A recent Editor & Publisher sponsored webinar explored four demographic shifts that will impact the obituary market, and covered recommendations of what newspapers can do to secure the future for their most important local content.
"The trends represent a growth opportunity for the industry, but also an existential threat depending on how the industry reacts," said Stopher Bartol, Founder and CEO of Legacy.com, who has a birds-eye view as the leading provider of obituary software to the news industry.
The first factor is a surge in death rates. Baby boomers are starting to turn 75 and will fuel a 70% growth in deaths over the next 15 years, he said. So theoretically, the obituary category could see massive growth.
But three other trends are working against newspapers if they do not respond: A growing preference for cremation — already the first choice for American families; a more digital-centric generation with new memorialization options; and an increasingly transient population, Bartel said.
When more than 50% of families elect cremation, there is often no funeral director, and the crematoriums have no relationship with the newspaper. Will this digital-centric generation simply switch to other easier, less expensive social and digital options to inform their loved one's community?
"If I were a publisher, I would start by asking 'Am I making it as easy as possible to discover this content?'" Bartel said. He claimed that about half his newspaper partners at Legacy still bury the obits somewhere online. "That needs to change."
Legacy provided a white paper outlining six action steps for their newspaper partners.
Two newspaper executives with proactive strategies show how they are incorporating the proactive ideas to rethink their approach to obituaries, starting with changing the mindset that obituaries are classified ads.
Deseret Media's editorial department now "absolutely" sees obituaries as local content, said Sally Steed, Director of Sales. The newspaper now publishes a standalone obituaries section, Memorials, including both editorial and paid obituaries, plus a one-page advertorial feature that compliments the section. The advertorial is repeated as a sponsored post on the home page and on Facebook. The extra effort paid off in the first month.
"We just sold out of sponsored content for the year," Steed said. "I didn't need to create a sales sheet. All we had to do it say it, and companies wanted it." Legacy offers a free library of memorial content written and edited by professional journalists available at sales.legacy.com.
"Cost is not an issue. It is all about providing someone with a finished product that is easy to buy."
Easy-to-find self-serve private party obituaries are also critical in the new approach, as more people select direct cremation where there is no funeral director involved and expect the convenience of 24/7 online ordering.
“We live in an on-demand society,” said Kim Safran, VP of Sales at iPublish Media, a Legacy company and provider of self-serve advertising platforms, including the obituaries platform used at Deseret.
“Let’s face it, everyone on this call has placed an order on Amazon quote-unquote after work.”
Ironically, Steed also realized that when families build the obituary themselves using the iPublish front end, they actually post more pictures and buy obituaries that cost more than when placing the ad through a funeral home.
Her team is now talking about setting up DIY centers directly inside funeral homes, so families can sit down and create their obituary side-by-side with the director.
Michael Fibison, VP of Inside Sales at Advance Local, said that his team noticed the obituary market change.
“We started to see people placing their obituaries on social media and places beyond. One of the things we’ve pushed out is a social solution,” Facebook Targeted Obituaries, part of the iPublish Obituaries software suite, he said.
The platform uses automation to repurpose each obituary into a tasteful paid ad distributed on Facebook. Anyone can select detailed targets, starting with the age of a loved one, locations the loved one lived, and drilling down to super-detailed factors, “if Dad did his internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering or was on a sports team” to find related people who knew them, Safran said.
People who try to notify friends and family on Facebook only think they have alerted everyone who needs to know.
"The reality is that an organic post is only seen by 10% to 40% of their friends list, if that, and they may not have all of Mom or Dad's friends," she said. On the other hand, Advance Local's Facebook obituaries are guaranteed to reach thousands of these hyper-target audiences.
Fibison said he wants to make sure his newspaper stays in the center of the end-of-life ritual by using mobile, online, social as well as beefing up the print version. A second initiative popular with families is a special quarterly obituaries section called Tributes, with a shortened "recap" of each death. Pagination is turnkey and virtually production free, using the same content and software.
He has even partnered with a company to create a plaque with each print obituary.
"We look at the funeral homes as our sales force. We have Facebook webinars with funeral homes. We really get out there and let them know what we are doing on their behalf and appreciate what they do with us. They are the front line." His team is now starting to reach out to crematoriums as well.
Another automated solution integrated into the platform is, AdPay's Memoriams, which solves the tricky problem of multi-location obituary placement.
"We're looking at the first generation of people that were not born and died in the same place," Safran said. Without automation, a funeral director spends about 90 minutes to add a newspaper in a second city; now, it's just a minute or two.
"We are providing additional opportunities for obits to be featured in more than one market." The way the platform works is that once an obituary is written, it can be placed in any other city newspaper in the network without having to retype the obituary or reupload the photo.
Everyone on the panel agreed that the last hurdle to overcome when securing newspapers' traditional role at the center of local memorials might be educating the new generation about the value of honoring a loved one by telling their life story to their community.
“People don’t know how or why they need an obituary,” Safran said.
"As newspaper people, we forget the general person on the street may not even know there is a paid product. On the newspapers’ obituary pages powered by Legacy.com, we educate and encourage people to place obituaries with a simple link and message ‘Place an Obituary’ along with the newspapers’ contact information. We also link directly into each newspapers’ self-service obituaries platform – if the newspaper offers self-service.”
"These trends are going to have an impact," Fibison concluded. "If you are not planning, you are going to get left behind. We are taking an active role looking at the population shift and how we will serve our audiences."
Steed says she still gets calls every day from newspaper executives seeking advice and remain reluctant to take it. "I have to tell them, ‘You have to change with the times.’"
As Mike Blinder, publisher of E&P, put it, "I could still go to a hundred newspaper websites right now, and I'd have to dig deep to find the obituaries. This content is critical. If we lose it, we may never get it back."
Visit sales.legacy.com/webinar2022/- copy of the white paper, Obituaries at a Crossroads.
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