By Thomas A. Parmalee
It’s been over eight years since Legacy.com bought Tributes.com, but John Heald is still doing what he’s always done – looking out for funeral homes.
Heald, a co-founder of Tributes.com, is one of those rare people who has managed to help start a company and stay on with its acquirer.
A licensed funeral director and former partner with Heald Funeral Directors, which he operated with his twin brother, James, he remains passionate about his job because he’s still looking out for his funeral director kin – just in a new role.
“I absolutely love this profession, and I love calling on funeral home operators that are doing great things,” Heald said. “What keeps me here is the challenge that Legacy presented to me. We are a great brand as it relates to the newspaper channel as well as consumers, but they allowed me to really start digging in on the funeral home side. It has really been mine to own – and I want to carry my mission through.”
As the general manager of the Funeral Home Channel at Legacy.com, Heald has focused his efforts on sharing with the profession who Legacy.com is, what it does, and why funeral homes should work directly with the company.
“Historically, Legacy.com was always associated with the newspaper business – it’s been seen as a software provider for newspapers,” Heald said. “To this day, we continue to work with newspapers across the country, but I’ve been able to shape what the Funeral Home Channel looks like within the walls of Legacy.”
As a former funeral home owner himself, Heald’s No. 1 goal and mission is to make sure that the company always keeps its funeral home partners top of mind, he said. “If we can make sure we take care of our funeral homes first, everything else will follow,” he said.
Even though Legacy.com has a long history of working with funeral homes, there are still some firms that struggle to understand how the company can help turbocharge operations. The prospect of helping funeral homes generate more business excites Heald – because he knows what Legacy.com can do.
An offering Heald is particularly bullish on is Legacy Pro, which is gaining traction in the marketplace. He outlined some of its impressive features.
Obit Boost: Legacy automatically syncs obits from your website to Legacy’s network to boost their reach. Your business is showcased to the 40 million visitors to Legacy.com every month.
Premium Director Business Page: Legacy.com hosts the largest database for obituaries and funeral service providers. As a Legacy Pro partner, you get a premium business page in the directory where you can control and enhance your brand and stand out from your competitors.
Community Visibility: As a Legacy Pro trusted partner, your business will be visible from community pages, from cities, to high schools, to colleges, to members of the military.
Leads and Performance Insights: As a Legacy Pro trusted partner, you will get reports on your obits across the Legacy network, including traﬃc to your page, e-commerce sales, lead generation and more.
Revenue Share: Legacy Pro is a free program that pays you. A portion of all sales associated with your obituaries on the Legacy.com Sympathy Store can be deposited directly into your bank account. Want to keep the ﬂower sales local with a ﬂorist you trust? Legacy will work with your preferred florist as well.
Even though Legacy Pro has been available for only two years, there are already 8,000 funeral homes participating in the program, Heald said. “That’s fairly significant growth in a short period of time,” he said.
Joining the network is free – “and everyone loves free,” Heald said. “And what I mean by that, is funeral homes have the ability to place their obituaries onto our network at no cost. That is a big opportunity when you get to take advantage of 45 million monthly unique visitors – and growing.”
The program also allows funeral homes to participate in e-commerce offerings, which can drive incremental revenue. “Historically, that wasn’t the case, but we changed that model for all the right reasons, so that funeral homes will share in flower, tree or e-commerce activity,” Heald said.
In short, Legacy Pro has answered two of the most common objections Heald previously heard from funeral homes that would balk at working with Legacy.com – the notion that it stole traffic from funeral home websites and that it sold flowers, taking money away from funeral homes.
There’s even a dashboard that allows funeral homes to see exactly what type of traffic they are getting by being part of the Legacy network, Heald said. “You can see what having your brand and your obits on the Legacy network does for you,” he said.
If you’re unsure about joining the Legacy Pro network, consider these words from Heald: “I will comfortably say that we will increase traffic to your funeral home website anywhere from 20% to 30% in a given month,” he vowed.
