local media insider
Case study

Star Tribune takes obits inhouse

Results from running obits on an inhouse platform

Posted
Does an in-house platform for obituaries pay off?

Company: Minneapolis Star Tribune

Initiative: Bringing obits inhouse

Challenge: Legacy is the most universally adopted platform for online newspaper obituaries. And it is almost unheard of for a company using the platform to terminate the agreement and go their own way.... until the Minneapolis Star Tribune took the bold step.

One reason Legacy has been so successful  is that obituaries are still one of the strongest categories for newspapers; and if it ain't broke... well there are a lot of other things to fix.

At the Minneapolis Star Tribune, however, while obituaries were a a very strong category,  management  took a different approach. They wanted to take early measures to protect the franchise as signs around the the edges of the category indicated new options, voices and relationships may form in the future.

“Obituaries are stable and growing. We asked how do we ensure that it stays that way... You might look at (such a successful franchise) and ask why would you change?” executives said. 

"(We want) to come at it from a position of strength, rather than waiting and being reactionary, chasing that category while the market moves away."

One option was to bring obituaries inhouse, ensuring that the newspaper would be able to problem-solve in the space at its own pace with full control.

But would they also be able to provide what the market wanted and needed on their own?

Strategy: Preparing to create a new strategy was a multi-step process that involved  several steps of research first:

1. Researching the numbers for death rates and market penetration

2. Interviewing the sales team that worked with obituaries

3. Interviewing funeral directors

A report was created for all the changes suggested by this research. Taken one by one:

1. Analyzing all the numbers. To really understand the business, managers needed to see trends, market share and adoption of projects. So the first set of numbers answered these questions:

 


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• What is the number of funeral homes?

• What are historical revenues, broken down between commercial and private party, then broken down by products?

• What are the death rates (taken from the county) and how to they correlate to obituaries posted?

• What are current call volumes and closing rates?

• What is the penetration in selling funeral homes in our markets?

2. Interviewing the sales team

Once the overall market was identified, the management team “sat down and interviewed the team of reps that handles the obits phones and talked to them about feedback they are getting.“

3. Focus group around funeral directors

The finally step was a professionally facilitated focus group of funeral home directors to talk about what they needed that they were not getting. “This was the third piece of the puzzle.”

The biggest take away from the focus group with funeral home directors – the big 'aha' – was that the homes trusted the Star Tribune and wanted  to continue the relationship. They were  especially happy that the newspaper was reaching out, and did not feel they had a relationship with the technology platform provider. 

“We don't have to partner. These are our advertisers and our brand. We felt very good about that. So when we circled back to say 'Here is phase one,' they were thrilled and overwhelmingly positive.”

As a result, the team came up with a sweeping set of changes: 

• They severed the relationship with Legacy
• Worked on a redesign
• Readjusted pricing and packaging
• Changed the site navigation

The new obituaries section charges $10.95 a line for the first day, and $6.60 a line for additional days, including print, online and a free guestbook, In Memoriams. The site, which is still undergoing design changes, has two main areas, Today's Obituaries, and an area to search or place an obituary, and to search or place a permanent guestbook-style page, called "in Memoriam":



Obituary listings are similar to those in the newspapers, except that they can use color pictures and links. Advertisers on the site buy-out the top half of the page - a leaderboard and right hand box, sold to the Cremation Society: 

 

There is also a simple "Advice and support" area to help people know how to write their obituary, plan a funeral or find a grief counselor - the practical logistics that families face when a member dies:

Finally, a free guestbook lets users post and share stories and memories:

Results: Even though mortality rates are significantly down, revenues are flat to down slightly, since January.

Executives at the Star Tribune say unhooking from Legacy had a positive impact in terms of revenues per obituary. 

Additionally, the digital inventory in the obituary channel is sold out. 

Our take: There are a number of aspects to like about this initiative. First, the advance research was well done, allowing them to move forward towards their main constituency in an informed way. By the time the new initiative was launched, key requests from the marketplace had been met.  Best practice for local media today is to conduct this kind of overview on the franchise to ensure that revenues are fully actualized and to secure relationships with funeral homes. 

Taking obits inhouse, however, requires a solid programming team. The good news is that it does not have to be a huge team to simply pull off the changes here. The basic structure of the obituary listings - and the guest book - at the Star Tribune is a simple one. There are no selections of fancy backgrounds, and orders must be emailed or taken by phone rather than self-entry. So on the plus side, the platform is simple for older people to use.  Many of the whistles and bells provided by more advanced sites (adding a musical theme, colored backgrounds and souped up social invites) are often lost on the demographic that is using them. 

The pre-work was done about a year prior to launch, and the core programming team at the media company supplemented by hiring overseas. “The talent is out there. You can outsource and find programmers if you have a strategy.”

But going it alone is not for all companies - keeping up-to-date with advances in the franchise such as online order-taking and memorial sites with extra options for audio and video - make third party partners a more realistic alternative for most companies. 


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