How “The Passion” Played Online

Twenty-four million dollars isn’t bad for a feature film box office opening. But on a Wednesday? That was followed by $84 million the first weekend and $228 million in the first two weeks of the run, according to Exhibitor Relations.

Obviously, some extraordinary forces were at work in the marketing of “The Passion of the Christ.” There was the big build-up and wide-ranging controversy over its gut-wrenching violence and alleged anti-Semitism. Online marketing played a role, too.

However you feel about the film, there’s no denying it’s been a success from a marketing perspective. Although I can’t prove it — attempts to reach the distributor and its partners came up empty — I’d bet online marketing had a significant impact on those dramatic box office numbers.

Here’s how it worked.

The film had a huge natural audience. According to an ABC News/Beliefnet poll, a quarter of Americans identify themselves as evangelical Christians. For these folks, “The Passion”‘s release presented not only an opportunity to see a movie aligned with their faith, but it was viewed as a genuine opportunity to evangelize (a.k.a. market) their beliefs to nonbelievers. This is exactly type of person viral marketers dream about.

A spokesperson for director Mel Gibson, Alan Nierob, was very upfront with The New York Times about church outreach being part of the marketing plan. “We don’t have that luxury [of conducting focus group research] here,” Nierob told The Times. “So you’ve got to do what you can to get the film out there, get supporters, get word of mouth. That’s really the grass-roots approach.” According to the article, Nierob likened it to the “word-of-mouth and Internet buzz that turned ‘The Blair Witch Project’ into a sleeper hit.”

The distributor’s grass-roots approach centered on Christians and church leaders. In fact, before the film even officially opened, $3 million in revenues were recorded as groups, many from churches, took advantage of advance sales.

The Internet’s role was as a disseminator of information and materials for churches and evangelists to spread the word. You may be surprised how wired many churches are. In Dec. 2000, the Pew Internet and American Life Project surveyed 1,309 religious congregations via email.

  • Eighty-three percent of respondents said their use of the Internet helped congregational life. Twenty-five percent say it helped a great deal.
  • Eighty-one percent say use of email by ministers, staff, and congregation helped the spiritual life of the congregation to some extent. Thirty-five percent say it helped a great deal.
  • Ninety-one percent say email helped congregation members and members of the staff stay more in touch with each other. Fifty-one percent say it helped a great deal.

That’s the most recent substantive survey I could get my hands on. I imagine churches’ use of the Internet has only increased over the last four years.

Churches’ use of the Internet to disseminate information about “The Passion” was aided by the distributor’s own efforts. Icon Distribution enlisted the help of a company called OnCore Group, a “faith-based” marketing firm that says it’s “Creating Brand Evangelists!”

OnCore created a site at passionmaterials.com where people could order posters, door hangers, postcards, and the like for the cost of shipping and handling. The company even posted a “Pastor’s Action Kit” explaining how one might use the materials to communicate to a congregation.

One helpful hint includes a link to SermonCentral.com, a site run by a Christian content and marketing organization called Outreach. There, church leaders could sign up for a newsletter and receive links to 20 sermons with messages that tie in to the film. Outreach also built a site at www.thepassionoutreach.com, where it provides direct mail postcards, invitations, banners, and booklets.

Passiondownloads.com is another prong of the marketing strategy. It offers things such as flyers, color print ads, bulletins, fax blasts, email graphics, and even a minor release form, as the film is rated “R” for violent content.

There’s even a special site for those kids, well, college students anyway — StudentsHavePassion.com, dubbed a “student mobilizer.” Mobilization tools include an email invitation tool, where young people can, “Send the VIRAL EMAIL TRAILER to everyone you know and send text messages to your friends’ cell phones.” There are chat rooms, a press room for student newspapers, and a “promotion report” link where students can let the film’s distributors know how things are going on their campus.

How did churches react to this panoply of online marketing pushes? I called Second Baptist Church in Houston, which has thousands of members (full disclosure: including my brother’s family). This congregation supports three “campuses,” a health club, a restaurant, a bi-monthly magazine, and a school. It’s one of the most marketing-savvy churches I’ve seen.

That may be why the church, though it planned a three-week sermon series around “The Passion,” did things its own way rather than use some of the online pre-packaged materials. Its Web site features a graphic from the movie. An accompanying Flash animation links to the sermon series schedule; streaming media of the sermons; a series of questions and answers about the film and its message; and the film trailer. The church used images obtained via a Web site, but they were customized to fit its own marketing purposes.

“There was a lot of free stuff made available to churches that you could request if you wanted some kind of stock things for direct mail,” said Barbara Durand, director of the graphics department at Second Baptist. “We tend, since we have an in-house graphics and design department, to do some things ourselves.”

Second Baptist wasn’t among the churches buying advance and group tickets for the film, but it did buy a certain number of tickets to present to church visitors (a.k.a. prospective members).

“Especially the larger evangelical churches have found ways to engage their members and their prospects for the church,” Durand said. “Our approach has been that the movie stirs your heart and provokes a lot of questions.”

There’s certainly no question that the film’s distributors have masterfully used the online medium to promote “The Passion.” Can you harness that kind of viral marketing power for your company or product? It’s unlikely you’ll achieve the kind of success this film has seen unless you’ve already got a deeply involved fan base. But, at the risk of being irreverent, I can think of a few brands that inspire religious-like fervor. Major League Baseball is one. Apple is another. How about Volkswagen’s Beetle or BMW’s Mini Cooper? Put your thinking caps on, tap into your fans’ passion for your product, and let them evangelize for you.

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