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Marketing Post-Covid: Lee Senderov, Chief Marketing & Digital Officer, Foundation Partners Group

Transcript

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer, and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Lee Senderov, Chief Marketing & Digital Officer at Foundation Partners Group, the second largest provider of funeral services in the United States, with more than 160 locations across 20 states. Lee is also a board member of Regency Pet, a provider of pet cremation services. Lee, thank you so much for joining us today.
Lee Senderov:
Thanks so much for having me, Brian.
Brian Erickson:
So, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed many different industries, and tragically, of course, funeral services is one of those industries greatly affected by this pandemic. How has this unprecedented moment changed the way that you’ve approached marketing in the funeral services?
Lee Senderov:
Sure. At Foundation Partners Group, we’ve taken an omnichannel approach to marketing for some time now, and that is fundamentally different, I think than the industry as a whole, having been an industry that was really primarily focused on local marketing for a long time, but we’ve continued to execute against this omnichannel strategy despite the pandemic. I think what the pandemic really caused us to do was really shift more to online marketing channels. So, for example, we sell something called pre-need funeral packages, which allows our families to pre-plan their funeral arrangements. Traditionally, these were sold in person, door-to-door selling, or in-person via seminars. We’ve had to completely shift that strategy to online. This now includes online webinars versus meeting families in person. Furthermore, I think the fact that we had launched an e-commerce platform to sell pre-need online in 2019 really served us well during the pandemic because it allowed us to give our families the opportunity to interact with us in a different way.
Brian Erickson:
Yeah, definitely a difficult situation in many industries. I can’t imagine how difficult it is in your industry. And I guess, talk a little bit about, if you wouldn’t mind, just any internal communications as this situation set in and you had to coordinate across 160 locations. Were you involved in rolling out internal guidelines for messaging for your staff?
Lee Senderov:
So from an internal communication standpoint, we obviously had to coordinate with the regulations that were coming out in 20 different states. So being that we’re a national company, we have a headquarters in Orlando, Florida, but our marketing team services our local brands throughout the United States. We disseminated information to them as best as we could and with whatever information we had that then they would distribute it amongst the employees at those locations and then ultimately would distribute those to families. So, for example, as different states started to restrict the amount of attendees at services, we had to communicate that to our locations and help them craft a message to families explaining why we couldn’t host a service, for example. In response to this, we actually partnered with the webcasting company that allowed us to offer our families the ability to webcast their services. This was a fundamental shift in just the funeral services environment. Before the pandemic, these types of services were frowned upon because our industry has always been built on relationships and, really, care and compassion that is usually done face to face. We had to figure out other ways to do that. So, that was one example of a tool that we found and partnered with and then rolled out at all of our locations.
Brian Erickson:
That’s interesting. And even in normal times, marketing in the funeral services industry requires a unique level of care. So, I guess, any specific examples of how you’ve balanced marketing right now with the extreme need for sensitivity at this moment?
Lee Senderov:
Ultimately we exist to serve families during one of, if not, the most difficult times in their lives. Our goal is to make this time as easy as possible for families and to assist them along the process. All of our content and marketing materials are written with this in mind. At the same time, we know our families expect to hear from us via different channels. And this is changing as consumer behavior shifts and evolves and what we’re used to. Right now, if you order something from Amazon, you get text notifications, you get notifications on your phone, you get a notification via SMS, you might get emails from Amazon telling you your package is 10 stops away. And so we’ve definitely seen the need to increase the level of communication with our families in terms of once their loved one is in our care, where are they in the process?
We’ve started to test different ways to do this. One example is even post-service, we like to check in with our families and traditionally that’s been done by phone, but now what we’re finding is our younger customers, and typically our younger customers, just to level-set here, are the 55-year-olds, not that that’s considered pretty young because you can imagine they are celebrating the lives of their parents, they’re wanting to be communicated with in a different way. One of the projects we had was to text after a funeral to check in on the family members. This was actually considered really risky due to the nature of our business, but surprisingly, or not surprisingly, we’ve had a very positive response from our families. This is the first time I’ve ever texted a customer in my entire career and actually received texts back that say, “Thank you so much for servicing us and helping us through this hard time. Thank you for checking in on me.”
