The Social Flywheel

“What’s your social strategy?” 

I get asked this question all the time, either by other church marketing people, staff members at my organization, or marketing-minded folks in our congregation. You probably get that question a lot, too, and have a solid answer ready at your fingertips:

“We want to engage people where they are.”

“To create meaningful conversations online.”

“To build digital community.”

Sometimes the answer is more pragmatic, more functional: to reach more people with our great teaching content, etc. Or maybe your strategy is really a social calendar.

All good and worthy goals, except for one thing: your church probably has a building. And if it’s like a lot of other churches out there, that building isn’t quite as full on Sunday mornings as it used to be. Attendance is flat, or in decline.

So you respond by committing to get more active on social media, to reaching people where they are. You’ll build digital community, and it will translate into more community on Sundays.

Maybe. But probably not.

Social media can be a catalyst for growth, but isn’t just about follows, likes, and engagement. It’s not just about getting people to engage with your content. It’s about getting them to engage with your mission.

People who are more engaged with your mission attend church more often; attendance is a byproduct of engagement. Engagement is and always has been the primary driver of attendance at church. We can’t forget that.

Connecting with people in digital spaces is a great start. It’s how connections start, more often than not these days (think online dating). It’s critically important, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

IT STARTS WITH ASSIMILATION

All churches have some sort of assimilation plan, and it usually looks something like this: come to church, stop by the welcome center (or attend an event for new people), connect to a small group, start serving, etc.

And if you’re smart, you tell them to follow you on social media.

You reinforce that pathway through announcements, printed materials, preaching, and your culture. You use your church-specific language like “get plugged in,” “get connected,” or just “belong” (which I’ve always thought sounded a little strange).

You tell people you hope they’re coming to Sunday services (or watching online when they can’t get there in person), growing in faith, building friendships, serving, being involved in their community, and welcoming new people themselves. Because there’s just no substitute to the authentic, personal connection that happens when we’re in the same place, together.

But did you notice where the first step in that next steps plan started? “Come to church.”

So how are people getting there?

If your assimilation plan starts with a person’s first visit to church, you’re overlooking a few very important things:

  1. New people learn about your church on social media;
  2. The people already in your congregation are advocates for your church through social media;
  3. While new people almost always check out your website before they visit, more and more people are checking you out on social before they visit [insert “what’s on our Instagram?” panic moment here].

Here’s the key thing to remember: a lot happens before a new person’s first visit. Social media controls the narrative around your brand; it validates you, and help visitors feel better about their first Sunday they come in person. It helps them overcome their barriers to attending: Is this going to be weird? How do I get there? When does it start, and how long will I be there? What am I signing onto when I visit?

THE SOCIAL FLYWHEEL

I like to think of social media and your website as part of a flywheel, where momentum starts with social, and the mechanism is greased by your website. Other things play a key part in getting that flywheel going: in-service announcements, the design of your website, your church brand… but we can’t underestimate the extent to which social media is the primary driver behind that momentum.

Flywheels are often used to provide continuous power output in systems where the energy source is not continuous.

 

 

It starts with impressions. Simply put, if people don’t see your presence on social, they can’t act on it. While it’s easy to target specific demographic groups through social advertising, social media platforms use an algorithm to determine what you see in your news feed organically. If the content looks like a good fit with you, based on things like whether your friends interacted with it, whether you interacted with other things like it, or it’s relevant to your interests, they’ll show it to you.

We try to design content with social personas in mind. Personas aren’t actual people, they’re types of people that you keep in mind when you’re creating content. Think “non-churched millennial,” “skeptical but curious,” or “parent of elementary age kids.” Specific types of personas should influence your creative process as you craft content, whether it’s a blog post or an Instagram pic. Be as unambiguous as possible.

Design matters. The average user will see about 200 updates in their typical newsfeed per day. Assuming your content makes it through the algorithm into someone’s feed, you’re competing for their attention with hundreds of other posts every day. As someone scrolls through their social feed, your best chance of getting their attention with your content is visually. Posts with a visual are 80% more likely to be read compared to posts without. Getting someone’s attention starts with design.

But it’s one thing to get someone’s attention, to get them to stop scrolling and check out what you’ve posted. Getting them to engage with it requires more than just the design; people like, comment, and share things that are like-, comment-, or share-worthy. Which means you need to craft your content carefully.

