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Pyromarketing and The Purpose Driven Life

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Since publishing this article new information has come to light. I’d encourage you to read this article also published on this site instead of this one as it contains more information and better information.

The Purpose Driven Life is a runaway bestseller. In truth, it is in a category all its own. It is closing in on 25 million copies sold and will eclipse this number soon enough. Incredibly enough, it is selling better now than when it first released. Where most titles sell quickly at first and then the sales slow, this book gained sales momentum for over a year following its release. There are those who are sufficiently naive to believe that this success owes to the value of the book. But truth be told, it is not nearly as good a book as the sales would indicate. Warren says little that has not been said before, and has been said better. I’m sure it has changed some lives and has brought encouragement to many people. But this doesn’t make a book sell 25 million copies and become the bestselling book of all-time in its genre.

So how does a book, especially a book written by a professed Christian and dealing with Christian topics become such a wild bestseller? Allow me to introduce you to Pyromarketing.

Pyromarketing is a term developed by Greg Stielstra who was part of Zondervan’s marketing team for The Purpose Driven Life, and was responsible for marketing various aspects of the book. It is a type of so-called “viral marketing” as it is based on passing information from one person to the next. This is in opposition to marketing that relies on mass media advertising such as television commercials. Think about it, and you’ll realize that in all likelihood you never saw a television commercial for The Purpose Driven Life. In fact, it is entirely possible that you never saw any media marketing for it whatsoever. The book did not receive any significant coverage in the press until very recently, long after it had established itself as a major success.

Greg Stielstra

Greg Stielstra is the head of the marketing team working within Zondervan, which published the book. He is obviously very good at what he does. He’s quoted as saying that if he promoted a book about quilting “to one-tenth of one percent of left-handed quilters,” he could land the title on the non-fiction bestseller list and prime it for even bigger success. I assume this quote is true because he posted a comment on that blog and did not deny it.

Here are some excerpts from his biography:

“I’ve been fortunate to have worked with the biggest names in publishing Philip Yancey, Lee Strobel, Jim Cymbala, Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Joni Eareckson Tada, Billy Graham, Dan Qualye, Oliver North, Dave Dravecky, Rick Warren, Kurt Warner, Mike Singletary, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Rosa Parks, Dr. Ben Carson, and others. My work for these authors has won many accolades for marketing excellence, and my track record includes 88 best sellers, 20 #1 bestsellers, and eight books that have sold more than a million copies. Five of these books made The New York Times bestsellers list, including a title that reached #1 and remained on the list for over two years.”

Stielstra, then, is a man who works within a Christian industry, marketing Christian books to Christians. I found the following endorsement interesting:

“When I first heard Greg Stielstra describe the PyroMarketing model, I knew instinctively that he had found a powerful metaphor that could help marketing leaders in any business transform their results. Greg’s secrets have worked in one of the most crowded markets – book publishing – and they can work for you. PyroMarketing will help your marketers focus on consumer understanding and insight, not the size of their budget. Properly applied, you’ll get the best marketing – the kind that builds margins!” (Denis Beausejour, former global vice-president of marketing, The Procter & Gamble Company)

Denis Beausejour, who worked for Proctor & Gamble cuts to the heart of the matter. This type of marketing builds profit margins. It is an interesting observation to make about a program developed to market Christian materials. Whether this approach can thrive outside of the church is, as yet, unknown.

Marketing As Fire

The key to successful Pyromarketing is to understand marketing as fire. Founded on the assumption (which is clearly and obviously true) that we are bombarded with advertising, Pyromarketing attempts a whole new approach. Interestingly, Stielstra compares the success of The Purpose Driven Life with another surprise hit, The Passion of the Christ. “The success of The Purpose-Driven Life or The Passion of the Christ, remains puzzling to many, but not to those who know their secret. What do these remarkable success stories have in common? They each used PyroMarketing.” The technique is well-described in a little song you may have sung while sitting beside a campfire:

It only takes a spark to get fire going
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
You spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on.

Pyromarketing is built around this metaphor of fire. Stielstra says, “Every fire needs fuel, oxygen, heat and the heat from the comustion reaction itself. Heat excites the fuel, breaking its molecular bonds at the ignition point freeing the fuel’s electrons to abandon the fuel and join with oxygen in the surrounding air. Ignition temperatures vary significantly from one fuel to the next. The reaction gives off additional heat which excites neighboring fuel and causes the fire to spread.”

