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Digital obituaries: How publishers meet community needs and drive traffic

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Publishers recognize obituaries as the powerful, legacy content that continues to draw in digital traffic and maintain reader engagement.

In fact, the obituary section on InForum.com, North Dakota’s largest news site, continually outperformed reporters’ stories, ranking in the Top 10 of viewed pieces of content during 2020. During February, obits ranked fourth overall, receiving 11,930 page views and a 47-second average engaged time, according to analytics from Chartbeat.com. For context, the average engaged time for InForum's entire site was only 18 seconds.

Newspapers serving smaller communities have also identified obituaries as high-performing pieces of content.

The obituary section ranked sixth overall on DL-Online.com, which covers Detroit Lakes and surrounding lake communities in Northern Minnesota. During February, obits gained 1,742 page views and 40 seconds average engaged time. Like InForum, DL-Online’s obits average engaged time is significantly higher than the site’s overall time measured at 17 seconds.

Both InForum and DL-Online are news sites owned and operated by Forum Communications Co., a family-owned media and technology company that has been serving the upper Midwest region since 1878.

However, publishers from different media companies also located in the Upper Midwest region report similar results.

“The obits section consistently ranks in the Top 10 pieces of content on a monthly basis,” said Crystal Miller, publisher of The Albert Lea Tribune and the Austin Daily Herald. “In fact, some obits outperform some of our traditional stories.”

Miller also emphasizes that her readers expect to find updated obituaries on a daily basis.

Organic search potential

While reporters’ stories remain the top driver for digital traffic and reader engagement, obits for small and large news sites can provide organic search engine optimization boosts due to their natural searchability, shareability and link-building capabilities.

Google ranks stories by seven factors:

  1. Relevance: Whether the story is relevant to the user’s query. This factor mainly influences what you see in top results.
  2. Interests: The interests readers define based on their previous searches or clicks.
  3. Location: This factor accounts for surfacing local news related to where the reader lives. But it also takes into account regional nuances in search queries.
  4. Prominence : Articles that cover a key topic that is currently trending will have more chances to be surfaced.
  5. Authoritativeness: Search raters heavily influence the signals Google manages when assigning trustworthiness and authoritativeness to a news source. Click-through rates in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) and backlinks also influence this factor.
  6. Freshness : Recent articles can have a higher chance of being surfaced over older articles if they provide additional information.
  7. Usability: As in search results, Google takes into account how usable and accessible a website is to surface their pages in search results. Loading speed, responsive design and cross-browser compatibility are key requirements in this area.

And many of the factors listed above are met, even in a basic obituary that includes the following:

  • The deceased's name, age and city of residence.
  • Name of funeral home hosting memorial services.
  • Address to specific location.
  • Website URL to specific location about upcoming service.

When an individual or a family places a loved one’s obituary, they often include location info — a website URL to the funeral home where the memorial service will be held.

In addition to this info, the deceased’s prominent accomplishments and relationships are published, often with their correlating dates, including wedding dates, births and any relatives’ deaths that preceded the obituary’s namesake. This is all vital information that will be recorded for perpetuity and increase any site’s organic reach.

Obituaries create vital links

Extended family members often expect to see up-to-date obituaries on a news site, and they hope the obits appear in the community newspaper to inform the deceased’s childhood friends, teachers and mentors. By publishing their loved one’s obit on their community’s news site, they can ensure friends or relatives don't see the news of a loved one’s passing on a social media site first. Instead, family can email and text the link to the obituary on a newspaper’s website with relative ease.

Rob Keller, publisher of The Jamestown Sun located in Jamestown, North Dakota, echoes this sentiment in his column “Keeping Life Real” published earlier this year.

He reminds his readers: "... as someone is scrolling 10, 20, 30 years down the road, that message today will be a historical piece of information for others to enjoy."

Newspapers have a long history of publishing a community’s obituaries. In fact, according to howstuffworks.com, newspapers have been publishing obits for more than 250 years.

In recent years, these life stories remain a reader engagement driver for the digital age.

To keep this vital piece of content without creating a drain on a newsroom’s resources, one platform, Modulist.News aims to match its self-service order process with community newspapers to serve readers through an intuitive obit order system, online proofing and payment with real-time customer service. These obits are directly sent to one or multiple media outlets with a single transaction so it will appear online — and, if the family wants, later on in the newspaper’s print edition.

“Our mission is to establish a long-term partnership with our newspaper partners and readers, helping to position them for the future by decreasing production costs and increasing revenue,” said Devlyn Brooks, Modulist’s president.

Modulist integration into a newspaper’s content management system is free, along with the ability to communicate with area funeral directors. Find out more about how it works at Modulist.News/howitworks.

To learn more, contact Devlyn Brooks, president of Modulist, at devlyn@modulist.news.

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