New Technology: Obit Revenue
February 25, 2016
By Janet DeGeorge | Classified Executive Training
I know about newspaper classified obits. My first and most influential boss, Ron Beach, the then classified director at the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, swears he never said what I’m about to tell you. But it was 1978, and I was a new rep at the classified obit desk, and everything around me seemed very important and memorable. My job was to type obits by live dictation onto scan paper on an IBM electric typewriter. It was nerve wracking.
Beach would walk into the office each morning and point at someone and say, “What are YOU going to do today to increase sales?” Usually his question was directed toward the senior group of outside sales reps. But one day he came in and pointed to me and asked the dreaded question: “What are YOU going to do today to increase sales?” I was frozen in my seat and could barely say, “I take obituaries, Mr. Beach.” He just gave out a hearty laugh and said, “Well, think of something!”
My funny friend at the next desk suggested an “Open Casket Logo.”
Yes, the obit desk is not always gloomy. Funny memories aside, your responsibility for obits is probably the most important advertising you take in the classified department. Getting it right also has high revenue rewards. After consulting with more than 200 newspapers on site, I know a lot more than I did back then. Especially about obits.
I could say newspaper classified obits have come a long way since 1978, and I could also say, aside from technologies, it hasn’t changed at all.
Photo. Last Name. First Name. Location. Date and age at death. Immediate family listed by importance (spouse, children, mother, father, in-laws, brothers/sisters). Funeral details. In lieu of flowers comments last.
Some newspapers have strict rules and structure, some let it go where it wants to go, and as such, get much more readable and popular obit pages. In Amarillo, TX, it is not unusual to have lengthy upbeat obits talking about the deceased’s love of racket ball or the awards he won in high school football, his long career as a welder, and even his political beliefs. In one obit a few years back, it ended by saying, “In lieu of flowers, please donate to anything but the Obama campaign.” Texans lean a bit Republican.
What do I usually find when I check out a newspaper’s obit operations? If the newspaper is lucky, I will find an organized senior rep who takes her job seriously. But that is not the norm. It is often handed to, as it was at the San Jose Mercury News in 1978, the newest sales rep. Even worse, it is sometimes randomly done by any sales rep or dropped into a call center.
At a midsized Northeast newspaper, I found something different—an obit structure that was manned from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and half-days on Saturdays and Sundays. The paper filled the positions with personable and well-trained high school graduates who were on their way to college or starting college and working part time. Although I won’t give out the paper’s exact revenue that year, I will say it was close to going platinum.
I interviewed these high school grads and was amazed at their understanding of online skills. They were way beyond anything a seasoned newspaper sales rep might be aware of. The obit process was to send the photo to the short-handed production department to ready them for newsprint. When I asked these 18-year-olds how they get their photos in time, a young woman looked at me as if she was about to get in trouble and shyly said, “Well, it was a lot of trouble, especially on weekends. So, I have the funeral parlor send photos right to my smartphone, where I have an app that conforms the photo for newsprint, and then I send it to my work e-mail. It takes seconds.” I looked over at the classified manager, also listening to this, and said, “My goodness, we are old.”
Are you still processing obits the same way you have for the last 40 years?
or NEW COMPETITORS
That 18-year-old has gone off to college and I wonder if the paper ever made her quick solution part of the process. I have a bad feeling that the answer is no.
Vendors Wave2 Media Solutions and Ad Pay Memoriams have changed the technology of obits, eliminating errors and giving funeral directors what they really want—more control over the process and an immediate cost that they can communicate to the family. Feedback from my client newspapers using these products say it takes a bit of hand holding at first, but once the funeral directors accept the process, all that needs to be done is some proofing by the obit rep. Accuracy and efficiency is guaranteed.
