To say that we live in “interesting” times would be a gross understatement. Rising cremation rates, tighter margins, more fragmented families choosing to do nothing, employees who see this as a 9 to 5 job instead of a professional calling….some days it must feel like the perfect storm has hit your funeral home.
Over the years I have successfully applied my marketing principles in 15 different industries. I have been able to do this following a simple three step process; 1) understand the customer, 2) understand the unique product or service my client is offering, and 3) create marketing that facilities the buying process by providing them the information they need to make a good decision.
When I took on my first funeral home client, 12 years ago, we applied my principles and the business grew. However, the specific strategies we used in 2003 will not work today. Why?
Have the needs of the family fundamentally changed? No.
Has your ability to deliver a meaningful memorial service changed? No.
Has the buying process changed? Absolutely!
If you want to know why your marketing no longer works, it’s because in the last few years the way people buy things has changed dramatically. This is not a funeral home specific problem, this change has impacted every industry.
The root cause of this major change in our society……the internet. More specifically, it is the ubiquitous access to search engines, videos, review sites, social media sites, and billions of webpages. The internet has fundamentally changed the way people buy everything.
People used to go to a travel agency to book their vacations. Now they go to TripAdvisor.com, Travelocity.com, Hotwire.com and a dozen other sites where they can plan and book their dream vacation without talking to a real person.
People used to open the Yellow Pages book to find a local business. Now they go to Google.
People used to ask their friends and neighbors for recommendations. Now they look at ratings on Yelp, Google, and Facebook.
People used to access the internet from their home or office. Now, thanks to smart phones and nationwide 4G coverage, they access it everywhere (including in your arrangement room).
My marketing strategy is still focussed on facilitating the buying process by providing valuable educational content. However, where we provide the content has changed from the arrangement room to the internet. Today’s families make their decisions based upon your website, your blog posts, your Facebook page, and your reviews. Sadly, if no local funeral home provides the necessary educational content the family resorts to a very simple criteria….price.
On a side note, I’ve heard a few industry insiders refer to the funeral industry as “declining”. Frankly, I believe they are completely wrong. It’s not declining….it’s changing. There is a huge difference!
The death rate is not declining and the baby boomer wave is still coming. Granted there are fewer people interested in a casket and traditional funeral. However if you are willing to change your business model there is a huge opportunity.
Continue reading to learn the three keys to marketing your funeral home in our internet driven world.
Key #1 – Be Different (and Better)
Do you have too many telephone prices shoppers? Do you ever have a family come in and make arrangements, say they need to think about it, and end up going to a competitor who undercut your price. Most funeral home would answer yes to both questions.
The reason this is happening to you is very simple. From the perspective of that family you are no different than your competition. You are both traditional funeral homes. You both offer funeral and cremation services. You both seem professional. Unless you can give them a really good reason to choose you it’s only logical that they would go with the lowest price.
In 2013 Alan Creedy, funeral industry analyst and strategic consultant, held a two day Blue Ocean workshop. The concepts taught at the workshop were based on the very successful book “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.
The basic concept of the book is that in a competitive market businesses operate like sharks fighting over a very limited food supply, thus creating a bloody red ocean. However, if a business is willing to innovate and create a true differentiation they can move away from the sharks and out to the blue ocean. Businesses that go through this transformation find that they have far fewer price shoppers and their revenues grow because they are delivering more value to their customers.
Alan’s workshop was held at The Smith Funeral Homes and Event Centers in MaryVille, TN. This was a perfect location because this is a business that has truly created their own blue ocean. Do a Google search on the name and check out their websites. You will very quickly get a sense that this is not a typical funeral home business.
One of my favorite examples is Don Carson at Carson & Son Funeral Home in Maquoketa, IA. Working with a more modest budget, Don wasn’t in the position to create an entire event center. Instead he modeled his renovations after a comfortable coffee shop that he and his wife had visited while on vacation. He remodeled a room which had a separate entrance and called it The Bistro at Carson & Son.
The Bistro was an instant hit with families but business really took off when Don began offering his unique One Last Party ™ services at The Bistro. He has since added One Last Toast ™, One Last Ride ™, One Last Round ™ and many more service packages. Don has created options for families who were not interested in a traditional funeral but still wanted to hold some form of event.
The reality is that when a family says they do not want a funeral that does not mean they don’t want to do anything. It simply means that they do not want a traditional funeral. If you do not have something else to offer them they will go to a local restaurant or country club and have their memorial event without your help.
It’s important to understand that you do not have to spend millions of dollars on renovations to become unique in your market. With some minor changes, creative packaging and good marketing most funeral homes could make this transformation and create their own blue ocean.
Key #2 – Learn about Inbound Marketing
The second key to succeeding in our new internet drive world is to learn and adopt the principles of Inbound Marketing. This may be a completely new term to most readers so I will start with a brief overview.
Traditional Marketing involves using various advertising media to put your message in front of your prospective families and hoping that they will call you when they need you. For most funeral homes their traditional marketing involves putting a large ad in the Yellow Pages book, an ad in a few church bulletins, an ad in the obituary section of the newspaper, maybe a radio or TV ad, and maybe a few online ads as well.
The problem is that in today’s world no one sees your ads anymore. Seriously, when is the last time you looked in a phone book? The circulation of newspapers has dropped dramatically. Families record TV and skip over the commercials or watch it on Netflix or Amazon commercial free, they listen to music from iTunes on their iPhone and they are extremely annoyed when you try to interrupt them with advertising.
