The Internet does a great job of promoting commerce evidenced by the success of Amazon and eBay, but can it also convey tranquility and serenity?
BeliefNet (www.beliefnet.com), which debuted in 1999, is dedicated to spirituality, inspiration, and faith. It is non-denominational and a recent lead article titled “Life Lessons from Harry Potter” could be read and appreciated by anyone.
Though BeliefNet’s content revolves around spirituality, it is wide-ranging in scope. The key topics on its home page include Faith & Prayer, Inspiration, Health, Entertainment, Holistic Living, Love & Family, and News. If readers follow the links to Holistic Living, it highlights yoga, meditation, environment, numerology, fresh living, and personal growth. Hence, BeliefNet encompasses fitness, spiritual growth, feeling good, eating right--a gamut of topics that go beyond the expected.
In Inspiration, many articles take a how-to approach on increasing self-esteem. A bevy of articles can be found on how to honor, believe in, and celebrate yourself and tap into your inner self-confidence. Similarly, the Meditation section covers how to start meditating, offering advice on Buddhist, Christian, and yoga-based meditation and featuring blog items from MeditationMom, who strives to maintain balance while raising her children.
Named managing editor in summer 2010 under its new ownership, Ash Greyson, a writer and director of music videos, disclosed that over half the site’s audience consists of women over 50 years old. “They come to the site to make themselves feel better. It’s for people of all faiths who find spirituality and inspiration important,” he said.
To cater to that audience, BeliefNet features articles on how older women can overcome depression, survive a break up, and relax during the stressful holiday season. Greyson points to writer Susan Piver’s “10 Lessons from a Broken Heart” as exemplifying the kind of stories readers crave.
The site also relies on bloggers, covering a wide range of religions including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and lesser known faiths like Baha’i. Bloggers express their unfettered opinions, and Greyson said, “Our readers vote with their eyes.”
BeliefNet does not shy away from controversy. Articles in Politics included excerpts from President Obama’s spiritual biography and Sarah Palin’s biography. Debate intensified when articles pro and against abortion were posted. Since 250,000 people post comments annually, it is evident that readers react to the site.
Other BeliefNet articles include a question-and-answer interview with writer and Minister Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, on why he opposes same sex marriages, and iconoclastic Rabbi Brad Hirschfield on why Judaism needs to be updated in the modern world. The site digs into these controversies, showing both sides and not inclined to proffer any kneejerk or simplistic answers to complicated issues.
In fact, BeliefNet prides itself on inclusiveness and presenting spiritual beliefs “without a defined editorial point-of-view.” Its mission is to “help people find and walk a spiritual path that instills comfort, hope, clarity, and happiness,” the site points out. The formula must be striking a chord since BeliefNet reaches three million visitors monthly.
Skeptical readers will note that some articles read like Hallmark cards. One recent column, “Inspirational Pet Quotes,” began with “Pets are our close companions because they provide love.” Another article on how to relax during the holidays listed 10 quotes on breathing and calming down, without offering anything readers hadn’t seen countless times before.
Just as Time Magazine names its person of the year, BeliefNet selects its most inspirational personage of the year. Two years ago it was Randy Pausch, the computer science professor who wrote about his battles with cancer before he died in 2008, and this year under consideration are a Medal of Honor winner from the Vietnam War and a nine-year-old boy from Miami who started a charity to feed the hungry in the US.
Like any other business, BeliefNet has to make a profit but has faced obstacles turning spirituality into a moneymaker. Its founder Steven Waldman incurred debt and eventually sold out to Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp in 2007, which couldn’t turn BeliefNet into a profit generator and in June 2010 sold it to BN Media, a smaller media company based in Norfolk, VA.
Under its new ownership, changes are brewing. Starting in the first quarter 2011, expect to see more timely articles, offering a spiritual angle on current events. Moreover, many articles will be accompanied by videos, illustrating the main points. In addition, BeliefNet has forged partnerships with Howcast, which offers minute-long videos accentuating self-help topics, HealthGuru, which offers tips on weight loss and depression, and video site Hulu.
Besides generating revenue through display ads, BeliefNet distributes newsletters via e-mail such as Daily Inspiration and Bible Verse, which include advertising. In fact, Greyson says that for BeliefNet to thrive it must merge inspiration with profit. “Once we guide our readers to feel better, we attach a product to sell like a book. You have to combine commerce with spirituality,” he said.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.