Holy Profits!

Webmaster Jermaine Griggs truly believes in selling the Gospel online. His sites gross almost seven figures per year. His conversion rates are miraculous; six out of 10 people coming to his site end up buying. His list of potential customers grows by 6,000 each month. He has 650 affiliates evangelizing his products. And he’s barely old enough to drink communion wine.

“I attribute everything to God,” the 21-year-old preaches. “This is not only a business venture, it’s a ministry.” His products are mainstream enough: videos that teach piano players how to perform gospel music by ear. But with GospelKeys.com, HearAndPlay.com and a host of other sites catering to the church crowd, Griggs sings the praises of online religious sales with the same passion and conviction with which he leads the choir at Good Success Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, Calif.

“I empower musicians who not only play for themselves but go on to play for churches,” Griggs said. “That’s the ministry side, and it really gives me satisfaction.”

Griggs is one of thousands getting satisfaction from selling faith-based products online. In what comScore ranks as “one of the top 10 gaining categories,” merchants and their affiliates are bringing products once relegated to religious bookstores and church foyers to the online masses. They’re selling religious books, CDs, videos, devotionals, Bibles, gifts, greeting cards, crucifixes, rosaries, menorahs, Kiddish cups, stationery, art, church supplies, incense and – the latest fad – T-shirts with a religious message. “In the past, most of the online sales were driven by [religious] music and books,” said Mike Goldenberg, marketing director at body products merchantMountOfOlivesTreasures.com, which promotes its affiliate program as an online fundraiser for religious groups. “But the theme is now expansion into other categories that heretofore have been largely ignored.”

Suddenly, religious kitsch seems sublime. What was a $2.6 billion market in 1991 is now an $8 billion market, according to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com. A growing portion of that revenue comes from online merchants and affiliates. Many target Baptists and charismatic or evangelistic Christians, who are nearly twice as likely to buy Christian books as other Protestants or Catholics. A survey conducted by Hallmark showed four out of five Americans – roughly 230 million – call themselves Christians. Evangelical Christians alone represent 72 million potential buyers, said Goldenberg.

Current events may be fueling a revival. Religious validation, it seems, is often tied to war. And then there’s the buzz gen-erated by Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, which grossed nearly $600 million worldwide in its first 10 weeks at the box office. “With The Passion movie that blew through theaters, business has been quite good,” said Ian Rutherford, who founded the Catholic resource AquinasAndMore.com, which pays 6 per- cent to 12 percent to its affiliates. “Our March sales actually beat Christmas.” That doesn’t mean believers are willing to buy every religious trinket online; at least not yet. But it does mean that savvy Webpreneurs are finding ways to get some of those searchers to their own online paradise. “Many specialty items aren’t readily available at Wal-Mart or even the local Christian bookstore, especially if you’re not Christian or your branch of Christianity is not well served by the local store,” said Roger Finke, director of the American Religion Data Archive at Penn State University. “The online retailer can carry greater variety and a larger volume because they are appealing to a potentially larger market.”

With 50 million hits and 275,000 unique visitors per month, Bible.com fits the bill. ComScore’s Media Metrix ranked it the 14th most popular religious site on the Net in April. Who would guess it’s run by a soft-spoken retired couple from Dewey, Ariz.? “We’ve been in this Internet ministry since 1994, with no prior experience,” said Bud Miller. “I’m 75 years old, and Betty is 64. We’re not quite in the age group in the cutting edge of the Internet, and it’s been quite a learning curve. But because we’ve been in ministry, everything we do is trying to get the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ out. And if we sell something that helps underwrite what we’re doing, then praise God.”

Profit and Piety

These affiliates say they don’t embrace profit; the message, they believe, could be lost in the medium. “Although at times hypocrisy results from this mix of profit and piety, for the most part this sense of ministry imparts a refreshing collegiality to the business,” reports Packaged Data. “Indeed, religious products marketers tend to regard themselves as allies against their real adversaries: the godless and corrupt influences of the secular world.”

Not surprisingly, one hears very little about spammers, predatory ads or other problems in this segment. Revenue spoke with affiliates who earn less than $100 a month and others who earn tens of thousands. Whatever the cash flow, it is often earmarked for greater goals, such as construction of a new parish, missionary trips or the ability to continue spreading a spiritual message.

“We’re pretty much financing the ministry by ourselves right now,” said Marilyn Bush, operator of FastTrackMinistries.com. “And it’s just one more way to make money.” Her job introduced her to the value of affiliate relationships – she’s assistant to the marketing director for GospelCom.net, parent company to GospelDirect.com. Now she uses a GospelDirect affiliate link on her personal site. Commissions go to fuel her trusty 1984 motor home, donned with “Fast Track Ministries” signs on each latte-hued side. “We take our motor home and go to different auto racetracks,” said Bush, who spends weekends with husband Larry driving to Michigan’s 43 dirt tracks or NASCAR tracks. They roam the pits talking to the drivers and their families, walk through the stands handing out pictures of Christian NASCAR drivers or sports devotional books and – once announced – greet the children under the shade of the motor home awning and tell stories of David and the giant Goliath or Noah and his ark of animals. “Our site is pretty small, so we don’t even make $100 per month,” Bush said. “But with gas prices now, $100 a month almost fills our motor home. I would accept that from anybody.”