As for the amount of revenue being part of Legacy Pro will earn funeral homes earn in commission, that varies based on the number of obituaries being placed on the Legacy.com network, he said. For instance, a firm serving 2,000 families per year would earn more in commission than a firm serving fewer than 100 families per year.
“I have always looked at this e-commerce revenue as an added benefit,” Heald said. “You won’t retire on it, but it can certainly be meaningful incremental revenue.”
If the funeral home gets so much from Legacy Pro, why is the company simply giving it away? Isn’t that too good to be true?
“Obviously, we are able to monetize the offering through the obituary, the traffic and the e-commerce activity,” Heald said. “That is why we have offered the product at no cost. There are no hooks – it’s free!”
Legacy Pro includes a funeral home directory that is the largest consumer-facing database allowing individuals to find funeral homes, Heald said.
“Funeral homes can take advantage of a premium listing that allows them to earn a trusted partner badge,” he said. “The listing will include photos of your facilities, contacts, an about us section and links to your funeral home website. Our goal is to drive preneed and at-need leads.”
The funeral home database is a lead source juggernaut, reaching 4 million unique visitors every single month.
“We do a tremendous job of helping funeral homes generate more traffic,” Heald said. “And any funeral home’s goal is to make sure they are found.”
The company also offers some other options.
“You can do local advertising on our website,” Heald said – and it offers a significant value, he noted. “We launched a local advertising program at the start of COVID,” he explained. “And it allows funeral homes to be the exclusive advertiser in their market. We will serve ads based on a user’s IP address – and that funeral home will have their ad shown in the market they are serving.”
Taking advantage of the option is a branding play, similar to making sure your firm is represented front and center in your church bulletin, Heald said. After all, this is your market – these are your people. You simply cannot allow your competitors to get their hands on them.
“The cost of the program depends on how many impressions are available,” Heald said. “It is extremely affordable as far as a digital advertising solution.”
Funeral Homes Have Always Been a Focus
Even though many funeral professionals think of Legacy.com as a newspaper partner, when the company started in 1998, it first sought to develop a relationship directly with funeral homes, Heald said.
“That was their model,” he said. “Let’s build websites for funeral homes. But in 1998, the funeral homes were saying, ‘I don’t need a website – I’m all set.’ So, Legacy being a startup was able to pivot and found an opportunity in the newspaper channel. So, it was never a mindset of where the company picked one channel or another.”
Rather, the question always has been how the company can provide more value for funeral homes – and that has been what Heald has been laser-focused on for the past several years.
“We have engaged in a concerted effort to not necessarily pivot but to keep all of our partners happy with what we are doing,” Heald said. “Newspapers remain relevant as do funeral homes and consumers.”
In fact, just this year, Legacy.com launched a direct-to-consumer option that allows individuals to place an obituary on the Legacy.com platform themselves – without the involvement of a newspaper or a funeral home.
“It has been amazing the volume of consumers who want to have an obit on Legacy – I am not sure if they are being served by a cremation society or someone else who may or may not offer obituary placement – there are a lot of these customers on the West Coast for whatever reason. It is family-driven obituary content.”
To help fulfill this need, Legacy.com bought AdPay in February 2021, which includes the Memoriams obituary publishing tool, which has been instrumental in carrying out the direct-to-consumer model, he said. The Memoriams platform includes a tool that allows families to find out how much it will cost to place an obituary in any zip code, he said. “If a family is comfortable with paying $487, they can literally publish it from Memoriams,” he said. “And if the newspaper is not a viable option, they can place it on Legacy.com directly.” It costs $99 to place the obituary directly onto Legacy.com, he said.
Memoriams.com was previously owned by Ancestry.com, and many newspapers used the software, which allows funeral homes to place an obituary. “We saw a tremendous value because it networks with every newspaper in the country and provides pricing,” Heald said. “And one of the funeral director’s biggest challenges when a family comes in is if they say that want it in A, B, C and D newspapers is getting the pricing, cutoffs, deadlines and costs. And this allows them to pick the newspapers they want, upload and obituary with a photo and get an instant price. And then the family can make those decisions.” He added, “It streamlines the process of placing an obituary in multiple newspapers and getting prices should a family be interested in going outside a funeral home’s regular market.”
