How Working in the Death Industry Made Me a Better Marketer

My very first corporate job after graduating from college was in the death industry. I worked as a marketing assistant at a national cemetery and funeral home company. I had paid my way through school by working part-time jobs in kitchens and other odd jobs. After graduating, I was excited to begin my marketing career in a real office.

I should set the scene here. I started in this role before Facebook was around. There was no Twitter, Pinterest or LinkedIn. This was in 2004 and I did most of my the communicating at work via fax. Yes, you read that correctly. By fax.

I was responsible for the coordinating of a lot of print material – ads, Yellow Page listings, and brochures. I would work to gather the correct signatures and would then fax over the proofs to proceed with the job order.

We did have email at the office but I would typically use it to follow up with my contacts to see if they had received my fax. I swear I’m not making this up.

My career over the last decade has included working in a variety of different industries and companies of all sizes. I’ve worked in the business-to-business space, financial services and in healthcare.

Looking back, I can see that my first marketing job in the death industry taught me a lot of lessons that I’m still making use of today. Here are the top lessons that I still call upon in my daily work.

You don’t market products, you market experiences

No one ever called the 1-800 line or walked into one of the branches insisting on purchasing the biggest, shiniest casket. Or the greenest piece of land in one of the cemeteries. They weren’t interested in spending their money on physical goods. What they were buying was peace of mind.

In the death industry, marketing is all about the experience, not the productClick To Tweet

We did have product brochures that had all of the specifications of a particular headstone or casket. But the majority of our collateral was based on informing the potential customer of the benefits of making their arrangements ahead of time.

How do I apply this today?

My most recent roles have not involved the selling of physical goods, which can make things a bit more challenging. When people are looking to buy a service, their pain points aren’t always as obvious (or pressing) as with the purchase of physical goods. As a digital marketer working on a campaign I always start with the end user’s experience in mind. I ask myself, What problems are they trying to solve? How can our service or experience help?

The next phase of the plan is How can I gather people’s attention to make them aware of who we are and how we can help them with their problems?

Without the experience I had at my first office job, I don’t know that I would appreciate the end user’s experience as much as I do today.

Understanding the customer journey is paramount

It didn’t take me long to realize in my first marketing job that no two customers were alike. However, most customers in the death industry fell into two categories: those who were pre-planning and those who were planning at a time of need.

The customer journey for those two segments were drastically different. People who were pre-planning were doing so with a clear mind and little emotional bearing on their decision. Those purchasing at their time of need were doing so at one of the hardest moments of their life. They were making difficult (and uncomfortable) decisions when emotions were high.

Marketing to these two categories of customers required a very different approach. The marketing materials and sales pitches were unique to the needs of the customer to ensure that we were matching their expectations and delivering what they needed.

How do I apply this today?

That understanding of where a customer is in their journey was crucial to learn, especially as I was just starting my career. Today, I frame my work by trying to understand how digital can be used at every stage of a customer’s journey. In the digital space, consumers have much more power – they can do their research very easily all on their own. They no longer have to call up a company for answers to their questions.

As a marketer, I know that I have to work on understanding their issue, where they are on the journey and then try to figure out how to create awareness, capture their attention and stay top of mind so that they convert.

Marketers are often misunderstood

To no one’s surprise, the death industry is a sales-driven one. The “family counselors” who worked in the cemeteries selling plots, headstones and mausoleum spaces worked on commission. They followed up on leads that came in via the 1-800 number or people who were referred by friends or family.

Each December, there was a large conference where salespeople from across the country convened to recognize the top salespeople that year. Everyone knew and understood what the salespeople did – they generated money for the company. On the flip side, the Marketing department was not well understood at all. We weren’t in sales, so what was it that we did, exactly?

“Oh, Marketing, they do brochures.”

“Marketing? I think they’re the ones you go to for trade show set-up.”

“Marketing? Do you mean purchasing?”

These were just a few of the statements I heard over the years I worked at the company. As a member of the Marketing department, I was constantly having to explain what our team was responsible for. I’d like to think that eventually people understood that we were a partner to the sales team and not just the folks who maintained the brochure library.

How do I apply this today?

The experience of having to constantly explain what Marketing does has prepared me well for my career. In all of the roles I’ve had, there has been ambiguity about marketing and what value marketing brings to an organization. For me, it’s gone from explaining what I do as a marketer to what I do as a digital marketer. Luckily, things have improved in that I have access to data, and that helps me explain the work that I do. More importantly, it allows me to illustrate how marketing can help achieve business goals.

In my first job in the death industry, we’d print 500 brochures with a sales person’s bio and contact details on it. The brochures would then be dropped in offices or included in our general mailers. It was up to the sales person to report back on whether the brochures resulted in any leads or sales.

Today, the connection between an initial contact and a final sale is not as clear. However, as a marketer, I don’t have to rely on a sales person reporting on their leads. Instead, I have access to data from tools like web analytics, CRM and email campaigns. It’s much easier to engage, interact and track a potential customer through their touchpoints with the organization’s digital properties.

Marketers have to be agile

Most of my work in my death industry job focused on traditional marketing tactics; things like mall and trade shows, direct mail and print advertising. Over my three years at the company, things began to change. Businesses began to realize that their websites could be used as an extension of their marketing efforts.

Working in the death industry taught me the importance of being adaptible as a marketerClick To Tweet

As a member of the marketing department, I started to learn how to work on our website. I wasn’t learning PHP or anything like that, but I got to have some “behind the scenes” access where I became responsible for editing copy and ensuring accuracy of information. The company was smart enough to realize that the web presented an opportunity, one that we had to adapt ourselves to. While our first website was essentially just a carbon copy of our printed brochures, it soon evolved to be a dynamic tool through which customers (and potential customers) could interact with us.

How do I apply this today?

Being a part of a marketing team when websites grew in importance taught me the importance of always being alert to trends and keeping my skills up-to-date. Over the years, I’ve completed a number of certificates and other courses to keep my skills sharp.

I also read, listen to podcasts, attend conferences and participate in Twitter chats to help me stay abreast of what’s happening in digital marketing. I truly believe that to be effective in my job, I have to stay current. Even if it often feels a bit overwhelming.

Looking back, my first corporate role was exactly what you’d expect from a first post-graduation job: I did a lot of filing, a lot of faxing and tried my best to learn everything I could about being an effective marketer. Along the way, I learned some unexpected lessons; lessons that I still rely on today.

Top image courtesy of Davide Ragusa.