GospelDirect.com offers an 8 percent commission, which is about average for religious sites. But some sites give more. PacificHeritage.com, for example, pays a 20 percent commission on sales of its gifts and statuary, which includes 16- to 33-inch-tall saints and angels with glass eyes and “life-like, long beautiful eyelashes.” Pacific Heritage also offers a bonus to the people who refer new affiliates: 25 percent of the new affiliate’s commissions. JustCatholic.com rewards consumers by offering to send rebates to the parish of the shopper’s choice. In 2003, it sent checks to 1,200 US parishes.

Being an affiliate in the religious space takes some conviction. “The non-religious product companies would die to have the passionate cause that’s inherent in the religious companies,” said Jackie Huba, author of Creating Customer Evangelists. “Buying things that are already part of your belief set fills an emotional need and emotional desire for your life. The religious companies already have that cause, and their buyers are already true believers.”

There are already many online gathering spots for the religious, from forums, to webcast religious services like WekivaPresbyterian.org, to issues-related message boards, to Christian dating services like FriendFinder’s BigChurch.com. “Just like every other industry, Internet-related stuff is coming into its own – for religious purposes as well,” said Stan Taylor, co-creator of ReligiousResources.org, a free directory of 5,000-plus online merchants selling everything from religious art and events to memberships in electronic communities and religious texts. “The community potentials on the Internet are showing a lot of promise in faith-based items.”

Thanks to Amazon.com’s religious books and Google’s AdWords, Taylor is now pulling in a few affiliate checks of his own. “They enhance our site, and we make money off of them,” said Taylor, who reports 2 percent clickthroughs and commissions of a few hundred dollars per month on free ads automatically placed by Google’s software on Web pages matching ad content.

Target Audiences

Catholic sites, for instance, “focus on either Catholics who want to learn more about their faith or Catholics you’d consider devout – orthodox Catholics who take their faith seriously,” said AquinasAndMore.com’s Rutherford, who recently launched a Catholic version of eBay, CatholicAuction.com. Christian sites most frequently target evangelicals and Baptists, the two largest Christian segments after Catholics. Jewish sites focus on orthodox Judaism, the most ritualistic and therefore most heavily associated with Judaic products.

For webmasters, every sale, every site visit, every ad is a chance to bring individuals into the flock. Consumers “want something that’s missing in their life, and if they find it at your site they’re going to walk through your doors,” said Dean Peters. He helps his Baptist church youth group raise funds through CafePress.com’s affiliate program, and during the week runs the HealYourChurchWebsite.com forum.

Despite the zeal with which they talk about their products, religious affiliates seem less advanced at spreading their message in the Internet world. Email campaigns are few and far between. Few religious affiliates bid on search engine placement. Viral marketing is largely limited to e-cards. And potential affiliates who already have a substantial land-based following shy away from affiliate programs, not because the money isn’t there but rather, they’re afraid to be perceived as having a site that hawks its wares.

That’s actually good news for new affiliate entrants. There’s plenty of opportunity to get high-ranking placements on search engines. “You can get in with Gospel products for less than 10 cents per click,” said Griggs. “I have affiliates out there – five or six – who are working search engines with their own financial resources, but their commissions are outweighing what they pay by four or five times.”

That’s a pretty good return on investment, echoed in sites outside of Griggs’. “If a site is really willing to promote and can get on the search engines, they can do well,” Rutherford said. “A banner somewhere on the site just doesn’t cut it. They’ve got to be willing to go out of their way to promote specific products or categories on their home page or throughout their site. [After that], it’s really a matter of how much they’re willing to do.”

It also pays to pay attention to trends. For Catholic sites, items such as rosaries and Gregorian chants – things that have waned in popularity over the years – are starting to gain interest again. For evangelical sites, T-shirts proclaiming “Jesus is my homeboy” or other pseudo-evangelistic phrases are hot, as are Christian magazines and Bibles aimed at the teen market.

With all the well-behaved sites in this sector, are there any hurdles for sites based on religion? “There’s always a problem between the secular and the Christian/religious world,” said Griggs. “And that’s what we have to deal with. We do have the people who are in this business just for the money. We do battle with that. But for the people who love God, and gospel music is what they do, we’ll never have a problem with those people.”

JENNIFER MEACHAM has been writing about business and technology for more than a decade. She was named the Region X Journalist of the Year by the US Small Business Administration in 2002.