Even when our families decide they don’t want to have any further communication from us in that channel, they will say, “Thank you so much for texting me. I’d rather speak on the phone.” So I think people are very appreciative. What we’ve seen is that they’re actually very appreciative of us finding different ways to communicate with them, even despite the fact that it is a very sensitive time and the time, obviously, of the pandemic. I think for us, at the end of the day, whenever we are rolling out an initiative or thinking about communication efforts, we just keep our families in mind. And unfortunately, many of us have had to undergo the passing of a loved one and so a lot of us have already experienced this. So we can only extend that into how we would want to be serviced.
Brian Erickson:
Very interesting. I think something that we’ve heard across many different industries is that there are trends that were already in motion that were accelerated by the pandemic. It sounds like some of that is going on in your industry as well. So, as we hopefully look past this at some point, and who knows with new variants, if this is going to be just a permanent fixture in our lives here, but let’s say we move past it at some point, do you see aspects of marketing communications in your industry that have been adapted or adopted during this time that are going to persist into a new normal? Or do you think there are aspects on the flip side that are going to revert back to how they were? Or what does the situation look like, do you think, communications-wise post-COVID-19 that we’re going to take from this?
Lee Senderov:
So I think that’s a question that people are trying to answer obviously in every industry. And it’s so interesting because as you know from my background, Brian, I did not grow up in the funeral profession. I joined the Foundation Partners Group about six months ago. My background was really in other industries that were looking to reinvent themselves and think about digitizing their consumer-facing experiences. Prior to this, I worked in the jewelry business, also an antiquated, old-school industry looking to go direct to consumer. I think one of the interesting learnings here is that we were such a face-to-face-focused industry and now that has just been completely disrupted. And I do think, to the surprise of many, consumers want to be marketed to, and they want to be communicated within a completely different way than they did before.
While before, local marketing efforts were extremely important and I do believe they will continue to be important, now we have our customers who want to find us online. They want to be able to see our pricing online. They want to be able to see the hours of operations. They want to be able to click a single button and talk to a funeral director. They don’t necessarily need to come in and have a one-on-one sit-down session to arrange a service for a loved one. I think that some of these trends that were already in the works will just continue to carry out, post the pandemic.
I actually don’t see us going back. I see the pandemic, or the funeral industry as well as for the jewelry industry, which I worked in before, as well as for auto repair, which I worked in before that, as really a catalyst for tremendous change. And personally, I’m very excited by this. For us at Foundation Partners Group, we will continue to focus marketing dollars on digital trackable channels. And we are committing to expanding our investment in data analytics tools to really understand how these channels perform for us. I will say that once the situation changes, the local marketing aspect of our efforts has really been put on hold and I would love to see that resume.
Brian Erickson:
It’s interesting. I had seen a meme somewhere in some business blog that said, “What was the main catalyst of innovation for your business? Desire to succeed, your CEO’s vision, or COVID-19?” And it was just a play on…it really has forced everyone across industries, there are just certain things that had to happen that were probably going to happen anyway and are probably going to persist. And, of course, there are aspects of marketing and communications and business as a whole, that just completely stalled and gone on hold. But I do see that pretty universally accelerating digital, for sure. So funeral service businesses have had to adapt to truly unprecedented needs in terms of serving customers during the pandemic, including social distancing and plight chain issues, and a number of different challenges, I’m sure, I can’t even imagine. If you had to sum up some of the lessons that the industry has learned from this moment in order to better prepare for the future, what would you say?
Lee Senderov:
Sure. I think there are three things that come to mind, and one I’ve already touched on, but it’s that the customer will require us to service them in different ways. We have a saying at FPG where we think about how do we service every customer anywhere they are, and how they want to be serviced. And as I spoke about before, traditionally funeral arranging, funeral services, and funeral pre-planning have been face-to-face physical interactions, and this is obviously changed with COVID and it’s also shown our profession that customers will want to interact with us in different ways. More and more customers are asking for virtual arranging through web video platforms and for virtual memorial service options for family members who can’t attend in person. We’re also seeing significant growth in families making arrangements or pre-planning through our e-commerce platform. That is a significant shift away from what we are used to.
