NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- You've read The Book, now buy the magazine.
Reader's Digest Association thinks it has found a new model for launching a mass magazine brand in this digital era: Plug into an existing community, preferably a really, really big one that's incredibly devoted and highly likely to evangelize the product. That's what RDA is banking on with today's debut of Purpose Driven Connection, a multimedia platform built around the teachings of Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and best-selling author of "The Purpose Driven Life."
RDA President-CEO Mary Berner said Purpose Driven Connection is much more than a magazine. She sees the quarterly -- which makes its debut today after a year and a half of planning -- as just one piece of a network, and that readers become members, not subscribers.
"We're not just launching a magazine; we're launching a multimedia, multiplatform community," she said. "That is absolutely at the core of what our strategy is globally and in the U.S."
For an annual fee of $29.99, members receive the magazine, four spiritual DVDs, four workbooks and access to a social-networking website that aims to be a Christian Facebook. The magazine will also be sold in retail stores such as Walmart for $9.99, and congregations get a discounted rate of $19.99 for the entire package.
The magazine will start out with a base rate of 500,000, but RDA expects to build the rate base to 1 million by the magazine's third issue this fall. It is a massive endeavor in this economy, but RDA believes it has a large built-in audience, a strong message as well as a capable, famous and charismatic leader.
RDA sent out 100,000 print copies of the magazine to pastors in Mr. Warren's network, and electronic copies to an additional 500,000 pastors. It also reached out to 3 million Christian consumers RDA has identified in its own database and Mr. Warren's. Many of RDA's U.S. titles and websites, including Allrecipes.com, are promoting the new offering. And in two months, it will test international waters, most likely in Korea, said Ms. Berner.
A study published last year by WPP Group's MindShare North America found that Evangelicals are some of the most influential and engaged consumers. The 100 million Americans that identify as Evangelicals have a combined household income of $2.1 trillion, according to the study.
"Clearly, the numbers themselves prove that they would be of substantial view," said Tata Sato, MindShare's head of research. "Evangelicals are very receptive to the right messages."
She believes family-oriented consumer products, entertainment, pharmaceuticals, financial companies, and auto companies would be particularly well-received as advertisers. But Ms. Sato said that "it's an uphill battle" to get mainstream marketers to do so. "No marketer is on prime time waving and saying, hey, Evangelicals," she said.
Leveraging local networks
As a national magazine, Purpose Driven's challenge will be to give aggregate voice to a whole population, while also respecting its individual parts. Evangelicalism "is a very locally driven movement," Ms. Sato said. "Their lives often times are very anchored to the church. The challenge might be to how to tap into these local networks [and] leverage what already exists."
Purpose Driven Connection "could appeal to a variety of advertisers," said Stephen Carlson, media director for Publicis Groupe's Spark Communications, part of Starcom Mediavest Group, which also owns Starcom, the agency of record for Procter & Gamble.
"Inspirational lifestyle could be a big fit for a lot of people," he said. "The community has a big following, and if you could connect with that community, there is an opportunity to sell a lot of products."
Mr. Carlson noted, however, that "there are some things you'd have to give a heads up" about; for example, Mr. Warren supported California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage -- and that this might turn off some advertisers.
In the debut magazine issue, Procter & Gamble is the only mainstream brand to advertise. It bought a two-page spread promoting its Children's Safe Drinking Water effort. All other advertisers were Christian organizations or Mr. Warren's own products.
Publisher Bridget Johnson said the Purpose Driven brand has a combined subscription and advertising-based business model. Marketers can buy ads in the print magazine or on the website and also sponsor content online. She said Purpose Driven is also open to working with marketers in new ways so that "our members can touch and feel those marketers' products and services."
In scope and size, Purpose Driven has few competitors. Rev. Billy Graham's Christianity Today has a circulation of just 140,000, according to its website. Guideposts is a spiritual monthly magazine with a 2.3 million rate base in the first six months of 2008, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations -- but it is not a strictly Christian title. Online, ChristianityToday.com attracted 565,000 and Guidepostsmag.com attracted 339,000 unique visitors in the U.S. in December 2008, according to ComScore. News Corp.'s Beliefnet.com, which encompasses all religions, led the online religious and spiritual category with an audience of 2.2 million.
The magazine, titled Purpose Driven Connection, has the look and feel of a glossy. Its content, however, is anything but the usual service editorial. Among the featured cover stories: "What God Knows About You" and "25 Bible Promises for Hard Times." Inside, content aims for a decidedly youthful crowd, with articles such as "God Called Us to Reach the Hip-Hop Generation" and a multipage spread on tattooed bikers that call themselves the Bible Thumpers, Christian rockers and saved surfers. The premiere issue also comes with a 6-lesson DVD and 52-page study guide based on Mr. Warren's teachings.
"We realized how powerful he is, and how passionate he is, and we knew he had something to say to the world," said Alyce Alston, president of RDA's Home & Garden and Health & Wellness divisions. "It was our job to create products to disseminate that message."