Just as fire depends on fuel, so does marketing. Just as ignition temperatures vary from one fuel to the next, so do the “ignition points” of consumers. And just as fire spreads, so excitement about products spreads. “In PyroMarketing consumers are the fuel and their ignition points also differ widely. There is money stored in their wallets, but there is a very strong bond between consumers and their money.” This approach attempts to create “consumer evangelists” who will do the most important and effective marketing on a product’s behalf. The four steps of this marketing approach mimic the steps of building a fire:

  1. Gather the driest tinder. In this first step, Zondervan sought out the people who were most likely to respond to their marketing campaign. They found 1200 pastors whose congregations totaled some 400,000 people. Rick Warren, using his existing credibility gained through his prior book The Purpose Driven Church and Purpose Driven seminars, convinced 1200 pastors to begin a “40 Days of Purpose” campaign in their churches. These people were gathered with the promise (or at least suggestion) of success – that by following this campaign they would have bigger, stronger, more successful churches. The tinder was ready to be struck by a match.
  2. Touch it with the match. This step includes reaching the market, which in this case is the church. Having found 1200 pastors who would lead their churches in this campaign, Zondervan produced commercial spots and had them played on Christian radio stations in target areas. This generated some excitement about the program and even provided a small amount of brand recognition. They did not actively promote the book, but the campaigns that were beginning in local churches. For six weeks, following a video introduction by Rick Warren, those churches taught messages prepared by him and studied his book in small groups. Zondervan discounted the book to just $7 (from the usual $20) to promote it to the 400,000 people attending these 1200 churches. The flame was now burning, if only in a small way.
  3. Fan the flames. Zondervan fanned the flames by promoting the book and the associated programs as evangelism. They told how this book had changed lives and grown churches within those 1200 congregations that formed the initial campaign. A company called Outreach marketing produced posters and door hangers and other items to assist churches as they spread the word. Zondervan provided retailers with marketing tools like postcards and emails along with a list of participating churches so they could sell them any additional copies they needed. The pastors and laypeople who had already completed the program, largely unknowingly, became consumer evangelists. The flames spread.
  4. Gather the coals. Zondervan gathered information on every church that had done the program, and wherever possible, on the individuals who had participated. They gathered email addresses through their web sites. As more Purpose Driven products become available, Zondervan can market them to a group that has already expressed interest in this type of product. According to Stielstra, saving the coals “is how your marketing budgets build equity and the only way to expand your business with marketing budgets that stubbornly refuse to grow. There is a great deal of scientific evidence for PyroMarketing from psychology, physiology, and sociology.” The coals are now gathered, prepared to heat up a fire that is dying down, or to begin a whole new one.

This four-part approach, which is cyclical in nature, reveals the secret behind the success of The Purpose Driven Life. It all comes down to a particularly brilliant marketing solution. It is brilliant, because while Stielstra does not say so, there are clearly three factors that he takes advantage of within the church:

  1. Naivety. This approach dupes Christians into becoming marketers, not for a book, but for a marketing approach, and ultimately for a profit-driven corporation. This marketing approach is supposed to work as easily with any product as with what is a supposedly-biblical book. There is nothing inherently Christian about the approach and it has no biblical basis.
  2. Ignorance. This approach also benefited from the ignorance of evangelical Christians, that they were not able to see beyond the marketing and see a book that was, in many places, clearly unbiblical and which said little that had not already been said before, either by Christian or secular writers. Were Christians properly-educated in the Scriptures, this approach would fall flat.
  3. Pragmatism. This approach is, at its heart, pragmatic. This is the charge that has long been levelled at the Church Growth Movement, that success becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth rather than the Word of God. In a sense all marketing is pragmatic, especially when it is designed to sell a product.

Pyromarketing, which was so successful with Warren’s book, was clearly at the heart of the success of The Passion of the Christ, where once more a movie was pushed onto the church by a secular organization which managed to convince well-meaning Christians that this movie was much more than the reality. And having done that, it turned these people into product evangelists, so that they did the marketing on behalf of the corporation. Mel Gibson earned hundreds of millions of dollars, as did the theatres and countless other companies. And they owe it all to the church which has received little or no benefit from it. The church did the marketing, while the corporation benefitted.


Business Week Article which first alerted me to Pyromarketing.

PowerPoint Presentation and Associated Text from which I drew the majority of this information. What struck me more than anything else was the completely secular nature of this marketing. Purpose Driven Life was nothing but a product, and millions of Christians were nothing but consumers who didn’t know what they needed until Zondervan told them.

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