October 13, 2014

Marketing Church

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Episcopalians pride themselves on being welcoming and hospitable. Every church I visit, which is quite a few, has a rusty old sign, like this one to the right, hanging outside somewhere. For many congregations, this is all the marketing they do. Yet, folks often ask those of us on the diocesan team about marketing and communications. So, I thought I'd offer some of pointers I tend to offer in conversation.

The Church is not a product, You are the Church
Before we get into the weeds, let's first establish this: you are the church. The church isn't a time, place or event. At its core, the church is the people of God called and assembled together for God's will. When considering how we communicate our faith community to others, first take that into consideration–we're promoting us.

Some people take issue with church marketing and with good reason. At it's core, marketing is communication. I think communication is a good thing. It can be done poorly, mediocre or well but it's always communication. Phillip Kenneson Jenkins offers a good (if a bit dated) argument against church marketing in Selling Out the Church. (Thanks, Chris!) I recommend the book as it offers some necessary considerations but I don't think marketing is intrinsically bad.

With that said, here's some thoughts on marketing wisely...

Don't use generic marketing tools
Awhile back, Vice posted a profile of Tom McElligott, a copywriter who developed some incredible ads in his day. Some of his work was for the Episcopal Church (Here's some other links to his work). I've taken issue with McElligott's work for the Episcopal Church before (that was before I was employed by the Episcopal Church). Some of his work was ingenious. Some of his work was just a poor representation of the Church. In all cases, his work was generic. It was intended to market the Episcopal Church universally. And that is exactly why it did not work.

Few people are brand-specific in their choices any longer. They're looking at prices, peer reviews, and accessibility. The same applies when looking for a church. Particularly in most urban communities, folks are looking for the church within walking distance of where they live or work, they're looking for a church where they can build community. The boom of the boutique, hand-crafted, locally-sourced in our culture has cultivated an increased desire to participate in those things which reflect the places we occupy our time in. Whatever you promote to your community ought to reflect your particular ethos as a particular congregation in a particular context. Be yourself.

Optimize the resources you already have
People often think that marketing is going to cost a lot of money. It can but it doesn't have to. If you're going to communicate out of authenticity begin by considering what you already have as communication tools and optimize those. Salon ran a great story back in the spring about an Anglican congregation in Australia. Fr. Rod Bowser has been using the church's old announcement sign in a unique way. Didn't cost the church anything but wit and a little time. It garnished them a lot of interest though.

What Bowser and Gosford Anglican Church know now (whether or not they did when they began their church sign campaign) is that how you communicate determines who you get. Their messages are going to attract a certain kind of person. That's fine! Each faith community has it's own "DNA." That means that different congregations fit different people. This doesn't condone being exclusive. Rather it means we're cognizant of the kind of people that will feel welcome in our community and do our best to reach out to those people.

Don't ask people what they want, tell them what you offer
One of the things that drives me nuts is hearing congregation leaders ask young adults what they want in church. My friend Greg Syler wrote an article about our attempt to flip this question on its head in southern Maryland. When you communicate about your church, share what you offer. As Seth Godin says so clearly in this post, when we ask people what they want, they tend to lie. Most likely, not intentionally. But they still do. And we help them. The assumption goes like this: 1) we ask what they want, 2) they tell us what they want, 3) we assume this means that if we provide "x" they will show up, 4) they never intended to show just because we were willing to make religion into a widget. If you're not clear on what it is you offer the community or neighborhood around your church, ask those that do show up why they do.

Promote yourself to those looking for community
Scott Thuma at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research has been studying mega-churches for years now. Something that has been consistent over the years since the mega-church phenomenon began is the relationship between church growth and new communities. In other words, mega-churches almost always emerge in areas with a relatively new population influx. Whether this is a gentrifying urban area (new trend) or a newly developed suburban community (older trend), these tend to be the places where church growth happens–whether planned or accidental. Why? Because people moving into a neighborhood are looking for community. The question is whether or not the church can be that place or not. Whether or not your congregation is in an area such as this or not, your best bet is to reach out to those seeking community.

This leads me to my next point.

A few words on tools
I'm often asked how to connect with strangers–how can a congregation best connect with those it does not yet know? Nothing can ever replace the human connection, the personal invitation. This can't be said strongly enough. You are the best marketing tool! I'm more convinced at trying out a new restaurant based on the reviews I read on Yelp! than I am a slick website or postcard in the mail. Before you make any investment in marketing tools, get to know your neighbors, your neighborhood first. Teach your congregation how to be welcoming and develop community in the neighborhood. (The Asset Based Community Development Institute has some good tools for this, so I've linked to these in the previous sentence.) But, most importantly, teach your congregation how to have spiritual conversations. Two books, David Gortner's Transforming Evangelism and Stephanie Spellers' Radical Welcome offer great tips on this.

If this is something that your church has a budget for, spend wisely. The level of audience targeting available in web-based advertising gets better and better. And cheaper and cheaper at the same time. You can likely do much better promotion through Facebook for a fraction of the price it will cost you to do most other forms of direct marketing. In any case, consider this: your new "front door" is your web presence, not those red doors in front of your church building. Most people are going to visit your web properties before visiting your church. This isn't just with young adults, although it is certainly true with younger visitors. No matter who it is that you are intending to connect with online, consider these tips.

If you're going to use direct mail, be aware that prospect lists have, on average, a 1.38 percent response rate. That's not much. You'll get a much better response from the list you build yourself from those your church comes in contact with. Collecting and managing contacts well is critical–no matter how you use it (social media or direct mail). But as I said before, those looking for community are the best people to connect with. The one direct mail tool that I've seen work best is the new move-in list, no matter the context.

What do you think about church marketing?
Is church marketing a bad thing? A good thing?

What tips and/or tools do you recommend or condemn?

Share in the comments or on Facebook.

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