In addition to Memoriams.com, Legacy.com acquired iPublish Media Solutions in January 2020, a competitor to Memoriams.com.
“We have watched the obituary go from being a wonderful autobiographical story to a short death notice over the span of 20 to 30 years, and a lot of that was forced on funeral homes either by the cost of a line or column inch in a newspaper,” Heald said. “But there is another obituary that exists on a funeral home website or on a social media channel that is drafted by the funeral home or the family.”
It’s unclear to Heald why some funeral homes are not helping families place obituaries in newspapers, but cost may be part of it. He observed that with preneed contracts in particular, if someone dies seven or eight years after they preplan, the cost to place an obituary may be double – and funeral homes may be reluctant to ask a family for such a large amount of additional money. “That is a conversation most funeral home owners want to avoid,” he said.
Ironically, however, obituary volume in newspapers increased during the pandemic, perhaps because people were not allowed to hold gatherings, Heald said. Publishing a death notice in a newspaper was one way the community could at least be informed of someone’s death and get the chance to collectively mourn since there was so little direct contact between friends and families. An obituary in a newspaper is “a great place to memorialize a life and start that process,” he said.
Moreover, families and funeral homes alike can use the company’s AI-powered tool ObitWriter to easily write obituaries, Heald said.
In a news release touting the new AI-powered tool, Legacy noted that it believes every life deserves to be honored in a manner that is personal, meaningful, and accessible. Legacy’s ObitWriter tool “lets funeral homes create professional-quality obituaries in minutes, entirely free of charge — using the latest AI innovations to instantly produce unique, customizable tributes that truly help you capture the essence of those who have passed,” according to Legacy.
Moreover, with just a few clicks, ObitWriter lets users publish those obituaries straight to any local newspaper and to Legacy.com, without having to switch to a different application or website.
“One of the core responsibilities of a funeral director is to tell people that someone has passed away,” Heald said. “AI can help us a lot in terms of our ability to do a better job to tell that story – I think it can be very helpful to the funeral home as it relates to the obituary.”
He continued, “What AI can do is provide a way for consumers who don’t know how to write an obituary that chance – they can put in key attributes and characteristics, and it can be helpful. I think it can be a fascinating tool that can help us with that story.”
Moving the Profession Forward
Heald feels blessed to have the chance to work with Curtis Funk, the CEO of Tukios, a sister company to Legacy.com.
“We started Tributes.com when Curtis started Tukios,” Heald said. “To watch him grow has been great to be a part of. We are cut from the same cloth in that we both believe in putting funeral homes first – and everything else follows. And that has been their mindset since the minute I met him.”
While they are separate companies, Heald noted that Legacy.com and Tukios collaborate on a regular basis.
There are numerous other leaders that Heald leans on for support and to help him carry out his mission, including Alan Press, who has served as the CEO of Legacy for the past year.
Most people are already familiar with the company’s founder, Stopher Bartol, who remains a very active chairman of the board. In fact, he still comes to the office virtually every day, Heald said. Daniel Bodde, chief revenue office, has a strong entrepreneurial background and has been a key employee over the past several years, Heald noted. Another key member of the team is Pete Matarangas, senior vice president of monetization.
Outside of Legacy.com, Heald continues to serve as a trustee of the Funeral Service Foundation, something that has provided him with great joy over the past four years. He’s chair of the fund development committee. “It’s just an amazing organization that does a lot for funeral service professionals and communities that are grieving,” he said.
He continues to keep his funeral director’s license active, as does his brother, who often gets calls from families, even though they sold their interest in their funeral home several years ago. “They want it the Heald way, and Jim does what he does – he has a tremendous reputation,” Heald said.
As far as Legacy.com is concerned, that fire to serve his funeral director brethren is burning stronger than ever for Heald. “I describe ourselves as an old startup,” he said. “We have so much energy, and we are all focused on making sure we help our partners.”
Copyright 2023, FuneralVision.com. All rights reserved.