Electronic Shepherds Offer Networks Marketing Staffs

Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Bob Higley just visited GodTube.com and typed “TBN” into the site’s search engine.

“There were 395 videos that popped up,” said Higley, vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the programmer, whose outlets include The Church Channel and JCTV. “For JCTV, I saw 74 entries.

“It’s not an effort on our part,” he added. “It’s our producers and programmers uploading to these sites. It’s nice that they’re doing that.”

With little or no investment in marketing, GodTube — which bills itself as “a video-driven social network where users can explore their faith and the tenets of Christianity” — attracted about 3.6 million visitors, 2.6 million of them unique, in August 2008.

For faith-based networks such as TBN and the ministries that appear on them, GodTube and Catholic Tube offer an inexpensive way to promote programming through “viral” campaigns, while also hawking books, CDs and DVDs.

“Absolutely,” said Eternal Word Television Network president Michael Warsaw. “It raises awareness.”

GodTube also affords religious networks and film studios a way to potentially monetize their archives. One example is Grizzly Adams Productions, which produces films, series and other programming for distribution via DVD and multichannel networks.

“We are currently preparing promos to upload to these sites,” said Grizzly Adams president Charles Sellier. “Up until recently, there has not been a market to air Christian promos efficiently since the promos are costly. We are unsure at this time if this will be cost-effective. We will try a few and see.”

GodTube allows producers to post clips or even entire programs in order to draw attention to their libraries.

“They’re finding that if they give some of this stuff for free, it encourages people to buy it on a CD or DVD,” said GodTube chief strategy officer Jason Illian.

Roman Catholic-focused EWTN is among the religious networks that sees a lot of value in using social-networking sites, and the Web in general, to build awareness of its programming. “We anticipate launching [something] very soon that takes advantage of social networking,” Warsaw said.

Web-based social networking’s appeal for these programmers and ministries is not surprising, in that it is essentially the electronic equivalent of “witnessing,” or sharing one’s faith with nonbelievers. Traditional witnessing usually involves a face-to-face meeting, as well as exchanging information in books or other hard-copy formats.

By comparison, the online equivalent means being able to quickly and easily forward links to a video on GodTube or on a religious network’s site.

GodTube also offers programmers and ministries a cost-effective alternative to hosting their own microsites.

“We’ve been building tools to make this more of a social network,” said Illian. “Churches, ministries and film companies will be able to create their own pages [of] audio, video and blogs. So instead of just showing a clip, we can have people blog on that clip, share it [and offer] exclusive footage.”

That strategy is similar to what’s available from secular sites such as MySpace.

“McDonald’s doesn’t create a microsite any more,” Illian said. “They create myspace.com/mcdonalds. It costs $15,000 to $20,000 to create a microsite. We can do it for free in 24 hours because all of the tools are given to you.”

Sites like GodTube are also seen as an effective way to reach younger people who are accustomed to socializing over the Internet.

“These are great ways to reach younger demographics,” Warsaw said. “You can’t ignore the desires of that demographic. You do so at your own peril.”

GodTube sees the social-networking aspect as being at least as important as the content itself.

“It’s really not just content anymore,” Illian said. “It’s content and connections.”

The Inspiration Networks takes a similar view, with offerings spanning mobile phones and its own broadband portals, including message boards.

“We’re trying to hit everything,” said John Roos, senior vice president of corporate communications and research at INSP, which is in about 6 million video-on-demand households. “This is an audience that isn’t the typical religious audience.”

Web sites also are a way to reach consumers who don’t consider themselves religious and thus are unlikely to stumble across a program or movie that might interest them nonetheless.

“There aren’t many teens channel-surfing the religious tier,” Warsaw said. “It’s important to go where they are.”

One of those places is YouTube, which provides a way to reach people who might not visit sites such as GodTube or Catholic Tube. YouTube, for instance, has around 60 clips from INSP’s youth-oriented Steelroots program and about 40 clips of EWTN’s Mother Angelica.

“It is a great way to cast a larger net in a part of the 'audience ocean’ where people are surfing and searching for what you can offer, and they may not even know it until they see it,” said Doug Keck, senior vice president of programming at EWTN. “The only downside is that unlike your [TV] channel, you cannot control what else is available in the same location that may run counter to your message, and people may be needlessly confused.”

Grizzly Adams Productions also uses secular social-networking sites. About nine months ago, it posted a trailer for Friends for Life that has since had more than 1,100 viewings.

“We currently have seven promos on YouTube,” Sellier said. “We are close to having more promos completed to upload to them. We have not been able to determine yet if they are cost-effective.”

Another network testing the waters is the FaithStreams Division of Odyssey Networks (formerly Faith & Values Media).

“Odyssey Networks sees YouTube, MySpace and GodTube as powerful platforms for exposing our Web-based programming to the younger demographic,” said Deb Mathews, director of FaithStreams operations. “We have been active with all these sites over the last year. Although the results have not been as robust as we hoped, we will continue to use these and any other relevant Web communities.”

Some ministries — such as North Point Community Church in suburban Atlanta — also post services and other content on YouTube, in an effort to cultivate a regional or national following that once was available only by signing on with a major religious-TV network.

The amount of religious content on mainstream sites such as YouTube bears watching by multichannel providers: It’s an indication of the demand for faith-based fare. So operators could use these sites as a barometer in deciding whether to add religious programming to their linear or on-demand lineups.

“The average cable system carries only two faith channels,” said TBN’s Higley.

Higley points to research from firms such as SNL Kagan predicting that cable’s subscriber growth will remain flat while telco TV grows — perhaps, in part, because telcos’ religious-programming lineups tend to be deeper.

“They have a dozen faith channels,” said Higley, who helped negotiate TBN’s contracts with AT&T and Verizon Communications. “The cable industry might be blindsided, especially now that networks like TBN are creating niche channels that cater to the children of Christian families.”

Some religious programmers are using mobile phones as another way to serve their audiences, especially those who spend much of their day away from a PC or TV.

INSP, which launched Inspiration Mobile in November 2006, is currently reviewing its options to determine how best to use wireless. Officials said they are trying to determine what consumers are willing to pay for and identify potential revenue streams.

“We’re pulling back to push out again,” Roos said.

One challenge for religious programmers — and their secular counterparts — is that most of today’s mobile phone browsers can’t simply navigate to a site with video content and then begin playing it. To reach mobile audiences, religious networks would have to cut deals with one or more wireless carriers to have their content added to the carriers’ video “decks.”

Despite those technical and business challenges, many faith programmers see wireless becoming more important and more viable, even if they’re taking a wait-and-see approach for now.

“As competition increases and technology brings the price down, the service providers will need to include our kinds of [content], especially short-form offerings, which we are uniquely qualified to provide,” said EWTN’s Keck. “We may not be there first, but we will be there as it matures.”