TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Shock to the Sensis

Telstra directories arm Sensis is pushing ahead with its radical revamp, but it's unclear whether its latest initiatives will be enough to save a business caught napping while the game changed.

Technology Spectator

What’s the first thing that springs to your mind when you hear the word Sensis? Well, those big, mostly useless, yellow books are pretty hard to miss and then there’s that sock puppet on TV. But for me the travails of Telstra’s directories arm stand out as another example of a business that was caught napping as the game changed around it.

Sensis pushed the button on a radical revamp last year, under the auspices of former chief executive Bruce Akhurst, but the jury is out on whether the restructuring will be enough to rehabilitate its flagging fortunes. That’s not to say that Sensis isn’t trying, in fact it’s forging ahead with a number of new approaches to leverage its SMB database effectively and provide maximum exposure to its clients.

One example of this is the company’s recent deal with US tech company Media Tuners. Now, Sensis doesn’t stand out as natural candidate to develop a voice-activated in-vehicle software that operates similarly to Apple’s Siri, but that’s exactly what it’s doing with SASi – Sensis Aggregation Services Initiative.

Sensis will integrate its Whereis Maps database and points of interest information into SASi and the ultimate aim is to allow drivers to source all the information they need – location, weather, traffic conditions – without pressing a button.

The SASi initiative is the latest in a range of new digital products that Sensis has launched under its transformation program.

In the past year Sensis has launched six separate online-based products that range from helping businesses create websites to linking clients with free online quotes.

According to Sensis, it’s all part of a plan to turn the directories business into a lean digital marketing machine and a one stop marketing shop for any SME looking to create an impression online. It may not revolve restore the company to its former glory, when it was the highest earning division of Telstra, but it should put Sensis back in black by around 2014.

Recent headlines have not always been kind on Sensis but its digital offerings have met with some success.

It's free Whereis Maps application has seen around 300,000 downloads since its release and in a testament to it use, 40,000 people updated the app within 24 hours of Sensis releasing a new version of it. Meanwhile the SiteSmart tool, which helps companies establish their own websites, has seen 5000 companies sign up within the past 12 months.

While the success of SiteSmart is a good sign it will take a lot more to appease long-time critics like Buddecom founder and analyst, Paul Budde.

Budde is no fan of how Telstra has handled its directory arm and says that 5000 is a nice number but it’s a drop in the ocean when compared to one million or so companies Sensis had signed up to its printed Yellow Pages directory

"As with all internet based developments they are all delivering significant less revenue to the company and that will not compensate for the decline in traditional income,” Budde says,

He adds that it will be a difficult path as well as most SMEs are already on the road to establishing their own web presence and the competition for the stragglers is fierce.

According to Budde, Sensis’ future lies in how successful Telstra is in melding its digital arms – Foxtel and BigPond – together into one cohesive division.

The real struggle for Sensis is to stay relevant because we have become so used to the bad news.

The company last made headlines when long-time Sensis head and 14-year Telstra veteran Bruce Akhurst resigned from the company. It will probably make headlines again when Telstra again reveals it to be a thorn in its side during its full-year report in September.

With all the negativity, it’s easy to write Sensis off as a terminal case. But it seems to have plan and time will tell as to whether the company will be remembered for its yellow books or its online products.