Technology & Science

Monster.com founder sets sights on online obituaries

Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor is taking aim at the obituaries market with a new site, Tributes.com.

Fourteen years ago, Jeff Taylor helped set off a tectonic shift in job advertising by founding Monster.com, one of the first online companies to challenge a big profit source of newspapers.

Now, with papers reeling from a massive drainage of ad dollars online, Taylor thinks he's found another one of their strongholds that's ripe for online competition: obituaries.

Funerals have historically been local affairs, which meshed well with newspapers' strong ties to their communities. But Taylor believes that may be changing as more people live far from the places they were born and grew up. Taylor hopes his new site, Tributes.com, will fill that broader need.

Unlike when Monster debuted in 1994, Taylor faces a lot more competition. Newspapers are already big players online in the obituaries business, thanks largely to a 10-year-old company called Legacy.com, which runs the obituary sections of websites for more than 650 newspapers, for which it earns a fee. The site, which is 45 per cent owned by publisher Tribune Co., gets 12 million visitors a month.

Legacy, like competitors such as Memory-Of.com, offers a variety of ways for bereaved family members and friends to remember loved ones including virtual guest books, which can be archived online for a fee.

Taylor says his new venture can do that and more, but without relying on newspapers for information about funerals and deaths. Instead, Tributes.com will glean that information through alliances with funeral homes and groups directly, as well as through trade associations and public information about deaths from the U.S. Social Security system, though he declined to divulge specific deals.

Sophisticated search and database technology will allow users of Tributes to get e-mail alerts, for instance when someone from their hometown passes away, Taylor said. Tributes expects to make money from selling advertising, online memorials and gift items like flowers and cards.

Help-wanted and other forms of classified advertising have already migrated heavily online, including real estate, auto and personals, but Taylor described those as "sports of the young." Death notices, which are generally of much greater interest to people in their 60s and 70s, could be the next category of classified advertising to make a big move online, Taylor believes.

Older people may not be as heavy users of the internet as the young these days, but that could likely to change with the tech-savvy boomer generation now entering their 60s. A recent survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 37 per cent of people over 65 currently use the internet, compared with 72 per cent for those aged 50 to 64.

Paid death notices and obituaries are a steady but hard-to-measure form of revenue for newspapers, said John Kimball, chief marketing officer of the Newspaper Association of America. Those revenues may not be a huge profit centre for a given newspaper, Kimball said, but he added: "Is it somebody going after another little piece of newspaper business? Sure."

Michelle Ackerman, the director of classified products at the Denver Newspaper Agency, which publishes The Denver Post, said she'd be watching carefully what Taylor and his colleagues do at Tributes.com, but had to see how the venture fared in the marketplace before she could assess whether it would be a threat.

"Clearly we learned from Craigslist that you can't just ignore these things," Ackerman said, referring to the sharp declines in classified advertising revenues at newspapers due partly to the rise of online alternatives. She also noted that some funeral homes themselves are getting into the online obituary business.

So far, no one has succeeded

Taylor, a trim, energetic 47-year-old who works as a DJ in his spare time, had the idea of publishing obituaries on the internet years ago and thought it would be an integrated part of Eons, a social website aimed at Baby Boomers that he started in 2005, shortly after leaving Monster.

The obituaries section of Eons wound up being popular, but didn't have as much overlap with the rest of the site as anticipated. Thus was born Tributes.com, a separate company focusing on obituaries that was spun off in February following a restructuring at Eons. Tributes is operating in a test mode now, and is slated for a big overhaul next week before fully launching in September.

Taylor isn't the first entrepreneur to strike on the idea of creating a database of death notices that didn't come from newspapers. So far, no one has succeeded.

Hayes Ferguson, the chief operating officer of Legacy.com, noted that only a fraction of the 22,000 or so funeral homes in the United States are part of groups, making the task of getting them on board with a new venture that much more challenging. "There's an awful lot of doors to knock on," she said.

And getting the tradition-bound funeral industry to embrace new ways of doing business can be a challenge for anyone, said Scott Mindrum, CEO of a Cincinnati-based company he founded in 1995 called Making Everlasting Memories, which publishes online memorials and other commemorations.

Mindrum described the pace of change in the industry as "glacial," but acknowledged that Taylor might be on to something.

"I'm not saying it will never work," Mindrum said. "It's just early."