Founded in 1908 as a division of Bell Canada, the now autonomous YellowPagesGroup has become a household name in directory services. The core component of the YellowPages (YP) service is a comprehensive listing of business contact information, based historically on data provided by the phone companies and distributed in an annual paper phone directory, which is now available through its flagship online and mobile search service for business contact, YP.ca. The company estimates that there are 1.1 million SMB businesses in Canada, and claims listing for virtually all. However, there is no fee associated with listing — all YellowPages revenue is advertising based.
Like many publishers, the YellowPages is transitioning from the world of paper to the digital realm. With this shift, the company is addressing the global challenge to ad revenue models by moving into solution selling, working to deepen and expand the range of digital products and services that it can deliver to advertising customers. According to Melanie Gale, director, performance and leads products, YellowPages marketing, "there is huge focus right now on increasing our [customer] acquisition capabilities because our advertiser base is going down year-over-year. That is not sustainable as we’re trying to grow out of a smaller base of customers." To help its sales force become better new account "hunters," the company has engaged in training, new programs and incentives for sales, and has seen quarterly improvement in CSAT (customer service satisfaction) scores — and in customer perceptions of YP "digital savviness" in particular, a metric that Gale described as one of the most important measures of its progress towards transformational goals.
Four years ago, the YellowPages marketing team began building the company’s digital analytics reporting strategy with an inventory of 250 requirements, a wish list of tech capabilities that would position the company as an online leader. From this master list, several project ‘buckets’ were given priority, including the creation of an analytics application designed to help customers better recognize the ROI on YP advertising. As Gale explained, third-party research had shown that customer perceptions were not well aligned with value delivered: "we are delivering value but for some reason, the analytics we were giving them or the visits from sales are not enough for customers to truly believe they are getting value for their ad investment." This is a significant business issue — "The notion of ROI perception is huge," Gale noted — and it provided impetus in 2011 for development of an analytics-based application that could provide transparency into the lead generation process, which in turn would demonstrate the value of YP advertising.
Initially, the application was targeted at sales — "we’re trying to set up the right infrastructure," Gale explained, "to leverage that culture of hunting within sales" — but YP was also looking to address the needs of YP technology users, and specifically, the needs of ad buyers for a platform that would provide a consolidated view and real time reporting on ad generated activity.
Understanding customer needs
Offering customers access to the ad analytics developed for the sales team, though sophisticated for its time, had limitations. While sales reps had received solution training, using the tool was not intuitive for ad buyers. Gale described "issues on the infrastructure side, on the data side as well as on the user interface (UI). It was not optimal as it was difficult to navigate and it was not easy to see where to get the right pieces of information." To add to complexity for users, over time, YP introduced new products into its online portfolio that customers also had to monitor. The result was increasing customer frustration, especially for the 20 percent of YP customers with more sophisticated digital understanding — and expectations. At the same time, YP was facing the challenge of bringing its outsourced analytics solution back in-house to ensure better control and provide more leverage for updating the infrastructure and the application UI.
As a starting point for evolving the analytics platform, YP launched a series of focus groups aimed at developing better understanding of user needs, behaviours and preferences in web design. These were conducted by a third-party agency from June through November of last year. Gale noted, "it was a very iterative process. We started with wire frames, shared concepts with customers and got their feedback and we evolved those wire frames into very early mock ups that we then showed to more customers. We answered questions and concerns as we went along until we landed on something that seemed to make sense for the majority." This same process was conducted internally with the sales team and the YellowPages design team to ensure the application’s web interface would be functional, easy to use and have broad appeal. "We needed to make it simple," Gale added, "to encourage our advertisers to come."
Tailoring the tool
IT’s job was to execute on these design specifications, providing a clear, aggregated view of activity and benefits for the majority of customers, simplified navigation and wording, and a deep dive into the numbers for that 20 percent of users who want a more detailed view. As Richard Langlois, director, consumer & advertiser analytics, YellowPages explained, while data collection strategies cannot be compromised, the IT team was able to deliver an application tailor made to marketing and design specs: "if you don’t have the data, you can’t render it," he explained, "but as long as the expectations are clear in terms of intent, we can find a way to do it. The only potential constraint is that we may not do it in the amount of time that has been allocated, and we may need technical enablers."
In June of this year, a 40 person team, consisting of QA staff, solution architects, business analysts, database specialists, ETL, UI and data collection/digital tagging (TMS) developers, a data scientist and management and support staff, relaunched the analytics solution, a custom application developed on the Information Builders WebFOCUS platform. A unique example of how companies may leverage Big Data to deliver new services to customers, YP Analytics collects and integrates data from a number of internal and external stores into a 50-billion-line table, provides an analytics engine, and presents information through an easy-to-use, web-based interface that encourages customers to explore advertising-based activity metrics.
To create the user interface, Langlois’ team relied on WebFOCUS technology which allows for custom interface tailoring that was a key requirement for the YP Analytics app. Jodye Yates and Madelina Praf, WebFOCUS senior developers, YellowPages, who worked for six months on the project with a group including YP business analysts (to frame queries), Maxime Pierre, a web integrator and John Malapetsas a consultant from Information Builders, described UI development as follows: "we received Photoshop files showing how the site was to look. From this, Maxime [the web integrator] would create a static page, and we would take this and plug in the real logic, and the real numbers."
To plug in the logic, the Yates group hand coded an HTML file that would call up a WebFOCUS report to populate each DIV container on a page. Each report, Yates explained, builds different page items, such as graphs, legends, etc.: "every single item on the page has its own report that returns just the number or the just graph that we need. It’s called with AJAX, which queries each one." And, Madelina added, because reports can be called separately at different times, fetched asynchronously through AJAX, multiple information sets can be updated and presented simultaneously on the same screen at the same time. The result is improved site navigation.