I recently read a foresight research study that stated that post the pandemic 46% of customers say they will handle death care arrangements virtually versus only 34% of customers before the pandemic. So, there’s a fundamental shift for many in our profession of how we are going to service the consumer of the future. I think the second one is the expectations around communication. And we touched on this before. When you order something from Amazon, you’re expecting to be told exactly where it is in the process, it’s being packaged, it’s being shipped, it’s 10 stops from being delivered. And right now our customers are calling us for more and more information about where in the process their loved one is. So we’re experimenting with different ways to be proactive versus reactive to these types of inquiries. I think just the last one, which is really interesting, is that the conversation around mortality is just fundamentally changing.
I think the pandemic has brought on a lot of that. If I think back 10 years ago, no one spoke about mental health. That was such an off-limits topic, no one spoke about mental health at the dinner table. No one spoke about infertility at the dinner table. And these topics were so removed from our everyday jargon and now they’ve become normal. People talk about them. I am in my 40s and have a lot of friends who unfortunately have had to deal with infertility issues and people are pretty open about that subject matter. I think the pandemic has caused folks to think about mortality, their own mortality, and that of their loved ones, in a different way.
I think a lot about how we enter that conversation being the professionals in this space, and how do we provide the necessary content that’s going to be relevant to today’s consumer. In the past, many families took for granted their ability to gather and celebrate a loved one. Now that we’ve had a year of pandemic, how is that going to change? Is it going to be more of a hybrid model where we will have physical celebrations as well as have them webcasted virtually? I don’t know, but I do know that the whole conversation is drastically changing right now.
Brian Erickson:
It has to. There’s no other choice. So specifically digging into digital a little bit and unpacking digital a little bit, how have you approached the mobile experience? You’ve referenced text messaging quite a bit, has there been any sort of formal planning or mapping that out that’s happened around those tactics?
Lee Senderov:
Absolutely. So, we think a lot about, “What does our tech stack look like today and what does it need to look like in three to five years in order to continue to be innovative?” I think that and, as I mentioned before, really thinking through how a marketing analytics platform layers on top of that to give us the best visibility into what’s happening, those are two investments that we are making right now because we just see it as critical to our success. I think from a mobile standpoint, we think a lot about mobile simply, just like everybody else, a lot of interactions are happening on mobile. For us, we see more e-commerce happening on desktop, but the information gathering, the calling, the searching comes from mobile.
We think a lot about going into 2021, how do we optimize our platform with mobile specific UI, UX treatments? How do we really think about this the same way that a leader in the e-commerce space would think about it or any other service provider? So obviously continue to enhance the mobile experiences on our sites by doing different things, from speeding up the low times, to ensuring that it’s really easy for a user to navigate.
Brian Erickson:
Definitely makes a lot of sense that a critical part of that process is you’re doing a lot of other things and you’re on your mobile device while you’re doing them and that experience has to be fast and simple and straightforward and compelling. You haven’t been in the role since the beginning of 2020 and pre-COVID and whatnot, how have you seen the organization’s tactical mix shift from what it was doing previous to COVID through now going into 2021 and forward?
Lee Senderov:
Sure. So I think, as I mentioned before, a key part of our marketing mix is local marketing via community outreach programs. When we think about local community influencers in the mortality space, we think about faith-based organizations, hospice, elder care representatives, first responders, that’s who we think about when we think about local community influencers and all of the efforts around building relationships with these influencers was obviously largely reduced or even eliminated in some markets because of COVID. We ended up shifting these dollars into brand-building programs across our digital and traditional channels, such as TV and radio because, as we mentioned before, folks are learning about us in different ways. That was a big shift for us. I think from a messaging standpoint, a large part of our messaging strategy is focused on educating our families about the value of pre-planning funeral arrangements.