Quality content gets interactions. Are you guilty of copy-pasting your bulletin or announcement wording into a Facebook post? I am. I admit it: in a pinch, better to have something than nothing, right?

Wrong. Brands lose engagement all the time because they post content that’s just. Not. Helping. People don’t unfollow brands because they don’t post often enough.

We follow a weekly plan that prompts us to keep our content distinct from what’s in our informational channels like our bulletin, app, and announcements. And if we don’t have something that’s distinct, we don’t post.

We’ve recently scaled back our pace of content posting, because we’re seeing much higher engagement when we posting 4-5 times/week, not 7-10.

Keep your “psych’d factor” high. A good website will help increase the likelihood that someone visits your church in person. Before they visit, people need to know what you’re all about as much as they need to know what time your services start. And the fact that they’re checking you out online first isn’t just a given, it’s great. Because you’ve got their attention, they’re ready to start getting excited about what you’re doing as a church, and being part of it.

In a way, they’re kinda psych’d.

There’s a methodology that app developers use to analyze funnel conversion for new users. It’s called Psych’d. While it’s designed for app marketers, it’s just as valuable for website designers, and especially church website managers like you and me.

It starts with the idea of looking at every screen, every click, every action step someone takes when they are new, and determining whether that increases their psych’d factor – “video preview of the service? Great stuff for my kids? Cool!” – or diminishes it “no pictures of people… wonder if I’ll fit in.” Then you design your new person experience on the website with that in mind.

Most modern churches are way better at the website thing than they used to be. But it’s always a good idea to reevaluate it on occasion just to make sure. And once they interact with your website, you’re on your way to engaging them with your brand.

But your brand may not be all that you think it is. The brand of your church is what sets you apart from other experiences that compete with church, whether it’s another church, a hike in the woods, brunch, or the couch. It’s not your logo or tagline. How you compare to the other experiences people are having on Sundays is the biggest factor in determining if someone visits.

We’ve all heard the term “brand promise.” It’s what you are telling people they’re getting on board with when they get on board with you. Would they wear a t-shirt with your church logo on it? Retweet your mission statement? They’re on board with your brand.

You use volunteers for all sorts of things: children’s ministry, worship services, etc. But as much as 80% of your congregation are already acting as potential outreach volunteers on social media. When someone’s on board with your mission, your culture, and your brand, they advocate for you. They amplify your message, carrying into their own networks of people.

They do that by checking in when they get to church, tagging their friends at church, and sharing your content on their own social media.

That’s why I call this the social flywheel. Your people’s interactions are what power your growth. No matter what you do to target people on social, how great your content and website are, how compelling your brand it, it’s ultimately the actions of your people on social that powers the flywheel.

Growth is up to everyone in your church, not just you.

A Super Simple, Totally Doable Weekly Social Media Calendar

First, this: I didn’t come up with this plan myself. It’s a combination of input from folks who spend a lot more time building social community than I do, at places like Gwinnett Church and Saddleback Church. But it is tailored to the less-resourced model that I work with.

Our weekly plan looks like this:

Missed it Monday: a sermon quote, ministry highlight, or interesting detail from Sunday that can pull folks in to watch the recording of our sermon or live stream.

Team Tuesday: Highlighting people who are part of a team: volunteers, staff (usually the behind-the-scenes staff), mission teams, etc.

Word Wednesday: Thoughtful, inspirational quote or Bible verse, always as a graphic. If you don’t use Photoshop, get the Canva or Spark app on your phone.

Throwback Thursday: Obvious. Doesn’t always have to be way back. Could just be “last year on this day…”

For You Friday: Highlight something that you’re doing for the community. If you’re a church, your worship services don’t count (unless you’re doing something special that non-churched people will be drawn to). If you haven’t got anything going on that Friday, share an event from your local community calendar that people might want to know about.

See You Tomorrow Saturday: This is just for churches, obviously. Offer a little preview of what you’re doing the next day, whether it’s a YouTube video of a new song you’re doing, or just a teaser for the sermon.

Without a dedicated social media team at my church, having this framework makes it easy for us to keep our weekly stream of content flowing. This plan frees up more brain space for creativity and craft.

The All-Important, Under-Used Elevator Pitch

Before I got into church marketing, I spent time in several completely different industries: retail banking, enterprise software, and private education. All required different approaches to marketing, communication, and sales. But if there’s a common thread across all of them, it was this: the products and services I was helping sell were complicated.

