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Bookseller Preaches to the Choir

iBelieve.com, an online retailer of Christian books and related merchandise due to launch next month, has a peculiar problem regarding its target audience.

“We know where the core constituents are every single Sunday; there's a lot of people that go to church every single Sabbath,” said John Nardini, who heads iBelieve's marketing efforts. “The question is, how do you get to them, how do you talk to them? There's not an established channel, there's multiple denominations within churches, there's fragmented media.”

And it's not just this diverse group of 85 million Christians — 44 percent of whom are online — that's within tantalizing reach and yet so far away. The clergy is equally important for iBelieve to succeed as a Christian destination site.

“The thing is, pastors are very protective of their time,” Nardini said. “This is a church, a spiritual event, not a TV commercial. We've even talked of providing content of our site in the bulletins. But we get resistance from that if we even want to mention our Web site.”

So, the Grand Rapids, MI-based e-retailer is relying on a series of terrestrial marketing tactics to peddle Christian books, music, apparel, gifts and, soon, services including travel, money management, health and entertainment.

Strengthening bonds with its Family Christian Stores parent company is paramount. IBelieve is a $30 million venture of Chicago-based venture capitalist and private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, which also owns Family Christian, the No. 1 Christian bookseller in the United States.

Building a database by traditional means is step one. Customers at Family Christian's 350 stores are informed by cash-counter associates about iBelieve and asked for contact details. Over 100,000 people have volunteered such information since mid-November.

“These are people who've opted in,” said Nardini. “They understand that they'll get e-mail from iBelieve.com and they're handing over their e-mail addresses.”

The next step is prospecting Family Christian's frequent-buyer database of 6 million customers. Called Perks members, their ranks are swelling by 150,000 people a month, Nardini claims. Depending on their buying habits, these names will be informed about iBelieve through catalogs, flyers, post cards and e-mail.

In addition, Family Christian will inform the 165,000 pastors in its database about the new Web site. Furthermore, the online arm will attempt to affiliate with church sites so that visitors to those pages can buy related merchandise by clicking on the iBelieve link.

Negotiations also are on with Olan Mills, a company that visits 12,000 churches each year to take photographs for congregation directories. While the photographs are free, Olan Mills makes money selling photography-related packages.

Family Christian stores will pitch in with in-store signage, bookmarks, counter mats and possibly kiosks linked to iBelieve.

Next year, iBelieve will start a $20 million ad campaign targeted at Christian radio, television and print. It will sponsor conferences for pastors, evangelical concerts and music festivals, and market itself at events organized by Women of Faith, the equivalent of the male Promise Keepers. The drive to build an online database will get a further boost through alliances with various ministries.

The growing potential of the online market for Christian products was recognized last October when the Christian Booksellers Association, Nashville, TN, voted to create a new category for Internet retailers.

“We see the Internet as a vital force in retail,” said Bill Anderson, the association's president. “As Internet retail marketing continues to grow dramatically, we're encouraging our members to embrace the Internet and use it to augment what they do in brick-and-mortar.”

The association estimates the Christian products market at an annual $3 billion. Family Christian accounts for an estimated 20 percent to 25 percent share of that retail-store end of that market, Nardini said. Its biggest offline competitor is LifeWay, an 85-store offshoot of the Baptist church.

Another competitor is Crosswalk.com, an Internet-only, publicly quoted Christian products retailer that had 300,000 consumers on file until it bought Goshen, which garnered data on 300,000 pastors. Its stock symbol is AMEN.

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