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Innovation Economy

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Monster.com made its name by putting help-wanted ads online. And now its founder sees untapped potential in widening the audience for death notices, too

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / August 23, 2009

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Three summers ago, Jeff Taylor threw an outdoor party in Charlestown to celebrate the launch of Eons Inc., an Internet destination he’d built to attract baby boomers and seniors. Eons imported actors Richard Dreyfuss and Jane Seymour especially for the party, where they rubbed shoulders with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, former Celtics player and coach M.L. Carr, and about 200 other attendees.

Taylor, the founder of the online career site that became Monster.com, raised $32 million in venture capital funding for Eons. The company filled its Charlestown offices with about 60 staffers, who focused on building an online community for people over the age of 50 with features such as a 40-question quiz that aimed to estimate one’s longevity and supply advice about healthy living.

But three years after the glitzy launch party, just 12 people remain on the payroll at Eons, and the site’s traffic has been shrinking. Taylor is now hoping that Tributes.com, a spinoff from Eons, might do better than the original site. It offers news about notable personalities who’ve died, and sells online obituaries (they prefer the term “tributes’’) to grieving families via a network of funeral homes. Just as Monster grew to a $1.3 billion company by putting a section of newspaper classifieds online - the help-wanted ads - Taylor plans to do the same for death notices, though this time, he faces competition from a big rival.

And it’s not unheard of for a spinoff to take off after the first idea fizzles: The social messaging service Twitter, for instance, was hatched out of Odeo, a podcasting site that went nowhere.

Eons began with a big vision: create an online gathering place for people on the far side of 50 that would evolve into a kind of next-generation AARP. In addition to the website, there were plans for a print magazine, a membership rewards program, and a TV show. But while the company spent heavily on marketing (including television ads where Taylor tried to popularize the slogan “Boom! Boom! Boom!’’), “they never found that seed for organic traffic growth,’’ says a former Eons executive. Today, the AARP website gets about 3 million visitors a month, while Eons attracts just 250,000, according to the research service Compete.com. Maybe boomers and seniors weren’t looking for a destination built just for them - or maybe they were gravitating to other social networks, such as Facebook.

But one part of Eons that seemed to have momentum was its obituaries section. In February 2008, Taylor decided to form a new company, Tributes, and install Eons executive Elaine Haney as its president. (Taylor serves as chairman of Tributes and is still CEO of Eons.) Taylor raised money from the publisher Dow Jones & Co. along with several chains of funeral homes; Eons also owns about one-third of Tributes.

The site tries to build traffic by creating online memorials for departed celebrities such as Paul Newman and Michael Jackson. It also has information from the Social Security Administration about more than 80 million deceased Americans. But its revenue comes from individuals who pay for online obits that can include unlimited text about the deceased, along with photos, videos, and music.

Taylor is taking advantage of two interesting dynamics in the marketplace. First, when you publish a death notice in the newspaper, the longer it is, the more it costs. And second, many death notices in newspapers are effectively sold by funeral directors, who often help the family write the text and e-mail or fax it in to a newspaper. They also collect the money from the family and pass it along to the paper - all without getting a commission.

“We become the accounts receivable department of the newspaper,’’ says Buddy Phaneuf, a New Hampshire funeral director who serves on Tributes’ advisory board. “And while we always pay the bill, the families don’t sometimes - like if there’s an error in the notice or if there’s a family argument about what went into the notice.’’ But when a funeral home sells an online Tributes obituary, they get to set the retail price, and Tributes charges them $125 wholesale. (At Phaneuf’s funeral homes, the retail price is $295.)

Tributes.com visitors can also find a basic listing on the site of a loved one who died, perhaps years ago, and pay either a flat fee of $150, or $10 per month, to enhance it with their own memories and photos.

Haney says that given the turmoil in the newspaper industry, death notices are “ripe for someone to come in and do something different.’’ And she says that as time goes by, more people who’ve grown up online will consider the Web - and not newsprint - to be the natural place to look for obituaries.

Tributes faces major competition from Legacy.com, an 11-year-old site originally funded by the Tribune Co., which works with more than 750 newspapers (including this one) to sell combination print/online death notices. Legacy is profitable, and has 8.7 million monthly visitors, according to Compete.

But Peter Zollman, an analyst who follows the classified business for AIM Group LLC, said newspapers need to be on the defensive. “Tributes is a massively distant second behind Legacy.com,’’ says Zollman. “And my guess is their revenue is pretty tiny. But newspapers aren’t aggressively defending their revenue from death notices - they just don’t see it as core to their business, which I think is a giant mistake.’’

A call seeking comment was not returned by Legacy.com.

“Our partnership with Legacy allows us to serve families with print death notices and an online component,’’ said Robert Powers, a spokesman for The Boston Globe.

Tributes, after just a year-and-a-half on its own, has nearly matched the traffic of Eons, and with 15 workers it has a few more employees. Eons will generate more revenue than Tributes this year, but Taylor projects Tributes will do better in 2010, adding optimistically that “we do have new products coming out at Eons’’ that could change that. Last month, Tributes took in $1.2 million in funding, on top of $4.2 million it had banked previously.

Taylor says he still expects that one or both of the companies could turn into a home run. But he says he has learned patience from his experience with Monster, which he started in 1994, sold in 1995 (for $900,000), and then spent the better part of a decade building into a 6,000-employee colossus. “I have learned that there are very few overnight phenomena,’’ he says.