, admitting that “print will continue to provide the bulk of revenue for the foreseeable future”.

The headlong rush into electronic publishing was premature, says Gary Zabel, managing director of Hollis Directories.

“My estimate is that, even after ten years of hype, less than ten per cent of spend on business information goes on electronic versions. There is lots of life left in printed products. That’s also the experience from the US, where publishers report only 20 per cent of subscriptions revenue and 13 per cent of all revenue, including advertising, coming from online, CD-Rom and disks.”

Research among his readers has persuaded Zabel not to move too fast into electronic publishing. “They are telling us that the information format at the moment is just fine for them.”

Publishers looking to make quick profits simply by bringing out electronic versions of their directories have largely been disappointed. Most of the major players acknowledge that the key to the successful implementation of electronic media is added value, rather than simple replication of what has been done already in book form.

Businesses are also becoming wary of launching Websites without serious consideration of the real advantages they can expect to gain.

According to Rosemary Pettit of the Directory Publishers Association (DPA): “People are more hard-nosed now. They want to know if you can make money directly from a Website. What other benefits is it offering?”

Her experience shows that for many businesses, the primary attraction of being online is the e-mail function, “which is easy, quick and cheap – everything Websites are not”.

Alan Philipp, managing director of AP Information Systems, says people want information in a format they can use. His company finds that many people still buy mailing lists as labels, even though they are offered electronic alternatives. “For large orders in particular, the Web is not the best source because of high telephone charges,” he adds.

Reed Information Services (RIS) produces a range of directories in hard copy, on CD-Rom and online. Its business information online service, Reedbase, has been operating for ten years. Susanna Smart, head of corporate communications at RIS, says the company is committed to developing all its products in electronic format. Smart points out that “although the holy grail of making money from the Internet is yet to be discovered, it would be a mistake for publishers to ignore this dynamic information delivery system”.

She cites the success of the Kompass British Exports Website, which is being developed into a fully interactive trading environment to help UK companies promote their goods and services overseas. Adding value by offering free online information has major advantages for directory publishers, says Zabel.

“Rather than just listing marketing information, we have put solid data on our site. Normally, we would charge for that information, but it gives us the opportunity to gauge and monitor use of, and demand for, our publications. We hope to find a way of charging people to receive the information they particularly want,” he says.

Philipp takes a similar approach to online strategy: “Our intention is to have a lot of selective information and ways of counting it. We aim to offer an initial bit, beyond which it goes onto transaction.”

He sees the shape of his business changing as a result of the new media. “People will pick off our Website, which will mean less work for us producing labels or disks.

In addition, we will get new customers.”

Terry Procter, managing director of agency the Procter & Procter Group – which handles a number of national directory accounts – adds: “My clients are interested in response, and providing their customer base with an access mechanism to their organisations. They are keen to be accessible.”

To this end, many of Procter’s clients are embracing electronic media, but this doesn’t mean they are abandoning traditional channels.

“They are very keen to be represented in directory media, but although many of our clients are now investing in Websites, they are not reducing their investment in mainstream telephone directories. They are testing the Internet right now,” he says.

The high-profile stalwart of directory listings, the Yellow Pages, is enjoying the benefits of having an Internet site while maintaining its strong presence in the world of paper publishing. Strategic development director for the Yellow Pages, Paul Fry, says that printed media are still the main source of advertising income.

“We are very committed to our electronic products, but they supplement rather than replace our existing paper products,” he says.

This low-key view belies the fact that the company’s Website has for six months been voted number one in the UK by The Web magazine. The site offers visitors a directory of all UK Websites, as well as a film finder. Significantly, it meets its customers’ needs by being designed for UK users in a way that the popular US sites are not.

Fry explains: “We see this as a new product to supplement our existing products. You have to be creative with electronic media. If you simply transfer what you’ve already got, you’re not adding value and you are not going to interest people.”

The choice of which electronic media to use can be a difficult one. Zabel sees a trend towards companies choosing online options for their directories in preference to CD-Roms. His company’s strategy reflects this. “We have gone onto the Internet, which I think will leapfrog CD-Rom.”

Pettit believes that CD-Roms have an important place in directory publishing – provided that they do more than simply replicate information available in book form.

“We have seen increased added value over the past few years. Publishers are thinking of a CD as a different kind of product to a print directory,” she says.

She cites as an example the winning CD in this year’s Directory of the Year competition run by the DPA. The casting guide, The Spotlight, is now available in CD-Rom with features that the print version could not offer, such as the capacity to bring up 12 different actors on screen simultaneously. It also allows casting directors to undertake searches according to type.

One of the most interesting success stories for electronic directory publishing is that of BRAD. Users buy a licence to load information onto their computers and they have unlimited access to it. They can have the information updated nightly through a dialling system linked to BRAD’s server.

This system has the advantage of offering customers contained, predictable costs. Rather than a pay-per-use system or CD-Roms, which can go out of date quickly, this way users can be certain of getting fresh information.

BRAD’s publishing director Will Arnold notes that, in spite of all the potential advantages they offer, electronic media remain out of reach for many clients. These include not just computer Luddites who reject technological advances, but many people who simply do not yet have the equipment to seek information online or in other non-paper formats.

Smart of RIS is concerned that these people should not be overlooked. “There are many customers out there who do not have CD drives and cannot access the Internet. They may not even want to source their information electronically and prefer to grab a directory off the shelf and flick through its pages. Sales figures show that there are plenty of customers like that still around, despite the success of CD versions of books,” she says.

The convenience and accessibility of the book is hard to beat. The former head librarian at the DTI’s Export Market Information Centre, Andrew Lapworth, remarks that “books are unsurpassed as a quick reference tool. CD-Roms or the Internet are very tedious to load for looking up a piece of information quickly. Electronic versions come into their own where lots of in-depth searching and cross-referencing is required”.

So the revolution is not over yet and the struggle continues for directory publishers, customers and advertisers to keep up with developments in cyberspace and other electronic marketing sites.

In the view of Alan Philipp, books will continue to hold their appeal for a long time to come, albeit functioning largely as “shop fronts” for increasingly electronically driven businesses.

He sums up the feelings of many who have not yet made the leap into electronic communications: “Books will continue to be popular, because people can see and feel the information.”

Fry of the Yellow Pages concurs. “Irrespective of the numbers, paper will be predominant in five years’ time, unless there is some paper shortage that we have not foreseen.”

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