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Obituaries at a crossroads

Four trends and how newspapers can meet the challenge

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The obituary market is at a crossroads. An aging population will cause death rates to soar for the next decade. Their obituaries will target a transient audience and will be placed by a digital-centric generation with a growing preference for cremation and private-party placement. Newspapers can either prepare their obituary offerings for these new trends and experience massive growth, or they can ignore the shifting market and face continued erosion of what many consider their most vital section and the heart of their community content. iPublish Media Solutions has automated obituary placement for hundreds of newspapers for more than a decade, as the number one intake system in the USA. Here is a list of what we think are fundamental shifts that will transform tomorrow’s obituary marketplace, and how to capitalize on these trends.

TREND # 1
Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are entering the end-of-life stage over the next 20 years.

The number of people passing away in the U.S. will grow by more than 50% from today through the mid-2040s, as the more than 60 million Baby Boomers age through their 70s into their 80s and 90s. Super-growth of obituaries is there for the taking, but only if newspapers respond to rapidly changing customer needs.

TREND #2
Cremations are on the rise.

The demand for cremation is increasing and will exceed 50% of all death care choices by 2035 in all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. The National Funeral Directors Association Cremation and Burial Report (NPNFA) 2021 outlines this new reality: By 2040, the U.S. cremation rate is projected to reach 78.4% versus a burial rate of 16.0%. In Canada the growth in cremations is projected to be even higher: 87.9% versus a burial rate of just 10.9%.*

WHAT DOES THIS DRAMATIC SHIFT IN PREFERENCE FOR CREMATION MEAN FOR NEWSPAPERS?

First, the role of crematoriums in the placement of obituaries will become increasingly important. Not all funeral homes provide cremation in-house, and a growing number of families are selecting direct cremation (the simplest cremation available) often for cost reasons. For newspapers who have not yet directly pursued relationships with crematoriums, reaching out to this market is critical.

Second, the demand for private-party placement of obituaries will also increase. A growing number of families choosing direct cremations also have “some type of memorialization event involving family and friends — without the services of a funeral director,” the report notes. These families are also placing their own obituaries directly with the newspapers, who need to make this process easier.

*Source: 2021 National Funeral Directors Association Cremation and Burial Report

Finally, newspapers need to consider price sensitivity and meet community needs with cost-efficient obituary options.

TREND #3
Boomers are the first transient generation.

People of all ages are “on the move” these days, thanks to options created by the new remote economy. Baby boomers, however, are unique: they are the first generation likely to have changed cities at least once. Many are now moving a third time, by the hundreds of thousands. Both retirement and soaring home values give Boomers the freedom to relocate. According to Pew Research Center, 2 million boomers a year have retired since 2011; that number that increased to 3.2 million people in 2020, when they began resigning from jobs at record levels and cashing in on massive home appreciation. Many used the money to downsize and/or buy second homes in vacation-oriented cities (Forbes, 2020). On top of that, their children and grandchildren are also more transient — so friends, family, colleagues and other connections are in more than one place. The result is, it is quickly becoming more important than ever to place obituaries to be discovered and read in multiple cities — which is a complex task for all concerned, including funeral homes.

THE INDUSTRY NEEDS SERVICES TO ADDRESS THESE CHANGING NEEDS.

TREND #4
Loved ones placing obituaries are increasingly digital-centric.

The generation of digital natives is now responsible for memorializing the Boomers who will pass away in the next decade. They are very comfortable with self-serve options, and the first death notice they write is typically a social media post. They may appreciate a supportive call center that can supply guidance for what goes into an obituary, but they do not “need help” buying online. Newspapers need to make it easy for them and meet high expectations for the online customer experience.

To illustrate the scope of this opportunity: Data from iPublish shows that a full 45% of the obits being placed through the Deseret News digital portal in 2021 were from individual private-party customers.

Consider that the person who places an obituary today may never have interacted with a newspaper before and so are forming a new relationship during a profound passage in their adult life. The link to their obituary may be sent to dozens of friends and the print version kept as a family treasure. The role of the newspaper in the community is reaffirmed with every obituary that is published. Many may not even realize that obituaries are often paid content. Education is equally important with this changing buyers group.

Today, these four trends create multiple opportunities that demand the industry give obituaries new consideration. Is the family’s paid obituary published in a place of honor both in the paper and online? Can friends and family globally find it easily? Could they place it easily? Did they get the options they needed? If they were on a budget, were they offered affordable options?

It’s time for newspapers to ask the question:

Are you cementing your role in the community as the source of obituaries to document and commemorate loved ones forever in the minds of your readers, their children and extended families?

THE OBITUARY BUSINESS FOR NEWSPAPERS WILL BE WON OR LOST BY THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION.

Maximizing these trends for your community and your bottom line: Some of the solutions to the industry’s new challenges are easy to implement and cost effective. Others require more thought and commitment. Success starts with a great online order-entry platform. Self-service and easy order entry is considered an essential option by both funeral homes and private parties and used by hundreds of newspapers throughout the country. The process needs to be simple, effective and work. It is the first step in the obituary process — one that companies such as Hearst Newspapers are reinventing, working with iPublish to build even better user experiences. We believe it is a commitment worth making. As Stephen Segal, the content director at Legacy. com and a former newspaper editor himself, pointed out in a seminal article on the topic for National Newspaper Association, obituaries may be the most undervalued section of the newspaper. While they are not as sexy as an investigative story, they consistently get the traffic, whether the notices are paid or not, and are an essential community service. “Who died today? That question and its answer are about as fundamental and compelling as local news can be,” Segal writes, and he is right.

Continued in the America's Newspapers Solutions Newsletter:
Six best practices to turn obit trends into new business

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