Communicating about complicated stuff all those years taught me a lot about messaging. When potential customers are going to hear information from multiple sources, over a long period of time, about complicated stuff, there has to be a simple, clear, and repeatable message that ties it all together. That’s not easy with products and services that have a complex value proposition and a long sales cycle.

And there’s a lot of similarity between those challenges, and what churches face in today’s post-christian, non-religious culture.

This is why I tell every ministry leader I work with to write an elevator pitch for their ministry. An elevator pitch is a simple, one- or two-sentence description of who your ministry is for, what it does, and why that’s special. There are a few reasons for this:

It ensures consistency across different media channels.

Church communicators promote ministries across multiple channels: live announcements, bulletin copy, email newsletter, Instagram graphic. Most people won’t get their information from just one channel. An elevator pitch helps keep your message consistent across

It keeps your creative on-task and purposeful.

In the documentary Briefly, some of the leading creative minds in advertising and design talk about the importance of the creative brief. It ensures that all their creative work done on a product or advertisement stays on-message. If you’re in the creative business, watch this documentary.

Think of your elevator pitch as the logical counterpart to the creative brief. It helps the pastor who’s trying to word a clever, memorable announcement keep the story straight. It helps the designer creating a graphic for social media understand what kind of image and font they should use. It keeps your creative team effective because it keeps their work true to its purpose: shining a light on your ministry.

It helps your customer be your best advocate.

You can’t repeat what you can’t remember. The more simple your message, the more memorable it is, and the easier it is to repeat.

This is really important for churches: it isn’t just what you say about your thing, it’s what other people say about your ministry.

The Formula for a Successful Elevator Pitch

  1. It starts by clearly defining your thing: “[thing name] is a _____” (fewer words, the better; if it’s a program, call it a program).
  2. It identifies the target market: “for the ____ (person who might participate in your thing)
  3. Include the value proposition: “…that offers ____”
  4. It sets your thing apart by telling people what makes it unique: “Unlike other [things], [our thing] will help you…

An example:

“Celebrate Recovery is a weekly gathering of people who are overcoming the hurts, habits, and hangups that can keep us from living our best possible lives. Through both large group teaching and meaningful small group times, CR offers support in the context of a meaningful relationship with God that is unlike other step programs.”

Try this approach next time you need to communicate anything across a large segment of your audience. It works!

The Three C’s

Every time I meet with a leader who is looking for my help convincing other people to participate in their event, program, activity, or ministry, I reiterate a basic principle of marketing communication that I call The Three C’s. This is especially helpful for self-declared “non-marketers,” but anyone looking to clarity of their own communication should keep them in mind.

These 3 C’s are near-universal characteristics of any memorable, actionable marketing message:

  1. Clarity;
  2. Connection;
  3. Call to action.

I’ll admit, if you’ve spent more than five minutes in marketing, these seem pretty basic. But it still amazes me how often they’re overlooked our ignored when people go to communicate about their event, activity, program, our service. So let’s take a deeper look at each of them.

CLARITY

Resonance: clarity, depth, fullness; evoking or suggesting images, memories, and emotions.

Resonance gets misused a lot in our post-modern, individualistic culture. We use the phrase “this really resonates with me” to indicate that a message has meaning to us in particular. This is a misuse of the word.

When something resonates, it means that it’s clear to everyone. Think of a fog horn, a or a church bell: those are deep, full sounds that resonate. They may evoke images, memories, or emotions, but their overriding characteristic is clarity: we hear it loud and clear. It cuts through the other noise.

So how do we get our messages to resonate? Start with your elevator pitch. That short, to-the-point, plain-language description of the thing you want to tell people about is the foundation of your communication. It’s the smallest possible amount of information you can deliver that still gives people a clear understanding of what you’re talking about.

CONNECTION

Relevance: connected to the matter at hand; appropriate to the current situation.

I’ll admit it: the word relevant is overused. I hear “that’s not relevant” all too often, mainly as an excuse to not engage with an idea. Most of the time a person declares something irrelevant when they mean it’s not relevant to them.

A better way of expressing relevance is like this: your target audience hears themselves identified loud and clear in your message. In other words, you’ve connected with them. It doesn’t mean your target audience is the only audience for your message; it just means that all the words you’ve chosen have your target audience in mind. Meaningful starts with the message, not the listener.

