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Nikolaas Sintobin, S.J.February 17, 2023
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Can spirituality be sold? Can the word of God be marketed? The superior general of the Jesuits told our group that it can and should be.

During a visit to Amsterdam in the Spring of 2015, Father Adolfo Nicolás told the board of the Platform for Ignatian Spirituality that we needed to become salespeople. “We have to know how to sell a product,” he told us. “When we have a wonderful idea, we have to learn also to prepare the strategy of how to sell it. Because if we don’t sell it, the wonderful ideas are gone with the wind.”

It took us four years to actually start applying Fr. Nicolás’s advice. We had noticed that the number of users of our podcast was growing very slowly, but the idea of being proactive about remedying this did not occur to us. We limited ourselves to publicizing it within our own networks. That was how we had always done it, after all.

"If we don’t sell our spirituality, the wonderful ideas are gone with the wind.”

By 2019, though, the board of the Platform for Ignatian Spirituality decided that marketing would be the first priority of our work on the internet. We were willing to spend a significant amount of money on professional marketers to carry out our plans.

This would not be about the development of new products, but the better marketing of our existing digital offerings. These include a variety of Ignatian prayer tools, videos about Ignatian spirituality and digital retreats.

We would focus in particular on our Ignatian prayer podcast “Bidden onderweg,” the Dutch-language equivalent of “Pray as You Go.” This 12-minute daily podcast invites the listener to pray with one of the Scripture readings of the day.

The results from using professionals to market these products exceeded our wildest expectations. In three years, the number of users of our prayer podcast alone has increased fivefold. Rather than slowing down, the growth increases from year to year. Every day we have an average of 100 new users. Before, it was about 10 a day.

This was not about the development of new products, but the better marketing of our existing digital offerings.

People surfing the web today search for digital content themselves and do not want it forced on them. Our marketing is based on responding directly to this search behavior of individual content seekers. Specifically, we work through the Android and Apple app stores and Google. Anyone typing in words like “prayer” or “Christian meditation” will now see an ad for our podcast as one of the top results. As far as I know, we are the only Catholic group in the Low Countries (Netherlands and Flanders) that invests in professional marketing. In some Catholic circles, marketing almost seems to have a negative connotation.

With this in mind, I have come up with four reasons why digital marketing in the religious world should be seen in a positive light:

1. First, there is the objective fact that the efficiency of our traditional networks to get our message across has been dramatically reduced. In the Low Countries, the Catholic Church used to have a massive presence in education, press, health care, culture, youth movements and other areas. We did not have to pay much attention to communicating to our society, because we were so immersed in that society. Our preaching, teaching and evangelizing was done efficiently and organically through our own channels.

People surfing the web today do not want digital content forced on them.

Most of these networks have been diluted over the past decades, if they have not already evaporated. For example, strict privacy laws no longer allow Jesuit schools to give the addresses of their families to the local parish, let alone to the Jesuits themselves. In the Netherlands, the once thriving Catholic press has all but disappeared. Catholic youth movements have lost much of their Catholic identity. The result is that it has become difficult to reach our own constituency.

The impact of this dissolution of Catholic culture on the work of evangelizing has not yet really sunk in to the consciousness of the Catholic world here in the Low Countries. At the same time, because of the collapse of the entire scaffolding of church life in our region of the world, there is fatigue among church workers, with little energy left for robust communications work.

Traditional Catholic networks have been diluted over the past decades, if they have not already evaporated.

2. Until not so long ago, the religious and spiritual domain in our countries was the quasi-monopoly of the churches. In recent years, a professional spiritual wellness industry has developed at a rapid pace. It offers diverse products for those seeking meaning, in both the physical and the digital environment. Quite a few beautiful former monasteries have been converted into pricey “silence hotels” with a focus on wellness. On the web, there is a large variety of meditation apps like “Insight Timer” and “Headspace.”

Traditional Christians are also happy to take advantage of this. To sell its products, this new wellness industry uses, of course, the most sophisticated digital marketing techniques. In so doing, these commercial players are rapidly taking over the religious market, to the detriment of the traditional providers. If we are not present in the same arena as the marketers of commercial products, we simply do not exist for many who are searching for meaning. They do not see us.

3. Jesus invites us to proclaim the Good News to the whole world. Pope Francis likes to use the word “periphery” for this. The people on the periphery do not enter our church buildings. They do spend a lot of time on the internet every day. Those who nowadays go in search of meaningful content do so in the digital environment.

The wellness industry uses sophisticated digital marketing techniques and is rapidly taking over the religious market.

The internet, however, is a tough commercial environment. Marketing is a necessary condition for thriving there. The gateways to Christian content for today’s surfer, whether a professing Christian or not, are Google and the app stores, along with YouTube and social media. Anyone who thinks they can ignore this is putting themselves out of business, to the great satisfaction of commercial competitors.

4. In our Ignatian tradition, we are at home with concepts like inculturation, adaptation and contextualization. Two thousand years of evangelization has stimulated the development of great creativity to offer the Gospel in all kinds of languages, respecting the distinctive grammars of each one. Today, we Jesuits are in the process of making the language of the internet our own. It has its own rules. Marketing is one of them.

Why did it take so long for us to respond to the urging of Father Nicolás? First, we suffered under a major blind spot. Professional digital marketing is not well known in our Christian circles. We are blind to the extent to which our traditional communication networks have been weakened. We are also being challenged with regard to what we think of as “humility.”

We Christians assume, rightly so, that our message is unique. Marketing is all very good and fine for toothpaste, shoes or blockbuster films, but surely the Gospel is above that! It sells itself!

However, in our secularized and digitized world, what we offer can and should compete on exactly the same turf as all the other content providers on the web. The Internet offers endless opportunities for us to share the word. As a commercial environment through and through, it is also mercilessly hard. It is up to us to use the web in an intelligent way to proclaim the Good News.

We have only to listen to one user’s comment, among many, to know the worth of our work: “Thank you for this podcast. It has saved my life, I dare to pray again.”

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