By Thomas A. Parmalee
When you get good enough at something, that’s usually an invitation for being asked to move out of your wheelhouse.
And that’s what happened at The Outlook Group, which was founded by Charles Anderson and became one of the most effective preneed marketing firms in the nation before it merged with Precoa (The Preneed Company of America) in April 2017.
Several years prior to the merger, The Outlook Group was already getting phone calls from funeral home owners seeking help with marketing that extended beyond preneed.
One of those callers was Chip “Charles” Billow, president and CEO of Billow Funeral Homes & Crematory, with locations in Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, both in Ohio.
“He said he liked what we were doing on the marketing side, so can you please help me with all of my other marketing,” said Michael Anderson, the nephew of Charles Anderson who worked more than a dozen years at Eli Lilly and Co. before returning to help lead the family business.
Michael Anderson tried to avoid the conversation, letting Billow know that at-need marketing was not what The Outlook Group did, and moreover, it did not have the capacity to do it. Undeterred, however, Billow kept calling.
Finally, Billow called and told Anderson to mark his calendar because he was going to visit his funeral home and pitch a marketing campaign. “If my memory serves me, it was as though he was going to hang up on me. I had no chance to say no,” Anderson said.
Anderson made his first road trip with Jenny McClanahan, who had recently begun doing creative work for The Outlook Group.
Billow, they came to realize, was a man who intended to get what he wanted.
But he wasn’t the only one calling, and when Precoa and The Outlook Group began conversations about merging, both companies knew from the outset that eventually they would create a separate company dedicated to serving funeral homes that needed help with marketing that went beyond the realm of preneed, Anderson said.
Several Years Later …
This summer, @need Marketing, which is owned by Precoa but is a standalone company, will be celebrating its fifth-year anniversary, with Michael Anderson at the helm.
And after all these years, he still works closely with McClanahan, who serves as the company’s creative director, as well as Caitlin Bray, a supremely talented writer who started out at Precoa as an intern who @need Marketing wooed to its team as an intern of its own before hiring her as a full-time copywriter. Faith Bennett, an account strategist; and Corrinne Huber, in charge of agency traffic, round out the team.
The company serves about 75 funeral homes nationwide, and it’s been growing at a slow but steady pace by design, Anderson said.
McClanahan, who Anderson sought out during his early days at The Outlook Group, has been critical to the team’s success, said Anderson, who noted that she became the company’s creative director and served Precoa in the same capacity for several years before transitioning over to @need Marketing.
“I had started giving work to an agency I knew from my days at Eli Lilly, but it became clear that they did not understand funeral service, nor did its designers,” Anderson said.
But then he heard about McClanahan, and once he started working with her, he never stopped.
“She had 20 years of experience at Cox Media in a variety of roles, including serving as its creative director, operations and management,” he said. “And everything she did just looked like a breath of fresh air compared to what we were previously doing at Outlook and what we were seeing at other insurance and preneed companies.”
The designs she came up with were nothing like the scare tactics of a woman looking out a window on a rainy day, trying to guilt people into prearranging their funeral, Anderson said.
It was McClanahan who did creative work for Billow dating back to 2013 as well as for a handful of other firms in her capacity as an Outlook employee before @need Marketing was officially born, Anderson said.
“We supported those funeral homes, and when talks between The Outlook Group and Precoa about merging began, one of the things everyone was excited about was the potential to help people with at-need marketing,” Anderson said.
But the leaders at both companies knew spinning off such a company would be a heavy lift, Anderson said. “Precoa had the same challenge we had – customers were coming to them for help, and they were just not equipped to do it,” he said.
One of the challenges Anderson had when helping out funeral home owners such as Billow was that at first, he didn’t know how to charge for what he was providing.
“I told him, ‘We are going to have to charge you for this,’” Anderson said. “And he said, ‘Of course, we’ll figure it out.’ Those experiences helped us get more comfortable. You have to remember that everything with preneed is done through commissions … and this is different. I may have to ask for a credit card now. It sounds like a trivial thing, but it is a big enough thing.”
When Precoa set up @need Marketing as an independent company almost five years ago, it began by serving a pilot group of 10 funeral homes, Anderson shared.
“We decided we were going to run with that for quite a bit of time,” he said. “Everyone wanted to be sure we were delivering … we had to prove that we could do it.”
As time has gone by, however, the company has begun to ramp up its growth, attending tradeshows in its own booth instead of piggybacking on Precoa’s space. “There was not a lot of us self-promoting because we were on pace to do what we needed to do to continue,” Anderson said.
The Value Proposition
Determining what @need Marketing would offer firms in terms of a suite of services was a process, Anderson said.
“Precoa works with the leading firms in each market, so they have a higher level of demand or need than others,” he said. “We knew we needed to be prepared.”
The company looked closely at building websites but ultimately decided against it.
“Basically, what we learned is that there are really good website providers out there that do a really good job,” Anderson said. “It does not necessarily make sense for us to get involved with that.”
But Anderson and his team could easily see that each year, the percentage of a funeral home’s marketing budget that went toward online marketing kept going up – often significantly, Anderson said.
“Search engine optimization is something really critical we offer our partners,” Anderson said. “That is often a place where we begin. But you name it, we do it all.”
The services listed on @need Marketing’s website also include custom creative, blogs and social media, public relations, marketing campaigns, branding, video production, paid search advertising, turnkey creative and print and mailing services.
“Every market is different, but the whole connection and relationships element of funeral service has not changed and is still important to many,” Anderson said, commenting on the growth of online marketing spend. “There are just different ways to reach those people.”
