How does an edgy Midwestern pastor manage to get explosive success with a religious book? Since "Love Wins" was released on March 15th it has already skyrocketed to #6 in Amazon's best sellers, with much buzz about it before the book was even released. A lot of that can be attributed to Bell doing what I call "social video marketing." Read my analysis of Bell's innovative means of using video and social media throughout the year, accompanied by lots of hard work and perseverance, to sell his message and his books until he achieved wide scale success; and what other video and social media marketers can learn from his marketing approach to doing "social video."
About Rob Bell and "Love Wins”
Rob Bell is an American author and evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan and claiming upwards of 10,000 members. (That's well into mega-church status, assuming that number is accurate.) His books and speeches are about re-examining Christianity's traditional understanding of life, salvation, and what happens after we die (including heaven and hell.)
Bell's choice of controversial religious subject matter has made him a source of great discussion with audiences both in and outside of his religious community, with generous heapings of both praise and criticism. Many liberal Christians and spiritualists find his teachings to be very liberating. While others in more traditionally evangelical and conservative sects have castigated him a heretic and opportunist. Some theologians and biblical scholars have also criticized him as an opportunists for watering-down Biblical scripture to make his message more palatable and media-friendly (along with youth-friendly). Whatever conversions of faith Bell may have achieved is a success metric I can't actually determine (who really can?), but fortunately we have many other conversion metrics to show what a successful marketer he has turned out to be.
Bell's latest book is "Love Wins," released on March 15th by Harper. The book is centered around Bell's religious argument that the Christian God is a more loving God, than the vengeful one that's been portrayed by much of the evangelical community. Bell takes on the traditional Christian belief of damnation and the heaven-and-hell question – that being, does everyone who isn't a Christian automatically suffer eternal damnation in hell? He offers his own attempt at an alternative answer, some of which is based on his interpretation of scripture, and some which is based on his connection with other people. Bell hoped the book would appeal to more Christians wrestling with their faith, but also to non-Christians who would become more open to exploring that same faith. All of that starts with dialogue, which Bell likes his books to serve as the catalyst for, and sustain that dialogue with his own social media engagements (both in the digital and organic universe).
Here are some excerpts from the book's description in the cover jacket:
Millions of Christians have struggled with how to reconcile God's love and God's judgment: Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this "good news"?
What if the story of heaven and hell we have been taught is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches? What if what Jesus meant by heaven, hell, and salvation are very different from how we have come to understand them?”
Author, pastor, and innovative teacher Rob Bell presents a deeply biblical vision for rediscovering a richer, grander, truer, and more spiritually satisfying way of understanding heaven, hell, God, Jesus, salvation, and repentance. The result is the discovery that the "good news" is much, much better than we ever imagined.
So Why Be Interested in Rob Bell and "Love Wins?”
Whether or not you personally care at all about Rob Bell or his message, I think video and social media marketers will find it worthwhile following his accomplishments, for many of the reasons I've organized below from my own research of his creative, spiritual, social, and marketing activities for nearly a couple decades to this point:
1) Critical Praise
Bell has clearly established his influence beyond modern-day Christianity into both mainstream media and online buzz, and overall popular culture – something very rare for a preacher to accomplish:
- In the January 2007 issue of the magazine TheChurchReport.com, Bell was named No. 10 in their list of "The 50 Most Influential Christians in America" as chosen by their readers and online visitors.
- Huffington Post called him "one of the most influential voices in evangelical Christianity.”
- At 40 years age, USA Today referred to him as "One of the nation's rock-star-popular young pastors.”
2) Online video visibility
- A Google Video Search for "rob bell" yielded 2,610 results, and 229 results for "rob bell" + "love wins”
- His original promotional video for "Love Wins" has nearly 144,000 views on YouTube, with a large amount of both likes and dislikes (511/461)
- His book and promotional videos have spawned lots of video responses (both positive and negative), along a couple of inspired parodies, and even anime.
3) Book sales
As of April 4th, "Love Wins" is #6 in Amazon's Bestsellers Rank, and #3 in top books on Religion and Spirituality. The book has received 228 reviews on Amazon.com, and 292 likes – making for an extremely responsive audience (showing lots of purchase intent and influence).
4) Mainstream media attentionhttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640
- Multiple television appearances from the morning network and cable shows to the late night news cable shows, plus his own local media in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
- Multiple video interviews with major newspapers and print media.
Rob is obviously doing something that many in his field aren't; and with comparatively more over those that are, in terms of book sales and online video visibility. That "something" has a new name – social video marketing.
What is Social Video Marketing?