A measure of the information riches that can be mined through the application is provided in the ‘At a glance view’ — a page which details the overall performance of the customer’s YP product portfolio over the last twelve months. The page displays four key metrics: views, visits, interactions and call tracking — and allows the user to compare results when a YP product is added or removed from the portfolio. By drilling down through menu items, the user can attribute ad activity to specific YP products in order to refine its solution mix. The app also features a revenue calculator, which aggregates the total "contacts" that are generated through YP online presence, lead driver/placement products and SEM and SEO solutions, which may be in the form of tracked phone calls, walk-ins attributed to the YP direction service and digital contacts such as email, web sites and forms, online reservations. Against total contacts, sales conversion rates that are set for each industry taking into account variables such as market and location and an average sale figure are applied to calculate an estimate of total revenue derived from Yellow Pages advertising. Through hover bubbles with simple text, each of the revenue calculator inputs is explained. Values can be user-modified to reflect changing circumstances or a more accurate valuation — in the average sale price or conversion ratios, for example — and the tool will automatically recalculate total revenue.
Big Data architecture
Speed is another consideration in the creation of good user experience, which YP addressed through a number of storage tactics. For example, to reduce the number of times a call is made from the UI to the database, where ever possible, the application uses foccache tables for subsequent data requests. But the team also tackled speed at the infrastructure layer. As Langlois explained, YP has built the application on a hybrid architecture, where primary data is stored on a Cloudera Hadoop cluster, but UI data is held for 25 months on an Infobright database appliance to help improve response time. The team engages in constant performance monitoring, and has pushed run time, Google Analytics and ETL system analysis onto a display screen located in the centre of the group’s office to keep performance top of mind.
Gale described YP’s approach to building the Analytics application (and to working through the rest of the digital master list) as "iterative or agile," meaning that the marketing, IT and design teams worked collaboratively, maintaining flexibility to respond to new issues or opportunities as they arose. Changes were made to YP Analytics, for example, throughout the development process to improve the UI, site aesthetics and data or to add features, with new versioning scheduled on a monthly basis. As Langlois explained, the iterative approach is especially useful for managing the short-term roadmap — projects for the next three to four months out; however, longer-term vision is also critical to the implementation of supporting IT infrastructure, to the creation of optimal architectures and to addressing issues like data dependencies. In Langlois’ view, IT change ideally follows an enterprise architecture roadmap that unfolds over time, and covers four aspects: data, process, applications and technologies. Big Data implementations, he argued, follow the same path. In the accompanying video, which follows at the end of this article, Langlois provides a learned, and detailed account of the YP Analytics road mapping, which was characterized by a combination of enterprise architecture, Big Data and business intelligence.
Focus on strategy, design collaboration and IT support in YP Analytics appears to have borne fruit. The team has reported a successful relaunch. With the exception of one minor bug in code specifications resulting from interpretation of a parameter in an external data source, and some printing issues with some browsers, "the application is doing what it is supposed to do," Langlois explained, "and we have had good feedback from the sales folks."
Extending analytics value
Customer behaviour on YP Analytics is now tracked via Google Analytics, though the company is switching to Anametrix to better capture data on usage patterns for ongoing optimization of the application. With relaunch only a month old, the team has not yet gathered sufficient data for solid speculation on usage, but YP has found that the average time spent with the system is now five to six minutes, as opposed to two to three minutes spent with the old analytics platform; YP is also observing lots of interaction with the revenue calculator. The goal is to continue to improve on use and performance with analytics-focused Agile application development.
Going forward, YP is planning to use the analytics application as a source of business intelligence. When customers use the revenue calculator, for example, output from this engine can be saved and is recorded by YellowPages for internal use as intelligence that will feed updates to conversion rates and industry average price points over time. Over time, YP expects to improve on the conversion data acquired from its third party source, developing more accurate and granular information based on analysis of customer site activity and data. According to Gale, YellowPages has 275,000 paying customers but far fewer tool users, so while developing these insights has intriguing potential, it is not without challenge: "40,000 [system users] is not actually a big number for us especially they’re spread over such a wide base of verticals. Many of our customers are lawyers, plumbers, roofers… and these conversion ratios and average standards must be based not only on industry but also on [geographic] markets."
As part of the application build, the IT team has also created a service layer to improve data access. According to Langlois, there are two approaches that can be taken in the development of data architecture: you can process the data and then move it to where it is needed, or you can create a service layer that is used as a single source of analytics data for all queries. YP has chosen the latter option, as it offers better support for maintenance of a database that is scalable (as noted earlier, there are currently 50 billion rows of data in the YP analytics table) and fast, but also because this configuration provides the foundation for users to call for specific information for any application. With implementation of SOA, and metadata specified in Information Builders’ WebFOCUS business intelligence platform, Langlois has helped to prepare systems that can facilitate the ongoing introduction of YP product and services.
Compass, a new sales tool platform that is scheduled for deployment in the fall is a good example of this. Currently, YellowPages sales staff use analytics in market study and in preparation of presentations, and may use the YP Analytics interface in customer conversations to demonstrate the power of advertising backed by conversion analytics. But in this work and on a daily basis, sales may use up to 50 different tools that YP is planning to integrate in Compass. In preparation, the IT team is working on creation of services on the YP Analytics database that will enable Compass to access information without additional work — a specific demonstration of the use case for the analytics service layer.
Application innovation is also occurring at the customer level. Based on customers’ growing appreciation for advertising ROI — driven though YP Analytics value proposition — the company is now working on the launch of new products focused on lead delivery that YP will distribute through a whole new portfolio of services — a move that YellowPages expects will bring the company closer to its solutions orientation agenda.