Some may be surprised that @need Marketing has such a small core team, but the firm also relies on a number of freelancers that are almost like family.
“When I worked at Lilly, I got to work with all the big agencies in the country … and what I observed is anytime we took business to a new agency, they would hire people. And likewise, when a brand left an agency, they would fire people,” Anderson said. “And that is part of what we had to figure out at @need. That is simply not a part of the Precoa values and was not an option. So, we had to figure out how could we get the work done and support our customers in a way that exceeds their expectations and how could we offer this culture that is uniquely us?””
Nothing ever makes its way to a client without McClanahan reviewing it and giving it her blessing, Anderson said. “That enables us to grow, leverage a network the way we need to and also keep our costs under control,” Anderson said.
The company likes the fresh perspective that outside freelancers can bring to the business, he said. “But we also rely on our knowledge of the profession,” he said, noting that every freelancer goes through a detailed onboarding training session. “I pay them to get on the phone with me and walk them through that presentation,” he said. “And I pay them to join the team call. We want them to feel like they are part of something with @need Marketing. You have to feel connected to the funeral profession, because when you have that, your work is better and the way you think about things is better.”
The entire team does a lot of work researching potential freelancers and then educating them about the funeral profession, Anderson said, noting that @need Marketing ends up working with a lot of firms who previously tried working with a local agency “but they just don’t get it.”
The company has been deliberate in determining what it perceives as core offerings that it wants to be the best at providing compared to strategic offerings that are important but are not what differentiate the company from competitors, Anderson said.
“For example, billing and invoices,” he said. “We can be the best at it, but it won’t make us better for our partners. But strategic capabilities are very important to our strategy and core offerings are what make us unique – we absolutely have to lead on those and do them on our own.”
Those core offerings include creative development, brand strategy and management, SEO, pay per click and at-need/preneed integration Anderson said.
While there are some other companies that offer such a full array of services, there aren’t too many, and that works out in the best interest of the funeral homes that work with @need Marketing, Anderson said. For instance, there have been numerous instances when he’s urged a funeral home to stop spending so much money on pay per click because he honestly believes their money is better spent elsewhere. If he led a company that focused strictly on helping people with pay per click, however, it might be a different story.
“You may have gotten 10 calls from pay-per-click marketing last month, but maybe only three were quality calls,” he said. “The others may have been asking if it was too late to send flowers. We just don’t report the total number of calls – we say which ones were quality leads. There is a lot of manual work involved with that. We are constantly reviewing and revising our pay-per-click strategies.”
None of this is to say pay-per-click strategies do not work, but it needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, Anderson said, noting he’s not shy about telling a client that was previously spending $800 per month on pay per click that they should direct some of that money elsewhere.
“And that’s because we don’t have this one thing – we can help in a lot of different ways,” he said. “We are not dependent on one tactic or channel.”
Another area the firm spends a lot of time on is building and enhancing a firm’s Google business profile, he said – an approach it took early on as it was not sold on social media.
The reason for that, Anderson said, is that while social media can be great for maintaining and boosting an existing relationship with a family, when a family has experienced a death and does not have a pre-existing relationship with a funeral home, his research shows they will go to one place.
“If they don’t have a connection, there is only one place they will go to find a funeral home – and that is Google,” he said. “Google is a platform to go to search and for buying.”
He continued, “We need to make sure with organic search results, a client’s website is ranking No. 1. And that also needs to be true for a search like ‘funeral homes near me.’ We need to make sure our partners are appearing on the local map package and paying for pay-per-click if needed.”
That approach has been what has paved the way for @need Marketing to grow its client base, which includes numerous firms that don’t do business with Precoa, he said.
“Not every partner is created equally,” he said. “For some, we may just help with SEO. There are others for which we manage everything and who are also Precoa partners.”
Currently, Precoa firms do not get a discount, he said. “But that is not to say we won’t do that in the future,” he said. “But the way to get a discount from us is through a commitment of work. If you commit to 12, 24 or 36 ads, we will give you a discount on that type of work, and we can spread it out.”
The company offers “value-based pricing” and is “priced very competitively for the marketplace,” Anderson said. “We believe whatever work we do for you, you should know the cost. No one likes surprises, and we don’t want our partners to be surprised,” he said.
While the company can give funeral homes an idea of what it charges for what services, it does not post a price list online because “every project varies,” Anderson said. “We might say $850 for a press release, but if it’s a 10-page press release, it won’t be $850.”
Anderson, who earned an MBA and treasures the lessons he learned working in big pharma, said he’s grateful to have found his way back to the family business, where he got his start mowing lawns and washing cars. “It has always been part of my blood,” he said. “I also lost my mom, and I know what it is like to be on the other side … This is what I love doing, and I contend every single person here would say the same thing.”
As to why he left pharma, he explains it was a high-pressure business and when products failed, jobs were on the line. “The pressure was going up,” he said, adding, “I didn’t have a trash can under my desk. I had a box that the lawyers would go through at the end of the day.”
Still, getting back into the family business was by no means a “safe” move, he said. “My wife was pregnant with our twins right as we made plans to leave Lilly,” he said. The couple also have two other children together.
At the end of the day, Anderson thinks launching @need Marketing as a separate company was absolutely the right call for Precoa.
“If you have a strong preneed program, you are going to have a strong at-need program,” he said. “But what if we could help you do both in a 1 +1 = 3 kind of process?” That, he said, is the whole idea around @need Marketing.
Copyright FuneralVision.com, 2023. All Rights Reserved.