"Social video marketing" and "social video" are such relatively new terms that even Wikipedia doesn't yet have a definition for either of them. People who've followed ReelSEO have seen my own attempts to define them both, often calling on my fellow professionals in video marketing and social media to share their own experiences and interpretations, and compare them to mine. I feel driven to give this dynamic business strategy and cultural movement a definition worthy of it's measure. It something that has grown on me the more I watch videos online, and see more attempts with trying to merge the social side with the business side of effective video.
So with the understanding that I consider these two terms to be organic and dynamic (with likely further refinements to their definitions as we come to better understand them and the market and culture matures), here's my latest definition for both:
- A "social video" is the blending of video with human interactivity for the co-creation of value.
- "Social video marketing" is a video campaign that appeals to the need to socialize,
between the brand (producer) and consumer, for the co-creation of value.
Some Evangelicals Make for Successful Social Video Marketers
I would argue that evangelists, particularly neo-evangelists, are naturally inclined for social video marketing. Evangelism as been referred to ask the "social gospel;" and well-known American Evangelicals have strong, charismatic personalities which translates great to video. Here are examples of a few people you may have heard of:
- Martin Luther King, who gave some of the most historical and memorable speeches still heavily watched in television and online video today, was an evangelist.
- Billy Graham, said to have preached the gospel more than any other person in history, was an evangelist who rose to celebrity status as his sermons were broadcast on radio and television.
- Rev Al Sharpton is an evangelist, who made a one-time presidential run and is invited by news and talk shows across the political spectrum, for his engaging and entertaining personality that comes through memorably on video.
Again, religious beliefs and politics aside, these are all people who were and have been very successful at what they set out to do, and have already established a legacy for themselves that will be preserved and built upon through video.
Neo-evangelist, Social Video Marketer, or Both?
Bell's critics have called him a heretic and a Universalist, labels he emphatically denies and professes to be an evangelist. I think a more apt label for him is a "reformed evangelist" or even "neo-evangelist," which I find bears a strong relationship to social media marketing and social video marketing. I came to that conclusion based on this passage in Wikipedia on neo-evangelism:
The term neo-evangelicalism was coined by Harold Ockenga in 1947 to identify a distinct movement within self-identified fundamentalist Christianity at the time… It described the mood of positivism and non-militancy that characterized that generation. The new generation of evangelicals set as their goals to abandon a militant Bible stance. Instead, they would pursue dialogue,intellectualism, non-judgmentalism, and appeasement.”
Continuing on, the passage also mentions how "the new evangelicals sought to engage the modern world and the liberal Christians in a positive way."
Religious beliefs again aside, Neo-evangelism sounds a lot of what we ascribe to the positive parts of being social online today: Social acceptance, intellectual responsibility, and openness (transparency); and treating non-believers and the youth not with condescension or dismissiveness, but more respectfully and close to an equal level.
How some neo-evangelists have built a strong relationship with social video marketing
- They embrace media attention. They love to go on television, and love to show their sermons and other engagements with online video platforms suited to sharing their gospel.
- They embrace the social media channels (where the "sheep" are), and an incredibly effective way to share their gospel.
- They do lots of online video, both live and recorded.
- Evangelicalism's key commitments, according to what I found in Wikipedia, include the need for personal conversion (or being "born again”), and actively expressing and sharing the gospel (i.e, the message of their savior, Jesus H. Christ.)
What we can learn from Rob Bell's Social Video Marketing Success
A passionate audience segment already engaged with online video and social media
Rob's target audience and market appears to skew towards of a younger generation of evangelical Christians, which would likely be far more engaging with others via online video. Youth pastor, video enthusiast, and guest contributor to ReelSEO Tim Schmoyer mentioned something about this audience I found particularly interesting in his article, "How do Teenagers Perceive Online Video?”
Teens consume content on a totally different level. Their content revolves around a relational connection. They ask, 'What is this going to mean for us?' And the 'us' doesn't necessarily have to be someone they know personally. It can be a para-social relationship, someone they feel like they have a connection with even though they really don't.”
► Edgy content and presentation style
Bell is not one who shies away from taking risks. More of, a lot of what he does to marketing success is what I refer to as "tipping sacred cows." He's enthusiastic about exploring topics in religion that would be deemed by orthodox Christians as controversial or even heretical. But he balances these controversial subjects with a warm, friendly, personal delivery.
Whether Bell may or may not have the credentials comparable to an "academically approved" religious scholar or theologian per se, his success gives hope for many of us who aren't the best experts in our own subject matter, yet who rise to the top of the social media pile and influence in the online and organic worlds. Social video does reward the expertise, but I find more so it rewards the passionate and creative communicators who are willing to take risks.
