Internet is catering to the smorgasbord of religiosity and spirituality in a big way.
More than 25 million Americans go online regularly to "seek or share spirituality," according to Barna Research Group, an organization that tracks religious trends. But no one has been there to serve them in a big business way. Until now, it seems.
A new breed of for-profit religious start-ups has emerged, according to Interactive Week. Among the most interesting of these upstarts -- at least by secular standards -- may be Beliefnet ( http://www.beliefnet.com/ ), a privately held New York City company launched in January.
Beliefnet ("We all believe in something" is the subtitle on the Web site) is the creation of two magazine veterans -- Steven Waldman, former national editor at U.S. News & World Report, and Robert Nylen, founding chief executive of the former New England Monthly.
Their site, thought to be the first major religious portal to give equal consideration to a host of different religions and beliefs, offers columns by 65 leading writers of various faiths and several 10-minute guided meditations that you can practice at your desk. Like much of what is on Internet, it is a Web site that has to be used with discernment.
Beliefnet´s 16 interactive Web applications include online prayer circles, and a "Milestones" section where users can memorialize deceased loved ones or celebrate their weddings, bar mitzvahs and the births of their children by creating Web pages complete with pictures, audio, video and a guest book.
Tony Uphoff, Beliefnet´s chief executive officer, says that the company´s mission is to help people use the Internet to explore, discuss and nurture their beliefs.
"We want to provide people with the tools they need to find out what´s in their best interests religiously and spiritually, without our presupposing that we know what´s best for them," Uphoff says. "Most religion sites will offer them only a particular point of view. But we´d like to be thought of as -- pardon the pun -- the Ultimate Search Engine."
Beliefnet´s leaders stress that the company takes no money from religious organizations and has no hidden agendas. Being able to provide information without taking sides is crucial if you plan to build a business that combines religion and commerce, says Jo Tango, general partner at Highland. "You have to be viewed as a neutral third party," Tango says.
While Beliefnet may not have a religious or ideological agenda, it definitely has a business plan. In addition to advertising and sponsorships, the company has created the Beliefnet Store, which offers more than 100,000 items relating to religion and spirituality. The company says it expects to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue in the next five years through the store, which Beliefnet outsources through Vcommerce.
"It´s a massive, massive marketplace," Uphoff says; his low-end projection of the market for religious books, music, videos, health products and travel in the United States is about $40 billion.
Yet, Beliefnet may need all the faith and alliances it can muster to survive in the current market. Cautionary tales abound: A competing religion site, iBelieve.com, which launched the same month as Beliefnet, went out of business in October, despite $30 million in backing from Madison Dearborn Partners and Family Christian Stores, the country´s largest Christian retail chain. One of the fastest-growing religion sites, Crosswalk.com, laid off one-third of its staff in a recent restructuring. Another large site, iChristian.com, has merged with Christian Book Distributors. And The Spirit Channel, the brainchild of Isaac Tigrett, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe‚ and the House of Blues, is on "unofficial hiatus," the company says.
Still, there are a number of good omens for Beliefnet´s future. The site is growing rapidly, averaging 50,000 unique visitors per day -- about a million per month -- despite doing very little advertising. And it has been able to acquire new customers at minimal cost. "A lot of the site´s activities, whether temple services, Bible studies or discussion boards, are very group-centric," Tango explains.