How Legacy.com is turning obits into business

Making money in online publishing is a struggle, but obits site Legacy.com has found new life in e-commerce. Turns out there’s money in mourning.

Anyone who has paid a visit to Legacy.com knows it as a giant repository of online obits. Founded in 1998, Legacy.com carries death announcements from more than 1,500 newspaper partners in the U.S. and abroad, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News, which pay a fee to have obits listed. Those death notices attracted 15.9 million U.S. unique visitors on desktop and mobile in August, a 12 percent increase year-over-year (comScore).

But it’s also increasingly becoming an e-commerce powerhouse, by prompting site visitors to send flowers or give to a charity, and taking a cut of each transaction. In this way, Legacy’s e-commerce revenue has been growing at an annual rate of upwards of 40 percent each of the past five years, according to Kim Evenson, CMO of Legacy.com. E-commerce now matches the ad revenue Legacy.com brings in, making it a significant source of income. (Legacy.com is a private company, and she wouldn’t divulge dollar figures.)

While advertising is often unwelcome, Legacy.com has focused on a service it knows people want, Evenson said. “Being at that place where you’re delivering the most value for the visitor is really the only way to go.”

E-commerce is looking increasingly attractive as a monetization strategy for publishers embattled by limited online advertising budgets, demands of 100 percent ad viewability and now ad blocking. But commerce is tricky. Sticking buy buttons near journalistic content can undermine a publisher’s perceived editorial independence. And unless publishers make a full commitment to fulfilling all parts of the transaction, which few are equipped to do, the typical revenue share from e-commerce is small.

The sensitivity around death would seem to make commerce a tricky proposition; appearing to be shaking down mourners just wouldn’t feel right. While Legacy.com is providing an obvious service to mourners, it’s also sought to make the process easy and tasteful.

It used to have affiliate relationships with flower vendors, for example, pushing consumers who clicked over to a florist’s site to complete a purchase. Today, Legacy.com still leaves the inventory and delivery to the local florist but has enabled the consumer to complete the entire purchase on Legacy.com, where everything from the flower selections to the checkout process is tailored to the memorial giver. Not having to deal with order fulfillment frees Legacy.com to focus on testing things like how many flower arrangements it should display to maximize purchases.

“We handle everything the consumer would touch, but our vendor partners are really good at what they do,” Evenson said.

Beyond taking friction out of the purchase process, Legacy.com also believes that the better the overall site experience, the better its chances of leading people to purchase. To that end, it has a team devoted to weeding out trollish comments from guestbooks. A growing content effort means readers can find articles on funeral etiquette, how to give condolences and stories on notable deaths. The goal is to take advantage of the mindset people are in when they visit the site and explore related areas they may be open to, like views on the meaning of life that Evenson has been collecting.

“Death,” she said, “is one of those things you really want to do right.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.