Rob Bell's edgy nature appears in a lot of his videos. Two of his earlier books were titled "Velvet Elvis, Repainting the Christian Faith" and "Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality." The latter I found he devoted an online video series on individual topics with other people joining him on stage. (Yes, there actual is a GodTube.com site you can also find him describe the book and his tour.)
► Online Channels
- He has a prolific video presence on YouTube, with an ever-increasing amount of followers and passionate commentators.
- He has his own video distribution channels (YouTube and Vimeo)
- He has his own social media sites (Facebook and Twitter), and actively posts all of his latest videos (including his video interviews with the press about his book) on these same social media sites.
- He has a lovewins Livestream channel, where you can watch a recorded presentation of one of his live speaking engagements with another author. The event holder said that they had broken the record for online attendance on livestream; and they took questions both online via livestream and from the audience throughout the evening.
- His book pages on Amazon feature his introductory, promotional videos.
- He has his own website, featuring his latest news releases and speaking engagements.
► Video marketing
Even well before YouTube, Rob Bell knew how to be creative and professional with video and marketing. He was smart to work with a professional video producer, geared for his target market.
- Creative partnerships – he worked with a professional video production company specializing in his own field (evangelism), and did lots of experimenting with his presentation and delivery style. He also has collaborated with many other creative artists with making his videos, which was built through social networking over the years.
- Advance buzz – he leaked his promotional videos for any publication over a week in advance on YouTube and elsewhere online.
- Video branding – he built an entire brand around his own video series, NOOMA. His NOOMA video series started in 2002 is subtitled in 7 languages – well before YouTube's own closed captioned system.
- Calls-to-action – His videos have calls-to-action at the end (and sometimes during) the videos, reminding people to buy his book, where they can buy his book, and where they can check out more of what is available for sale. These same videos are also good at bringing awareness to his own church.
► In-person / face-to-face marketing
- Bell personally sells his books on Sunday afternoons in shopping malls, which he also ties in with speaking engagements
- As of this writing, Bell is in the middle of a 13-city tour series across the U.S. and UK to promote his book.
- Bell also scheduled speaking engagements with audiences and sometimes with fellow authors, to have a healthy dialogue about the subject matter that audience members can join in the questions, and engage with him in person after the event (and buy signed copies of his book and other media if they like).
► Social skills
Rob Bell appears to genuinely want to make a social connection through video and other forms of online media with his audience.
- He loves to socialize. He genuinely appears to enjoy the company of other people, both in the organic and virtual worlds.
- He enjoys dialogue – he even actively seeks out dialogue with people of different beliefs and perspectives, and engages these people respectfully and without the appearance of condescension, (i.e, acting like a know-it-all). That's something you don't get too often from traditional evangelists.
- He's a preacher who's not "preachy.”
- He's very effective at storytelling. He gives his videos a strong personal touch, and makes you feel you're the only one he's talking to.
- He's civil – even in a heated debate such as the MSNBC Martin Bashir Interview, he keeps his composure and responds courteously.
- He's engaging – He actively takes their questions and comments at his speaking events, both with the organic crowd and the virtual audience.
- He appears "loving" – by that, I mean his wants not just himself to appear approachable, but also his message." I'm interested in painting the most beautifully compelling pictures and images and metaphors and stories and explanations possible that will put Jesus in language for a world that desperately needs to hear it." says Bell. Whether or not you agree with this approach, showing yourself as open and loving, based on a dogma that has had a long-standing reputation for being full of damnation, allows for more people to remove their defenses and follow what you're saying.
Rob Bell didn't become a major success overnight with his book, Love Wins. His journey took decades and lots of creativity and publishing work, and lots of perseverance for what he loved doing.
- In his college days in the early 90's, he formed an indie band, "_ton bundle”
- Between 1995 and 1997, he formed another band which released 2 CDS
- In 2002, he was the featured speaker in a series of spiritual short videos (Nooma), which featured his own teachings accompanied by music written and sung by local independent artists.
- In 2006, he had his first book published, followed by 3 more before his latest book, "Love Wins.”
- In 2007, he started with having published his first video on YouTube (back when he had hair.) He continued putting out videos, like for his previous book "Resurrection," and his "Sex God Tour.”
Rob Bell Shows That Love + Social Video Marketing Wins
Rob Bell took his passion, his creativity, engaged with many people in social circles (including online video and social media), and had lots of perseverance. He took what he loved doing, put it to video, kept at it, and turned it into a marketing winner for himself. For that very reason, Rob Bell is a successful social video marketer other video professionals and social media marketers can learn from, because he shows how you can take your love for something, put it to video, and then socialize your way to marketing success. That to me is the demonstration of how "love wins" which marketers can learn from, and try to duplicate with their own passions and business goals. Perhaps you can count among those he inspires to do their own social video among the "converted."