A Mission to Innovate
“In the last decade, Christianity Today International moved the needle for online revenue from zero to 40% contribution to gross corporate revenues.”
An Interview with Cory Whitehead, Director of Brand & Digital Marketing, Christianity Today International
CDS Global published a “client spotlight” in their January 2011 Perspectives that piqued my interest. They reported on the formation of a Marketing Enrichment Group at Christianity Today International [CTI] to foster in-house training, collaboration across various marketing teams, and idea germination. I had a sense this was more than “centralized” marketing and a conversation with Cory Whitehead confirmed that and something else; this company has been innovating since day one.
Q. How did CTI start?
In 1956 Billy Graham had a vision to start one publication which would address issues of the day confronting the church with high quality journalism and reach all 200,000 pastors in the U.S. With the help of friends and Board of Directors, a non-profit organization was created to launch Christianity Today and send it free to the intended audience.
In the mid 1970s the Board hired Harold Myra as President and Publisher and gave him a mandate to bring the magazine to financial health while maintaining the vision of founder Billy Graham. Myra hired Paul Robbins soon after to oversee business and finance for the company and one of their first actions was to change the business model from free distribution to paid subscriptions. After giving away content for 20 years, they began charging for it.
Q. When did the company expand beyond publishing one title?
Five years after moving CT to paid circulation, around 1980, they launched a business title called Leadership Journal which focused on practical management for ministry.
Several other print publications were added in the 80s and 90s—up to 14 publications at its peak—content for Christian men, women, parents, couples, teens, and niche publications like Christian History and Books & Culture
The next expansion was in 1994 when Christianity Today became one of the top 10 content providers on all of AOL.This was followed two years later by the launch of ChristianityOnline.com in 1996 which soon became self-sustaining with online advertising sales.
And in 1999 Myra and Robbins launched a companion site to Leadership Journal (PreachToday.com), a paid content database of sermon illustrations. Pretty quickly this site became self-sustaining.
Q. Why do you think the leadership team of Myra and Robbins was forward-thinking and successful in building out their vision?
The company has always been focused on market research and learning what the audience needs, even if they had to do some of the original research on a shoestring budget.
[“The research led them to foster an environment of dialogue with readers versus a monologue” according to Scott Bolinder, former EVP/Publisher of Zondervan and former CTI Vice President as reported by CTI in 2007.]
To respond to research findings and trends, they created a “laboratory department” called Resources or Ancillary Products in 1999 comprised of a small team of people, based in a different building. This group was given the capital, staff and time to develop a cutting edge product, preachingtoday.com. The birth of this site was not easy. The database that it was built on was obsolete and had to be moved onto another platform. The first year, payment processing was manual…in notebooks, very rudimentary.
Ten years ago the revenue mix was 50% circ/50% advertising in print. In the last decade CTI moved the needle for online revenue from zero to about 40% contribution to gross corporate revenues and even higher in net revenue, because costs are lower.
Q. Tell me about the Marketing Enrichment Group at CTI
The impetus for the MEG was in 2007 with the senior leadership transition. When Myra and Robbins retired after serving the company for 30 years, CTI restructured from brand silos into team based audience groups. Three of those exist today:
- Christianity Today-thought-leaders (CTmag, Books & Culture)
- Church Leadership
- Church Ministry-small groups, women
Each team consisted of Editors/Marketers/Designers. This reorganization meant that there is no cross-pollination between teams. MEG fills that gap.
Q. How does MEG work with the teams?
We don’t want MEG to be a burden that gives people more work as they are stretched thin. We want it to be an exchange of ideas, sharing best practices and encouragement. One marketer or team has tested something that worked or bombed and they can share that with rest of group. MEG is not focused on development of new products, but rather developing people and their tactics.
We hold monthly meetings focused on leadership training, continuing education, and exchanging ideas. These can be led by staff or outside speakers. And we hold an off-site once a year. Brainstorming happens at our monthly happy hour meeting in a coffee shop, a park, etc. Each marketer chooses a specialization which they then embrace and share what they have learned ongoing with the group. Last, we keep an internal marketing blog where all are encouraged to share insights and ideas.
Q. There is a history of successful launches at CTI. How do launches get birthed today?
Launches come out of each of the three media groups. The MEG has innovated as well with brand extensions. They led the testing with online contests, webinars, social media, etc.
Q. What is CTI doing with mobile technology, digital editions and social media?
There is a task force for new media development within the company. We are transitioning some content to ebooks. In 2010 we developed our first iPhone app. We are getting more mobile friendly and developing more apps. We have five digital edition pubs—two are replicas of the print and three publications are digital only, two free and one paid.
Social media is another distribution method of content. Some of our brands have lively conversations on Facebook and Twitter. The immediacy of the feedback and conversation is invaluable and it is a strong traffic generator.
Q. How does CTI measure success in 2011?
First, we have stayed true to our original mission, to give a voice to all sides—balance—but above all, there is recognition and respect. Our voice is civil. No fighting or headline grabbing. Second, we look at how we are impacting churches not only in North America, but worldwide as we have expanded overseas in the last decade. And last, we strive to be financially healthy. We remain non-profit to focus on our mission and ministry, but also strive to be self-sustaining and any profits go back into the business. [The company generated gross revenue of 15 million in 2010.]
Q. What keeps you up at night?
A big responsibility that we have as an organization right now is communicating who we are and why we are unique, especially as we have transitioned back to our core.
Several new products were launched in the '80s and '90s; we were publishing up to 14 print magazines. After 2000 we entered the online space, some sold, some moved online, some shut down. There has been a perfect storm due to the economy and CTI has gone back to the core market—church and thought-leaders. We made tough decisions to move out of the consumer market. There has been re-deployment and now rebranding.
In the past, we referred to ourselves as the “quiet” company. We now want and need to help people understand our place within the evangelical church.
Several note-worthy items surface out of this conversation about CTI. The company, since its founding, has made wise hiring choices at the “top” and they seem to have let leaders lead. Myra and Robbins believed in investing in the development of their employees and listening to their audience; taking the pulse often and then being nimble in responding to findings. This style of management continues today.
CTI has not been afraid to take risks. Convert from free to paid after 20 years? Make money and break even online in 1996? Charge for content in 1999 and do it successfully. Ten years later many in our field are debating the merits of all these actions. Perhaps we should debate our value proposition instead?
Cory Whitehead joined Christianity Today in June 2000 as the non-profit organization was starting a transition from primarily a print magazine publisher to a multimedia ministry. CTI now includes 6 print publications, 3 digital-only publications, and 8 paid-content websites that together reach over 2.5 million Christian leaders every month. Whitehead has served in the areas of marketing and new product development during his career, and is now the Director of Brand and Digital Marketing and co-leads the Marketing Enrichment Group.
Lou Ann Sabatier has 35 years of experience in the publishing industry. Ms. Sabatier has been deeply involved in all aspects of publishing; including strategic planning,business development, business and financial management, audience development, advertising sales, digital media and operations management. Currently Ms. Sabatier is Principal at Sabatier Consulting and Communications Director of 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.