local media insider
Case study

How Bay Area News Group tripled obituary revenues

Step-by-step plan to grow a critical category over several years

Alisa Cromer
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Media: Bay Area News Group
Owner: Digital First Media

Initiative: Obituary growth
Key executive: Liz Naughton, Community Information Sales Manager

Summary: In 2007, Bay Area News Group decide to reorganize legals and obituaries as a department to grow their franchise. By 2014, the initiative has paid off by tripling obit revenues from $2 million to $7 million.

Strategy: To focus on legals and obits, the newspaper started by creating the new position of Community Information Sales Manager and tapped call center manager, Liz Naughton, for the job. The steps used to grow the department evolved over the years, starting with a redesign to make the section more appealing to readers, then reaching out to new stakeholders and taking advantage of technological options:

1. Setting up relationships with funeral homes
.

At the start of the new program, most of the area's 140 funeral homes -75 of which are full service - had not even been visited by the newspaper. Funeral home support would be critical to growing the franchise. 

Naughton set out to contact and visit them all and created relationships  with nearly all of them. As the project expanded an outside sales rep was hired to assist.

The calls were highly informational rather than sales-oriented. 

"Our goal was to avoid rules and keep it simple. Newspapers are notorious for rules surrounding obits. So we stayed away from the negatives and went for a positive 'tell us what you want' approach," Naughton said.

Discussions center around the newspaper and funeral home communications which are on-going. Most funeral homes prefer only 1-2 visits per year.


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2. Creating a planning brochure.

To simplify information funeral homes give to families purchasing obituaries, the Bay Area News Group created a planning brochure for obituaries (attached above) including a writing guide.

Some families follow the writing guide to the tee, and funeral homes call the paper when brochures run out.

Having brochures helped funerals homes explain options and guide obituary writing is considered a best practice. Other newspapers have since copied the idea (see brochure attached).

3. Self-serve order-entry for funeral home partners. 

To create a front end system for funeral home order-taking, the Bay Area News Group selected Wave2 Media Solutions, a platform that uploads the ads to both the print product and online. The funeral homes can sit with families to create obituaries using the system which loads them directly into the newspaper front end and Legacy. 

The order-entry platform is also white-labeled to match the brochure.

The first year goal for signing up funeral homes to the service was 35% of the 140 homes in the market.

To train funeral home directors and staff, Naughton held a series of workshops on using the platform, sometimes at the funeral homes.

4. Logos in obits.

A chief request from funeral directors had been to allow their contact information to run in the obits for free. Families did not want to have to pay to show the logo of the funeral home in the obituary. So Naughton secured internal approval to give logos away for free to the funeral homes using the Wave2 platform. Families liked it, and so did the funeral homes.

At one very large funeral home, Naughton made a presentation to all the directors about the new program, including the new logos, which were perceived as free advertising. 

"When I told them they were going to get the free logo in every obituary, the manager stood up and said to the group of directors, 'An obit is going to be offered to ever person who walks through the door. I want to see our logo all over that page. It drove business for them as well.'"

An additional benefit of free logos is that it is one of the few ways the newspaper can reward participating homes.

"They can't ask for a cut (of obituary revenues) because of their code of ethics. They must disclose everything - all discounts and costs they have - to the family," Naughton explained.

"Early on I made a very big mistake; I went to a one of the biggest funeral homes, and said I'd like to do something for you, and I've thinking about a rebate program at the end of the year. He was insulted. He told me, 'You need to know that we will never make money at the expense of our families.'"

Including logos free in all obituaries taken via the funeral homes was an easy way to provide an extra benefit that fell within the ethical guidelines. It is also incentive for the funeral home to place more obits.

5. More advantages to the funeral homes: Better pricing and exclusivity for the first few years of the self-serve platform.

While some newspapers have chosen to start online entry for private parties before reaching and offering it to funeral homes, Naughton's approach was the reverse.