Legacy.com now controls what the newspaper industry should have created long ago. Legacy.com has created a mecca of obits from hundreds and hundreds of newspaper partners. Try searching for an obit using any search engine. Does your newspaper come up first in the search, or does Legacy? Will newspapers end up losing the obit franchise, so important to both readership and revenue, to a giant, online-only franchise? Like auto dealerships, funeral parlors are also going through consolidation, and their ultimate goal is to own the online obit marketplace. Where will the print obituary fit in the future?
Well, all that new technology is great, but obit sales are about—guess what—relationships between the newspaper and the funeral parlors. They are the advertiser. Newspapers service advertisers, right? What do funeral parlors want from newspapers to keep the process of the print obit from self-destructing like so many other classified categories? How many of these can you check off?
A. Obit-only reps who are well trained, experienced and knowledgeable about their business and who don’t make sloppy errors.
B. Credit policies that work with their business, not against it.
C. After-hours live contacts and late deadlines. Many newspapers have the editorial department take after-hours paid funeral notices.
D. An obit online ad order entry system such as Wave2 or Ad Pay Memoriam that was built for the funeral home’s needs.
E. Practical pricing and immediate quotes.
F. Newspaper management who get involved and treats funeral homes as highly prized advertisers.
Back in the day at the San Jose Mercury News, the annual funeral directors’ dinner was a big event never taken out of the budget. They all knew each other, so it was always well attended and quite the party. Does your newspaper give back like this?
Obit pricing has changed significantly over the years, maybe too much. Earlier this year, I lost my beloved mother at 95-years-young. She was the center of our family life, and her passing, after a long, happy life, still left us all in sadness. As I wrote her obituary, I was right back to 1978 with the order of information I knew so well. Photo. Last name, first name, place and date of death, etc. It was generic and I wanted to do more.
Her great granddaughter had written a letter to her the day before she died, and it was so poignant that I decided to put that in her obit. The online ad order obit system at the paper was extremely functional. My nice, long obit in the Arizona Republic cost $404. It was perfect, although it ran in what seemed like agate type so small I had to use a magnifying glass to read it. Because my family had also lived in San Jose for such a long time, I also went online to the San Jose Mercury News obit ad order entry and placed the same obit, which priced out at more than $1,200 for one day. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Don’t you dare spend that kind of money.” I trimmed it down to the basics, and ended up with a $398 obit. But I was not happy.
I went to my Facebook page and entered the long obit. I heard from almost every friend in San Jose, former co-workers, long-lost boyfriends and many distant cousins. And yes, it was free. Just like it used to be in newspapers.
Will obits go to the online-only world, a world more functional, economical and where you can say as much as you want—where family members can add their comments and as many photos as they like? What can we do so that people will want a print obit down the road? How many families can afford hundreds of dollars to honor their loved ones?
My Facebook page won’t last forever. It will never be regarded as historical. It will probably never get researched in the future. So I would like newspapers to not break their obit success with unreasonable pricing, lack of service and rigid formats. Newspaper archives are the first history for your city or town. It is where historians will research and learn details of the life and death of the everyday people from your community. Where will Ancestry.com and the like continue to cull details about your family tree for future generations to study?
Be proactive. Make a profit, but make a wise profit. Let families say as much as they want. The better the obit, the more your readers will continue to make them the second most-read stories in your paper. Start with a simple small, medium, large and extra large price that any family can afford. Are you brave enough to really own the market with one price, unlimited words obits? How about two photos in every obit—young and old? How about making it standard practice to honor veterans with free obits?
The BOTTOM LINE
Reinvent your obits, colorize them, promote them to younger demographics as a resource to learn about their community. Open up the rules and make obits a real celebration of life. Price them so every family can afford something. You will make it up in volume. Otherwise, be prepared to lose it all when that last baby boomer goes to that big disco in the sky. © Janet DeGeorge 2016
Janet DeGeorge has been president of Classified Executive Training LLC for 15 years. She is a speaker at state and national newspaper conferences, a sales trainer for new managers, inside and outside and online sales reps, as well as a redesigner of your print and online classifieds to create new revenue opportunities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-717-7473.