Yellow Pages Ltd. hopes to whet appetites for its mobile dining app by sponsoring this year’s Winterlicious and Summerlicious restaurant promotions in Toronto.

It’s the latest chapter in the company’s dramatic shift from paper-based offerings to digital services.

During Winterlicious (Jan. 27 to Feb. 9) and Summerlicious (July 7 to 23), more than 200 Toronto restaurants will offer customers special menus and discount deals. The 2017 official sponsor of both festivals is the YP Dine mobile app.

Originally launched by Yellow Pages in 2015, the app is available in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, Quebec City, Edmonton, Halifax, Victoria and Ottawa.

Screenshot of the YP Dine app, which curates restaurant recommendations based on location, cuisine, atmosphere and occasion.

Using the free app on Android or iOS phones, diners can book reservations, view menus, order takeout, read reviews and browse curated recommendations based on location, type of cuisine, atmosphere or occasion, using search terms like ‘casual lunch’ or ‘sugar rush.’

Restaurants that sign up for the app platform can use it to manage their email, advertising, marketing, reservations, social media, website, mobile site and real time inventory of seats and tables.

“YP Dine is an app (for consumers) but it’s also infrastructure software that restaurants use to manage their businesses,” said Paul Brousseau, VP of brand and marketing communications for Yellow Pages.

Although fixed fees for a single standalone service on the YP Dine platform start at around $65 per month, platform services can be customized to the needs of individual restaurants.

Platform promotion

During both festivals, diners can still use the app for free. But participating Winterlicious and Summerlicious restaurants will also be able to use the platform’s business services free of charge during the events. (Winterlicious and Summerlicious eateries that sign up for the platform as brand new business customers during the promotions can also get two months of a 12-month YP Dine app platform package for free.)

While the sponsorship deal will give some Toronto diners their first taste of how the mobile app works, it’s really aimed at promoting the YP Dine app platform within the restaurant industry.

“It’s basically a free trial for restaurants and if they see value in the platform, they can sign up to pay beyond (Winterlicious and Summerlicious),” Brousseau said.

Shift to digital

It’s been a decade since Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates famously predicted the demise of Yellow Pages among consumers younger than a certain age demographic.

“The Yellow Pages are going to be used less and less,” Gates declared back in 2007 at the Microsoft Strategic Account Summit. “Yellow Page usage amongst people say, below 50, will drop to zero or near zero in the next five years.”

Last May, Yellow Pages created this pop up lemonade stand in Toronto to showcase its digital marketing services for SMBs.

Ten years later, Gates has been proven partially right; in today’s online era, printed Yellow Pages directories are no longer must-have resources for businesses or their customers. Yet Yellow Pages, as a company, is still here, shape shifting significantly since it was founded 108 years ago.

Although the corporation remains focused on providing SMBs with local marketing and advertising services, it’s in the midst of a dramatic evolution from print to digital.

“We exist to help small businesses market themselves and that’s transitioned over time,” Brousseau said. “It’s really evolved into a suite of digital marketing capabilities, whether it’s building their website or digital ad placement or SEO. More recently, we’ve started to add solutions into our portfolio to help businesses manage their businesses as well, beyond just marketing themselves.”

Yellow Pages now owns digital properties such as YP.ca, RedFlagDeals.com, YP Next Home, Canada411.ca and 411.ca. Besides YP Dine, the company’s stable of mobile apps includes YP Shopwise and Comfree.

The acquisition

Last year Yellow Pages acquired Toronto-based Juice Mobile in a deal worth $35 million. Ranked fifteenth on Deloitte’s 2015 list of Canada’s 50 fastest growing tech firms, Juice specializes in programmatic and real time bidding platforms for buying and selling mobile ads.

The shift in strategy appears to be working, since Brousseau said digital marketing and services for SMBs now account for almost 70 per cent of overall business at Yellow Pages.

The transition has not been without hiccups, however. Last fall Yellow Pages cut 300 jobs or 10 per cent of its workforce as part of an ongoing move to downsize its print operations and boost digital offerings.

In its most recent earnings reported in October, third quarter profits at Yellow Pages fell to $3.8 million, down from $13.2 million a year earlier. Although Q3 digital revenue grew 8.4 per cent year-over-year, that was offset by a steep 24.4 per cent drop in print revenue. The company’s total customer base also suffered a slight dip during the 12-month period, declining from 246,000 to 243,000 customers.

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