Lee Senderov:
When COVID first hit, we were definitely seeing some negative feedback in our social channels about the appropriateness of talking about planning for death while in the midst of a pandemic. We quickly shifted our messaging to address these concerns and slowly brought that message back as the pandemic eased up a bit. So, those were some of the efforts that we took during this time. I think the biggest one was really shifting unfortunately away from some of the community-level efforts that we typically would have been much more involved in, simply because we couldn’t see people in person and we couldn’t gather with our communities.
Brian Erickson:
Makes sense. So I guess moving forward, taking some of these lessons, if you could give one piece of advice to marketers at consumer service brands, not just in your industry, but in a broader sense right now, what would you say is important?
Lee Senderov:
I think despite whatever industry you’re in, making sure the marketing analytics are in order is key and pinnacle to any marketer’s success. This may sound super simple, but I entered enough organizations now to see that this actually becomes a really complicated problem as you’re building out different channels. If you don’t take care of it, what happens is I find the marketing departments just tend to have a lot of bifurcated data sources and are spending an extraordinary amount of time actually pulling the data together into Excel sheets rather than having the time to actually analyze the data and create a plan against how to react to it because the time is spent actually bringing, collating it and bringing it all together.
We live in a world where there’s just so much data that you can work with. Being able to manage that and narrow it down to what’s really important for your business, I think it is the housekeeping item that a lot of marketing departments overlook or they’re just trying to move fast. I really think and believe it’s worth spending the time and the money to get this right. Even though, initially the ROI may not seem to be there, it will pay dividends over time and allow marketers to be more nimble and test quickly and know whether or not their tests are working. So, that is one piece of advice that I would just give to really anyone in any industry.
Brian Erickson:
I cannot echo that enough. That is something that I’m just so super passionate about. I think it becomes impossible to make any sort of informed decision at any level when you have incomplete data. I recently have been likening it to when you’re out in public and you see people and they’re wearing a mask, it’s a lot more difficult to understand how they’re feeling or how they’re reacting to something that you’re saying because you only get half the information. Are they smiling with their eyes? If they are, maybe you get a sense for that, but there’s a lot of nuance and you take the mask off and you get the full picture of the data, it can be completely different from what you think it is and you’re making an assumption that you don’t need to be making. So it’s definitely, in my view, worth that overhead of getting it all straightened out. I don’t know why it is still so complex to do, but it definitely is. It’s definitely very difficult to root out all the pieces of the plumbing that are not firing correctly.
Lee Senderov:
It’s interesting because I spent 12 years working in Silicon Valley at various startups where it was almost part of our DNA to build the company from the ground up with a data analytics team, despite the size of the company not being very big. And it was just such an integral piece. And when I left the Valley, I realized that organizations that didn’t necessarily grow up with marketing analytics being a core part of their existence, have to really think about, okay, well, how do we now make the super important? when there is a limited business intelligence department and you’re running on all cylinders and you’re trying to get accounting data to work correctly, and you’re trying to get operations data to work correctly, and you’re trying to get marketing data to work correctly. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is oftentimes the marketing data gets treated like the stepchild because it’s sometimes not regarded as important as, for example, financial reporting, which is fair to some extent, I understand that.
But I do find that actually learning and teaching inside of an organization to appreciate having access to the right data and being able to trust that data because that’s another really big, I think, challenge a lot of organizations have, is even just the ability to trust the data because they’ve gone through change and people have come and gone and no one’s really sure exactly what that thing means in Google Analytics. Being able to have clean data that you can trust and just very quickly pull and demonstrate if something is working or not, we just need to make it a core part of our existence as an organization rather than the stepchild. If that makes sense.
Brian Erickson:
Preaching to the choir on that one, that’s for sure. I’m totally in agreement.
Lee Senderov:
Yeah. I think the other piece of advice I would give is that you can start small. To me, it did, I think…
Brian Erickson:
Probably easier to start small, or let’s say it’s definitely easier to start small. You have fewer ways for things to interact.
