Facebook: Friend or Foe of the Newspaper Obituary?

On December 12, 2010, the New England Patriots came to Soldier Field in Chicago for a game against the hometown Bears. It was supposed to be a marquee matchup between two teams with outstanding records and Super Bowl potential. The news of the day was the approaching winter storm and whether it would favor the Patriots or the Bears. Game time conditions were nasty – snow, 26 m.p.h. winds, and a temperature of 9 degrees with the wind chill. 

But as the first half came to a close, the outcome was no longer in doubt. New England led 33-0. The Bears played as though the conditions had caught them by surprise. New England quarterback Tom Brady, known for his relentless study and preparation, had one of his most dominant performances of the season. The Patriot offense moved the ball at will, racking up 273 yards of offense vs. the Bears’ 33. Their play calling seemed to keep the Bears off balance – epitomized by the final play of the first half, when with just seconds remaining, Brady surprised the defense with a 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired.

The weather, it turns out, did not favor either team. The winter storm was just doing what winter storms do. The Patriots simply accepted the conditions they were presented with and executed a game plan that took full advantage of them.

But what does this have to do with Facebook, obituaries, and newspapers?

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Legacy.com has built a company helping newspapers, and the funeral homes they serve, bring obituaries “to life” online by enabling users to sign guest books, upload photos, donate to charity, send flowers, and pay tribute in other ways. As its CEO, I am sometimes asked:

“Is Facebook the biggest threat to newspaper obituaries today?”

The question makes sense. After all, Facebook recently became the most trafficked site on the Internet, and its members regularly notify each other of deaths and pay tribute to friends who have passed away. This activity fits with Facebook’s mission of giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected.

My answer: Greatest potential threat? Yes, absolutely. They certainly have reach and traffic that put them miles ahead of anyone else who might seek to replace newspapers as the publication of record for obituaries. But does Facebook intend to do this? We don’t know, and at this time they may not either.

But rather than speculating about things we don’t know and can’t control, here’s what we believe we do know. Facebook has never stated that it seeks to be a player in the obituary space. It has however consistently said it desires to connect the world and make it more open. And while it is succeeding, much work remains. Penetration among the U.S. adult population is growing rapidly, but it’s still below 50%. And then there’s China. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg told CNBC recently about his trip to that country, “How can you connect the whole world if you leave out 1.6 billion people?” We believe that it is safe to assume that Facebook will continue its ambitious pursuit to connect more and more people, and to make the world a more “open” place. And with increasing numbers of people adopting Facebook, more people will use it to announce news of deaths, console the bereaved, and pay tribute to the deceased.

Our goal is to help these users incorporate information-rich newspaper obituaries and guest books into that experience – so that in every case where a life is remembered on Facebook, users will find a link back to the obituary and guest book on the newspaper site that originally published it – and to the funeral home handling the arrangements. In doing so, newspapers’ role as publication of record is reinforced, and the reach of the newspaper obituary further expands, finding and benefitting users who may not have otherwise logged onto a newspaper website.  

In fact, this is already happening. Visitors to any obituary or guest book in the Legacy.com network of 800+ newspaper sites can easily “share” such content via Facebook. And users who visit a Legacy.com-affiliated newspaper site and sign a guest book can post the entry to the newspaper site and their Facebook page simultaneously. And the 14 million monthly visitors to our newspaper affiliate sites can be notified via their Facebook page about updates to any obituaries or guest books of importance to them. The results have been significant. More than one million times in December alone, users clicked back to a newspaper obituary or guest book directly via a link posted on a Facebook page, driving incremental online newspaper readership.

And this is just the start. Early in 2011, we will introduce three innovative offerings that will bring to Facebook users new ways to access and consume newspaper obituary content and connect with others who share their loss. A large and active Facebook community makes this possible, and the beneficiaries will be newspapers, funeral homes, Facebook users, and anyone grieving a loss or paying tribute to a life.

So, whether Facebook is a “friend” or “foe” isn’t the relevant question. Facebook is metaphorically the powerful winter storm heading toward Soldier Field. It will likely produce snow, wind, and cold, but it isn’t taking sides in the particular game being played. If ignored, it could be disruptive and even paralyzing – for newspaper obituaries, and for other traditional newspaper content. But with the right game plan and execution, it presents new opportunities that didn’t exist before, with exciting possibilities, making the real question for each of us: How will we best capture these opportunities?

About Stopher Bartol

I was the first employee of Legacy.com in 1998. Among other things, this means that during the early years I attempted, through necessity, to do just about every job at the company – with some outcomes better than others! Fortunately we soon built an experienced team like no other company of our kind. And now as CEO, I spend most of my time helping shape our strategic direction. I was raised in Sun Prairie, WI, and attended Beloit College in Wisconsin before receiving my MBA from the University of Chicago. After 9 valuable years in consulting with McKinsey & Company, I decided it was time for a change. My goal was to put my management experience to work on something innovative, entrepreneurial, and good. Why online obituaries? I address that in my first blog post, which I hope you’ll read. I feel lucky to be a part of Legacy.com. When I’m not working I enjoy listening to and playing music – my favorite artists include Rush, The Beatles, and Neil Finn/Crowded House. I love every kind of food in existence, ping-pong, a good game of H-O-R-S-E, and Scrabble – best played with my wife and our three kids at home in Evanston. I can be reached via email at stopher@legacy.com.
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