I have noticed a few new developments in church media resourcing lately. These sites are good for churches, but sustainability continues to be determined. Here is the new stuff:
A hub for Christian artists, this site is an interesting place for artists to post and share their graphic designs, logos, worship images, and other still work for free. They offer customization for a fee, and a store that is “coming soon”. What I like about the site is that it is an interesting collection of high-quality talent in one spot.
A subscription site, offering unlimited access for $129 a year. They state their collection includes 34,000 communication and media elements, including websites, worship and church communication stills, videos such as loops, sermon videos, countdown timers, and so on. They have a little collection of how-tos and tutorials and claim to be “the most comprehensive Christian media solution on the web today.” (At one time I thought making such sweeping claims was smart marketing, too.)
This start-up is driven by Kent Shaffer of churchrelevance.com and aims to launch 3rd quarter 2011, offering free church resources by structuring the organization as a non-profit supported by resource and financial donations, site ads on partner sites, and client-based production.
These new ventures join existing sites such as churchmedia.net, the first online church media network with aggregated (amateur) church media content, which has survived as a free niche for technically-minded church media types, and sermonspice.com and worshiphousemedia.com, both of whom helped establish the aggregate approach to church media in the mid-2000s. In particular, worshiphouse has helped develop a culture of professional design in church media.
While these sites are great for churches, and the quality of media is exponentially better than even a few years ago, what remains to be seen is whether they are sustainable. I got in this niche of the resourcing business eleven years ago now. Business models come and go, and here is what I have observed (with a special thank you to Paul Franklyn for our ongoing conversations on the topic):
Churches are (notoriously) cheap, and artists must make a living. New sites struggle for an edge using the same few Internet business models: a la carte pricing, client-based production, subscription models, advertising, and freebies. Each has its ups and downs:
1. A la carte pricing needs reams of customers and fresh content, which necessitates high structural overhead and heavy marketing dollars. Just like a discount retail shop, a la carte sites only makes money one transaction at a time, so the pressure is continuously on to keep customers returning and visits high. The model works best on either a massive scale or on a small scale that serves a niche market. The in-betweeners struggle.
2. Client-based production targets the small percentage of churches that have specific communication and media needs, the funds to pay for them, but the lack of quality, in-house talent. This has always been a small market, but is growing even smaller as more and more designers and artists emerge with every passing year. (As one megachurch pastor told me recently, all those 14 year olds church media fans we helped inspire and train ten years ago are putting us out of business.) A very difficult model to sustain, particularly in a down economy.
3. Subscription models may seem like the way to go, and they work great initially, as they generate large amounts of up front revenue. The challenge is once again that churches are cheap, and sustaining subscription renewals, which is difficult in any market, is doubly difficult to worship and communications staff and volunteers – particularly when there are free alternatives. The first attempt that Jason Moore and I made at church media resourcing was a subscription model, and it failed because of a lack of enough fresh content and pricing above the market. Later, while operating Midnight Oil Productions I witnessed over and again that what I would consider mediocre quality and design is appealing to many customers. Given average and free or good with a fee, many church people choose free. Those that do subscribe are prone to use the subscription heavily at the outset, trail off, and eventually fail to renew. (Or, hacker style, download everything.) The best way to counter this trend is to relentlessly feed the beast with new and varied content, which is difficult to sustain.
4. As I alluded, the basic problem with the internet, from a business point of view, is that very few internet commerce sites actually make any money, or at least enough money to sustain a business. People associate the internet with Freebies. Sites that do make money skirt the rules somehow: for example, Amazon has done well by acting as a parasite to brick and mortar stores. Customers go to a store, look at a product, then go buy it online. But what will happen to Amazon’s book sales when they can no longer use Borders as their showroom? Sure, sometimes customers have specific needs in mind, but people still want to touch the merchandise. Of course, the appeal of ecommerce has driven a lot of venture capital to the internet. But the promise of sustained revenue, without actual sustained revenue, is how bubbles are created.
5. In this climate, a free site makes sense in that it matches the culture of the internet, but how do you actually make any sustained money? Sites that offer free content typically approach content as a commodity to drive people to Advertisements. This approach is ruinous to artists because it strips all the value from their work. Scale becomes dominant again, which requires more impressions than the vast majority of sites can handle. Shaffer’s model is interesting in that he wants to combine revenue from ads (although ads on other sites, not the primary open church site), client-based production, and gifts and donations, which is like venture capital to a non-profit. It’s a carpet bomb approach – try every revenue stream at once. Wow – lots of work. Even non-profits have to pay personnel costs.
I wish each of these sites well. Ecommerce systems take a lot of labor to build and maintain. It will be fascinating to watch how the latest round fare.