Lee Senderov:
Exactly. The advice I sometimes give folks when they ask me about this is that it’s not a set it and forget it situation, you don’t set up your data and then you never have to visit it again. It’s an ongoing process. We’re in the process right now of implementing Datarama for our marketing analytics. I can circle back with you and tell you how happy or not happy we are in a few months on that. The idea is to just start integrating all of our different data sources, whether it’d be our internal sales data, Google Analytics, Facebook, et cetera, all into a centralized location. That doesn’t mean that system won’t need tender love and care over time, and that it will be a set it and forget it, it will be something that we will constantly be updating and adding to. It just becomes part of our workflow.
To your point about starting small, we’re starting by integrating two data sources, building reports off of those, and then we’ll integrate a third, and so on and so forth. So it’s a phased approach over time. It is not a, “We’re going to try to conquer all of this in one single project.”
Brian Erickson:
When you try to tackle everything at once, you get something so tangled up and it never gets actually ironed out as if you’ve started with something that’s too big. So I think that some great advice is to keep it focused, and get to a unit of usefulness, and expand on that and grow outward from there. Awesome. So I guess, looking at that in an individual context, that advice that you would give to a brand-side marketer right now, what would you say is not only important for companies but important for individuals who are in the job market that might be unemployed? I know that unemployment has declined from where it initially was, but we’re still in one of the larger phases of unemployment, at least in my career so far. What advice would you give to digital executives that find themselves as free agents right now?
Lee Senderov:
Sure. So I think one thing is just be open to the possibility of different industries. A lot of times, if someone’s spent 20 years in retail, they think, okay, I’m a retail person. If that is your passion, you should continue to be a retail person, but also keep in mind that there may be other industries that can use your talents that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. For example, when I received the call from a recruiter about this opportunity at Foundation Partners Group, and I was told the company was in the death care space, I definitely scratched my head for a moment. I didn’t grow up thinking I’m going to work in the death care space, it never even occurred to me to be perfectly honest. But as I learned more about the organization and our commitment to serving our families, I realized what a wonderful opportunity this was and also an opportunity to give back, service families, and also really digitize a part of life that’s inevitable for all of us.

So that was something that really resonated with me, something that may not come as an obvious next career path may actually be surprisingly something that a candidate could be interested in. So I think that’s one piece of it. I think in terms of positioning skill sets, I would encourage candidates to be very specific in describing what they have accomplished with numbers to back up their claims. I mean, we are, after all, digital marketers and we should be ROI-focused and understand that. As you’re branding yourself and talking to organizations, make sure to highlight what are the projects that you’ve had success in, what was the ROI on those projects? Also, be truthful about the experiments that haven’t worked. I think most digital marketers will tell you that out of 10 experiments, two or three will work. They’re not all going to work, but you gain learnings along the way that make you smarter and make your next experiment that much more successful.

The last thing I’ll say, and I’ve shared this with a lot of folks, when you think about the job-seeking process, think about it in a sense that every step of the way you’re trying to get to the next step. So what I mean by that is the resume is not going to get you the job. You should write your resume thinking that you want to get that phone screen. In that phone screen, you should be thinking about how do I get myself to the next step of this interview process rather than thinking about, okay, I need to position this resume perfectly because this is what’s going to make or break this job. The resume is going to get you a phone screen. That phone screen will get an interview with the hiring manager. The hiring manager will then introduce you to the team. Think of that every step of the way and what you’re looking to accomplish, rather than thinking ahead to simply getting the job. That’s really helped me before when I was thinking about opportunities. I hope that helps others.
Brian Erickson:
It’s a really great point and it’s not unlike selling anything. You’re selling yourself as a candidate and in any selling situation, that’s a big choice, which I would say hiring anybody for anything is a big choice. You want to make the right decision. It’s not like selling a bag of potato chips or something like that. You’re going to really go through a multi-step decision process. The more that you as the person selling or interviewing can align with that process and move through it in sync with the other party, the better chance you’re going to have of moving to the end. So I think that’s some really great advice there.
Lee Senderov:
Yeah. I hope it helps those thinking about their next opportunities.
Brian Erickson:
Awesome. Well, Lee, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Lee Senderov:
Thank you so much for having me, Brian. This was fun.
Brian Erickson:
Great. Well, this is Brian Erickson from Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening. Please make sure to check back for more senior marketers like Lee, sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

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