Wave2 was not implemented for private parties for several years, until the relationship with funeral homes using Wave2 regularly was well-established and they understood the newspapers' commitment to receiving the majority of ads from homes was long term.

Today, when people call in for an obituary and want to discuss pricing, the staff still  tells them that the lowest price they will get for an obituary is from the funeral home. This also reinforces the relationship between the newspaper and the funeral homes.

6. Adding the private party online self-serve option with a higher price. 

Two years ago, with funeral homes contented and fully participating, Naughton opened up the private party option for obituaries. 

"The reason we waited is that it was important to establish the relationship with the funeral homes and have them own it for a while."

7. Tracking new metrics: Percentage of self-serve to total obits.

Once the percentage of funeral homes engaged in the program was substantial, Naughton shifted focus from tracking funeral home participation, to tracking the number of obits that are self-serve overall, with the goal of increasing the % every year.

The reasons are three fold:

• Self-serve obits generate more revenues per obituary even with a lower price.

• Staff can be reduced. 

• Self-entry eliminates corrections and mistakes. The team still proofreads the private party ads, but make-goods were virtually eliminated.

Naughton has also attempted to assess their overall obits/deaths market share, however the information is difficult to meaasure due to variables. For example, obituary volume is lower in impoverished markets and cultural traditions play an important part. There are cultures (and religions) that do not use obituaries. In the end she obtained information on death rates from the state and county health departments. The value of this information is yet to be determined.

8. Upgrading to New Generations.

Upgrading to Legacy's Next Generation, while more expensive, significantly improved the appearance of the online ads, Naughton said.

Another significant upgrade is that the Next Generation's guest book is a lifetime purchase rather than a year. Previously expiring guest books required families to incur another expense, which typically meant fewer people upgraded. The new platform also allows obits to link to the funeral home website without a charge for the first time.

Naughton said the upgrade was worth the cost.

Results: 

• Revenues have increased from $2 million to $7 million per year, since 2007.

• Funeral home participation has risen from 30% in the original year to 82%.

• Staffing the was reduced 40% from five coordinators to three. 

"We don't take as many obituaries through an obituary coordinator but there is still a large volume of people who need their hand held, even the funeral homes. Today the obit desk is more of a help desk."

• 78% of all obituaries are now placed through the Wave2 platform.

• The money spent per obit has significantly increased with the self-serve option, in spite of the lower price. 

In June of 2014, for example, the average cost of an obit was $786, while the cost of an obit submitted using the Wave2  platform averaged $814, or about $20 more per obit. Private party self-serve ads are the highest yield, followed by obits from funeral homes. 

Full service obits - orders taken by an obit ccordinator - average lower cost, in spite of a higher price, at around $690. The company now takes about 1,000 obits per month.

• Revenues in June grew from $574,000 to $709,000, with about 70 fewer obits for the month.

Lessons learned:

• If Naughton had to do it over again, she said she would prefer obituaries to come in as liner ads, rather than PDF's. "A problem on our side prevented doing them as liners."

• The call on a funeral home is not a traditional sales call. "You can't call on them more than twice a year.  It's more sensitive ... tell me how you are feeling what do you need. Then listen very carefully."

• Self-serve ads in general raises the value and size of obituaries.

"The increases are driven by larger obits placed. They are making them bigger."

•  Death rates are highest in January and lowest in August. It is a good idea to avoid calling on funeral homes in December and January.

• Obituaries are subject to socio-economic factors and cultural traditions

• Naughton still worries about future drifts in obituary behavior. "Are we going to see some erosion to Facebook as younger people move into the market? Of course we are."

Wave2 also improved the quality of images. "WAVE2 is exceptional on image production. We can't replicate without having an artist work on it."

• "The funeral home is your best ally. They are recommending what the family should do. If you have a good relationship, they are going to offer obits."

Many thanks to Liz Naughton for sharing her expertise with us. 

Alisa Cromer

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.


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