By the way, this problem is not unique to the funeral home industry. All businesses are finding that traditional marketing and advertising has become less and less effective. Leading business of all kinds (including funeral homes) have begun to make the shift to Inbound Marketing.
At the core, Inbound Marketing is about creating great content that people actually like and delivering it to them where they spend their time. The content can be inspiring, helpful, educational or any combination as long as people actually like it. The most popular delivery mechanism today is the internet specifically your website, blog and social media.
As you create and publish good content the social networking aspect of the internet kicks in and suddenly your number of followers grows and people share your content with their friends and family. When done properly Inbound Marketing creates a community of people who follow your content and come to know, like and trust you. It’s the modern version of joining your local Rotary club except that you have the potential to connect with a much larger group with a lot less effort.
A great example in the funeral home industry is our friends at Carson & Son (no big surprise there). When you go to CarsonAndSon.com you are immediately offered 5 Powerful Grief Poems in exchange for your email address. If you page down on the website you will be invited to “Don’t miss a thing: Follow us on Facebook”.
This strategy has lead to their Facebook page having 1,800 followers. Imagine if you were the only funeral home owner in a Rotary club with 1,800 members and you had a good relationship with every person. Do you think you might have a pretty good call volume?
Inbound Marketing is not rocket science but it is not trivial either. I will be presenting at both the ICCFA and NFDA conventions this year on the topic of Inbound Marketing. I will also be posting a lot of new content on my website on this topic. I am absolutely convinced that this is the future of funeral home marketing!
In the meantime, pick up a copy of “Inbound Marketing: Attract, Engage and Delight Customers Online” by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. This is one of the best books on Inbound Marketing out there. Be sure to get the second edition because a lot has changed since they first wrote it in 2010.
Key #3 – Find Your Cause
The third key to marketing your funeral home in a changing industry is find your cause. You have become unique by innovating your business and you have started to build your own community through Inbound Marketing. Now your community is looking for you to lead them. But where?
One cause every funeral home should care about is teaching the public the value of the funeral experience. Whether you call it a funeral, or a farewell ceremony, or a One Last Party ™ does not matter. The important thing is to help people understand how this event can meet their basic human need to gather together, mourn the loss and support each other. The general public does not understand this but you do, so it’s time to teach them.
You can get even more traction in your marketing when you can make the cause about something much bigger than funeral education. idrivetextfree.com is an amazing example of how a funeral home can be the catalyst for social change. Fred Cook from Cook Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Grandville, MI developed this concept in response to a rising number of teenagers dying while texting and driving. Check out the video on his website and you will understand the power of championing this type of cause. This is not what you would consider traditional marketing but it is a great example of using social media to change society and save lives.
Have you ever seen a funeral director receive a standing ovation? Maybe from other funeral directors but how about from the public? Go to YouTube and search on “Brian Flowers Bellingham”. Brian works with Moles Farewell Tributes in Bellingham, WA . He is also the past president of the Green Burial Council and the visionary behind The Meadow Natural Burial Grounds, the first certified natural burial ground in Western Washington state. The video is of a short 6 minute speech Brian gave in a recent public forum.
Brian could have just talked about the beautiful ground at The Meadow and he might have even sold a few plots but he set his sights much higher. He begins by highlighting the inherent flaw in “I don’t care”, meaning I don’t care what you do with me after I’m dead and then takes on the minimalist approach of direct cremation before presenting the ecological advantages of green burial.
Next Brian goes on to paint his vision for green burial in their area. He describes the creation of a destination death and dying center in conjunction with a green burial ground where families can come together to craft their own meaningful rituals, ceremonies and celebrations. His vision includes an on-sight hospice, lodging for families, an educational conference center and a unique funding method so that these resources would be available to all instead of just an elite few. And in the end….a standing ovation because he passionately shared his cause with his audience.
If you are having a hard time coming up with an idea for a cause you could champion here is an idea that I would love to see funeral homes embrace. What if your cause was to preserve the life story of the families you serve? And, that you told those stories by periodically writing an amazing life story instead of a standard obituary. Do a Google search on “Harry Stamps obituary” and you will find articles on CNN, CBS and other media outlets talking about how this obituary went viral and was shared over 16,000 times.
Rather than spending money on newspaper ads, hire someone to write this kind of obituary every few weeks, publish through your social media channels and watch your number of followers go through the roof. You will have a whole community of people who love reading your upgraded obituaries and will look forward to the next edition.
One last thing to consider regarding having a cause….baby boomers love it! The same generation that gave you Vietnam protests is headed your way and they are automatically attracted to social causes. Even if they do not fully agree with your cause they will respect you for taking a stand.
The internet is literally changing every industry in the world right now. It is changing the way we shop, the way we connect with each other and the way we gather information. This is a major, fundamental shift which no business owner has the power to stop.
As a funeral home owner you have a choice. You can ignore the change in our society and accept that your slice of the funeral industry truly is declining. In which case you may want to start forming your exit strategy.
Or, you can innovate your business, adopt a new model of marketing and join the online conversation. People used to talk over backyard fences, now they talk online and you are invited to join the conversation. If you want to be relevant to future generations, now is the time to take action.
by John Callaghan, FuneralSuccess.com