The article I wrote about Tributes.com, titled Serious Money is Coming to Online Obits. And Why it Won’t Work., has generated a lot of discussion lately.  I’d like to share my own thoughts on the words offered by several readers.

Dale Clock, of the Lifestory Network of funeral homes, shares:

…we open the paper and scan them over to see who died.  We aren’t looking for a specific name, we’re looking for a name we might know.  So how do you do that nationwide?  I don’t want to scan every death that happened yesterday.  I’d need to narrow the list down by location. And if the list is incomplete then it’s no good to me.  So unless they can get every paper and/or every funeral home on board it’s not an option for me.

Another reader, Jodi, notes:

Jeff Taylor is a brilliant and innovative individual,(I had the opportunity to visit with him personally) – in his niche. His niche is not funerals. Yes, he changed the face of how people look for a career, and even made what was the standard of job hunting obsolete. Funeral service is a different animal and his customer base…the funeral director / industry is not looking to add to their already high overhead, they are looking to lower it.

Yes – a national achieve would be great, but realistically, even if it was free, I doubt you would find funeral home owners participating.

Both Dale and Jodi run funeral homes on a daily basis.  In her comments, Jodi tells us that she tried to start a similar service when she worked for Lifefiles.com.  Her insight, as a funeral director and past Internet vendor, is unique.

Later, Respectance.com co-founder, Richard Derks, offered his perspective:

Your arguments are totally right from an industry point of view. But I for one, dare to claim that the industry is not always the best to know what their clients need. They might indeed be more concerned with their way of running a business, than with listening and researching the market.

In the end (!), some will embrace us, and these people and companies will be the leaders of tomorrow. Otherwise, there would never have been Starbucks, iPods and wii.

He also shares that I’ve gotten some information about his company wrong.  I researched and found that I misunderstood the venture capital press releases his company has sent to several online news aggregates.  Rather than adding $1.5 millon to their original capital of $250,000, they have merely gathered a TOTAL of $1.5 million to fund their company.  I’ve corrected it in the post.

On his own blog at Respectance.com, he presents his case in a post titled Finally, Embrace New Ideas:

Funeral Home Companies are deciding what people need, and how they will provide the services. They are intractable on this point. It’s all about the profit margin (and as a business person myself I understand profit), but without innovation this industry is being left behind.

There are memorial websites that charge $300-$500 to set up a tribute. Absolutely crazy. At Respectance people do it for free. They control their tributes and a simple Google search lets everyone find the tribute.

Tim points out that at heart we are still small town people. Now I will agree that we might feel like small town people, but most of us don’t live in a small town any more! Many don’t live where they grew up, some move several times as adults and establish friendships and acquaintances throughout the world. We don’t get the daily paper from each town we have friends in.

The premise that we like to peruse obits in the paper may be true, but we don’t get the papers anymore. In this big small world, we get our news instantaneously. Without emails from people I wouldn’t know whether someone had died half way around the world.

Remembering friends and loved ones with online memorials are the way the world is heading. The sooner the old guard in the Funerary Business tune in the farther ahead they will be.

After reading his words here, I knew I had to share an industry perspective with him.  Here’s the comment I left on his blog:

Thank you for your kind words on my blog.  I’m glad you can see the funeral industry’s side on this issue.  As usual, consumers will drive the online memorial market and will do a better job than funeral directors can.

But while you admonish directors for their unwillingness to embrace the global aspects of this issue, it’s important to remember that the funeral industry, at least the nuts-and-bolts part of preparing and burying/cremating the dead, is very much a local industry.  And the majority of funeral homes in this country still deal directly with customers who have known them for years and chosen them based upon a personal relationship.  For that reason, the industry is still very “small town” and will remain so for a long time.

Yes, there is a part of our future that includes living much of life online, but many smaller sized funeral homes are not even on the Internet (either having a website or even having high-speed access!) and don’t see a need for it.

In truth, sites like yours provide a very important service to those who have chosen to make the Internet a part of their everyday life:  you provide the opportunity to share the information and emotions of loss with others who are similarly connected to the Internet.

But your love of the Internet and the amount of time you spend on it cannot simply be transferred, like downloading an iTune, to someone who doesn’t “get it” yet.

There ARE still people who get the newspaper.  Even many Internet-savvy folks in my neighborhood get the digital version of their local paper and peruse the obituaries.

I think one of the biggest issues of Internet connectivity, at least for this industry, is keeping it local.  How do we use the Internet to augment our local connections?  How do we use our websites and online obituaries to connect, as funeral homes, to our community?

I still sense a tone of anger at capitalist funeral directors who expect to make a profit from their work.
Fortunately, I know that money paid for services represents the value a family sees in the time, effort and skill expended on their behalf.  On average, a funeral director spends several years in school and apprenticeship, only to emerge into a profession that pays less than $50,000 a year to work long hours (many, many 2 am trips to the hospital and countless more evenings spent at the funeral home for viewings after long days in the office) and miss major family events.

And if a funeral director is fortunate enough to build up savings and open her own firm, there’s even more responsibility and expenses before any real cash starts flowing.

The business model for a funeral home (and any service business, for that matter) requires a certain amount of work to be done for each dollar made.  Internet companies are able to attract large amounts of investment capital because webservices require a lot less management after an intensive initial setup.

The sad truth for new services like yours is that most funeral directors know how to do their job and they know what pays the bills.  They know that overhead stays the same no matter whether they provide 20 funerals a month or 2 a year.  Because there’s such a big risk involved in negatively affecting the stream of funerals coming in, most directors are slow to change their formulas for success.

Haranguing a funeral director for being “intractable” or warning them that they’ll be “left behind” does not help and will usually, at least among the “old guard” funeral directors I know, elicit a laugh and a dismissing wave of the hand.  After that, you get ignored.

I admire the service you provide for your clientele.  But relying upon funeral directors to spread the word about your service, when there’s no real return on the expenditure of their time, strikes me as foolhardy.

Keep up the good work.  Your service is necessary (evidenced by the number of people who already use it) and beautifully designed.

I certainly hope that Richard understands the angle from which I approach this issue.  I am speaking as a member of the industry, not as a consumer, when I protest the strong words he directs at funeral directors.  I doubt that he is expressing anything more malicious than frustation that the industry is so slow to react.  Unfortunately, Internet technologies have encouraged many businesspeople to expect an immediate response, since such a response is often the case.

But that instantaneous response is mostly driven by consumers, not industry.  Excoriating the funeral industry for sticking with what has worked for 100 years is a lot like banging your head against a brick wall:  they wall is not damaged and you’ve got nothing to show for it but a headache.

I think Respectance.com is a highly-effective consumer site.  Unfortunately, Tributes.com is trying to be an industry-driven site, where revenues are generated from funeral homes.  I wonder if Tributes.com will run their own obituary or if someone will have to set up a Respectance.com memorial for them?

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