Obit platforms designed to speed process
February 26, 2015
By Diana Marszalek
Having already lost billions in classifieds, newspaper publishers are ramping up digital efforts to secure their share of the burgeoning online obituary business.
Newspapers owned by big groups from Gannett and The E.W. Scripps Company on down are adopting self-service platforms—Legacy.com, Adpay and Wave2 Media Solutions are among the big providers—that allow funeral directors to place obits online and are reporting rising revenue.
Industry insiders say the platforms are designed to reduce the rigmarole and uncertainty that comes with the traditional process of placing obits over the phone.
“The whole system is prone to errors,” said Brian Gorman, Wave2’s vice president of sales and a company co-founder, adding that confirming everything from copy to pricing is a benefit of online buys. “An obituary is a very deadline-sensitive product due to an unexpected event that happens every day in America—and they have to be published the next day.”
Nor is it cheap.
Americans already spend $421 million a year on obituaries, about 75 percent of which appear in newspapers, said Deb Dreyfuss-Tuchman, executive vice president of sales at Adpay, which runs the obit platform Memoriams.com. Placing one of the 1.74 million obituaries published in the U.S. each year costs anywhere from $250-$900, depending on the market and how elaborate it is, industry reps say.
Dreyfuss-Tuchman said she expects the business to boom big—and soon—thanks to the newfound popularity of user-friendly placement processes, more choices for mourners (such as adding photos, design and the like to obits online) and 2.5 million deaths a year in the U.S., 75 of which are announced with obits.
“We know we could turn this into a billion-dollar business for newspapers,” said Dreyfuss-Tuchman.
Publishers, as well as platform providers, are already benefiting from the growing demand for self-service obit buys, which are primarily done by funeral directors.
Newspapers on average are seeing a 30 percent increase in obituary revenue since partnering with the two-year-old Memoriams.com, which is what The Dallas Morning News has used to increase its obituary revenue by a whopping 40 percent since adopting the platform more than nine months ago, Dreyfuss-Tuchman added.
Sherri Propis, director of sales operation and customer focus at Scripps, said the 12 Scripps newspapers that adopted Memoriams.com increased revenue by at least 16 percent in just 18 months.
Easing the obit placement process, she said, is important for publishers who need to secure their stature as the primary source of death notices.
“This is a category we traditionally have owned,” Propis said. “It’s a service to our readers and family members, so we want to make sure we do it right.”
Self-service portals also tend to result in more upsells—the addition of photos, design and the like—than transactions done over the phone, industry reps say. According to Gorman, funeral directors generally spend 10 percent more on obits bought online than those purchased over the phone.
In turn, the number of newspapers embracing servicing obits online is growing exponentially.
Wave2 Media, which rolled out its self-service obit platform roughly five years ago, just recently struck deals with Gatehouse and BH Media, adding to its roster of clients, which already includes Gannett and McClatchy, among others, according to Gorman.
Gorman said those additions (Gatehouse alone expands the Wave2 platform to 100-plus markets) would essentially double the company’s obit business this year, driving the number of obits Wave2 now process annually, 350,000, to 600,000. That means that in 2015, Wave2 should facilitate roughly 30 percent of the country’s obit buys, he said.
Memoriams.com, which already works with roughly 2,700 newspapers, recently partnered with the Local Media Consortium to create a network that connects serve the organization’s members—50 media companies or 1,200 publications—and funeral directors.
The consortium also partnered with Legacy.com, which actually publishes online obituaries, whereas Adpay and Wave2 Media provide the back-end systems for facilitating their sale and placement. Legacy.com works with 1,500 newspaper clients in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, including Digital First Media, Advance, The New York Times and The Washington Post, according to Kim Evenson, its chief marketing officer. The company publishes more than 1 million obituaries each year across North America.
Legacy.com offers an online obituary-hosting solution for publishers, and its newest digital platform, the Next Generation Obituary, allows the bereaved to post videos and photos, share the content socially and features a dedicated mobile platform. Legacy.com also offers daily monitoring of online guest books and offers live customer support.
The platform offers a revenue sharing arrangement with partner publishers, Evenson explained.
“In general our newspaper partners retain a significant portion of the revenue generated from their traffic, and the revenue generated is higher because our revenue programs are focused on this channel,” she said. “For example, our flowers conversion rates are very high relative to the industry with our direct focus on sympathy, so return on that revenue is likely higher than what could be achieved directly without any added cost of resources.”
Rusty Coats, the Local Media Consortium’s executive director, said building an obituary network for members is an essential part of publishers maintaining their hold on obituaries.
“We have always owned this, and we want to continue to own this,” Coats said.
Coats said his partnership with Legacy involves developing “the next generation of obituaries”—permanent online memorials and the like that offer greater scope and longevity than an obit.
Wave2 is already rolling out its own version of such an offering, called Lasting Memories. Gorman said the 100 percent digital product allows mourners to build an online memorial “that lasts forever.”
Lasting Memories goes far beyond an obit, allowing families to create memorials, controlling everything from what goes on it to who can or can’t access it, he said.
Coats said such plans are crucial so that publishers “cannot only accomplish what we need for today but for tomorrow.” Being able to reap the financial benefits would be a boon, too, for newspapers that need it.
“Even a portion of (the spend) would be wonderful,” Coats said. “We know the supply side isn’t going away.” © NetNews Check 2015
This article first appeared on the NetNewsCheck website, www.netnewscheck.com. Reprinted with permission.