Turning digital disruption from challenge to opportunity

How can SMEs adapt and evolve to the digital environment? The brains behind innovations at Lonely Planet and White Pages shares his thoughts with My Business.

For a business that started way back in 1880, it would have been impossible to foresee the changes in technology that have disrupted its core focus – a printed directory of all the people and businesses across the country.

Yet as executive general manager Stephen Palmer points out, White Pages has used the opportunity to entirely shake up its business offering and not only adapt to the digital age, but embrace it to enhance its value proposition.

Adapting to change

“We were the first directory in the world to launch [online] back in 1996,” says Mr Palmer.

“What we [nave now] is a brand new White Pages responsive website, which is a big step up from the old site.

“I guess, classically, whitepages.com.au came out of the printed directory, so a lot of the information that was contained within the printed directory was replicated online. I think what we've seen is people now have different ways in which they want to connect with each other, businesses have different ways they want to connect with their customers, so how do we have a White Pages that allows them to better manage and contextualise their listing so that it's suitable for the way in which they want to engage with their customers?”

“You might run your home business off a Facebook page, so you don't really want to list your telephone number necessarily."

The changing face of business

One such instance is the rise of social media and the internet, which has led to a proliferation of home-based businesses that operate solely via online orders, explains Mr Palmer.

“You might run your home business off a Facebook page, so you don't really want to list your telephone number necessarily; you don't want people calling you or you don't want your address [published] because you don't want people coming around to your home. What you want is to focus people on that Facebook page, so that is the primary thing you want listed in the White Pages,” he says.

“Everybody in the country is entitled to a basic entry in White Pages, so that essentially gives you a name, a partial address and a telephone number. You get that as part of your telephone subscription with Telstra or with Optus or whoever, and if someone is basically just exercising that basic entitlement, that's what you will see.

“But if you go to a listing where a customer has essentially paid to upgrade that listing by adding extra contact information, extra context around their organisation, a descriptor of what they do, then it will flesh out from that.”

The recurring challenge

Adapting an established business to changing technologies is not something new for Mr Palmer.

Prior to commencing work with White Pages, he spent eight years as the publisher of travel group Lonely Planet.

“The challenges at Lonely Planet were very similar: how do you take this highly successful travel publishing, travel content engine, which had historically delivered that through a printed book, and begin to think about new ways in which you could make that content available using new digital channels?” he recalls.

“So it's always wrestling with this idea of, 'How do you ensure that brands that provide a valuable service can continue to provide that valuable service as the digital landscape changes?'.”

Mr Palmer adds: “I think everything is about test and learn, and that's the new way of doing it: you have to come up with a minimum viable product, get it out there and then test the reaction, and then learn from that quickly so that you can evolve and adapt things. And what is the right answer today may not be the right answer tomorrow.”

“I think everything is about test and learn, and that's the new way of doing it."

Advice for SMEs

Having gone through this process several times during his career, what advice would Mr Palmer offer SMEs looking to adapt their own processes and systems to the digital environment?

“I suppose the big challenge for us was that we had three tasks, all of which were necessary: platform re-engineering, the data reorganisation and the launch of the new website and a [new] brand to go with that. Probably not to do all of those three at the same time!” he says.

“We did not have the capability to flexibly launch new services if we had stuck with the old legacy technology. And often that's the thing you think of least: is it broken? No, and it’s not very sexy, so focus on the other stuff. Whereas actually, that was fundamental to our ability to make a change.”

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