A great example of this is how we recruit people to be Stephen Ministers. Stephen Ministers are volunteers who undergo extensive training to be able to counsel people who are in a difficult time in life, offering emotional support and help. It’s beautifully simple, but it’s also all too easy for people to think “that’s not me; I’m not gifted that way.” So we start with a message like this:

“Anyone out there on social media? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter? Ever notice how everyone’s life looks amazing on social media?

“The truth is that for most of us, real life isn’t like that. In fact, for some of us, it’s nothing like that. Some of us are really hurting. It might be divorce, unemployment… or just a rough stretch of time when you need someone to walk with you through this hard time. That’s what Stephen Ministers do. They’re folks who have the empathy to simply be there for those among us who need help getting through a hard stretch.

“Now you might be in need of a Stephen Minister, but we know there are some out there who are hearing this message and thinking, maybe I could be a Stephen Minister…”

Catching peoples’ attention by starting with the nearly-universal phenomenon of being on social media helps us make the message more relevant, connecting with more people.

CALL TO ACTION (CTA)

The word Recourse gets a bad rap; it sounds like legal trouble. But the primary definition of recourse is “a source of help in a difficult situation.” A source of help! Is there a better way to describe the way churches should think about how they embed a CTA (call to action) in their communication?

If you’ve clearly expressed your big idea, and made it relevant to your target audience, you’ve given people the information and the motivation to make a decision. The best thing you can do at that point is offer them some help in the form of a clear, simple change in their course of action (recourse… get it?).

Define clear next steps, and make them as simple as possible. Be the person hearing the message, and think to yourself, what am I going to do now, based on what they just told me?

I edit copy all the time that leaves out 1 or more of these things (most often the CTA, but all of them at some point in time). Each one is universally helpful.

So, non-marketers: if you get in the habit of treating the 3 C’s like a checklist, you’ll find that writing promo copy isn’t that hard after all.

A Daily Meditation of Humility for Communicators

 

“Just because you said exactly what you wanted to say, doesn’t mean they heard exactly what you wanted them to hear.”

 

Anyone in the business of communicating needs to say this to themselves every day. No matter how strong of a communicator you are, how creative or experienced, it’s easy to slip into the mode of “this is good, people will get it.” But there’s always someone out there who doesn’t.

Crafting any message, from an email introduction to an annual report, starts with understanding the listener. It’s a you-first way of thinking. And it requires a posture of humility. 

Humble is considerate. Humble is non-assuming. Humble leads the listener to this place: tell me more.

Humble connects with people, because it’s clear that we’re putting them first.

Everyone is on a journey. Humble communication starts with recognizing where your listeners are on their journey, not yours.

 

Strategy vs. Description

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

– Peter Drucker

We’ve all heard this before.

You know what else trumps strategy?

Execution.

If you’re in church communications or marketing, you’ve probably been asked “what’s your website/social media/advertising/marketing/app strategy?”  more times than you can count. 

I work for a large church in New England, one of the most “unchurched” (maybe “de-churched” is a little more accurate) regions of America. Missionaries from Asia and Africa come to the Boston area to reach people. And this is a good thing! We could use the help.

So needless to say, reaching people who don’t factor church into their weekend (or annual) plans should be a big part of any New England church’s strategy. But when we say strategy, what exactly do we mean?

Strategy vs. Description

Too often, churches describe the activities they think they’re best at, and call it strategy. They start with what they’re doing, and justify it as something that meets their most important goals.

Now what they’re doing might be highly effective. It might be the result of a lot of thought and planning. They might even put it up on the walls of their church (or maybe even an evergreen web page). But if it didn’t start with a deep consideration of who – who they’re trying to serve, reach, engage – then it’s not a strategy.

Strategies always start with one question: who?

And if you’re looking for the answer to who your strategy has best served, reached, or engaged, the answer is in your culture. The people who are attending on Sundays, interacting with you on social media midweek, serving and giving to your church… these are the people you’re reaching.

So next time you start talking about strategy, take a step back and ask yourself: are the people we’re currently reaching the people we are intending to reach?

If the answer is “no,” then it’s probably because you’ve taken the things you already do, the things you’ve honed to the point of doing them without thinking, and you’re just calling it your strategy.

Do this instead: back up, look at your local community, and ask yourself: “If we want to reach these people, what are the most pressing needs that I can meet for them?” Then go do that.

 

Overcoming Resistance

The War of Art, by author Steven Pressfield, begins with the idea that all of us have a barrier between the life we currently live, and the yet-unlived life full of creative potential within us. 

Creatives, whether artists/writers, entrepreneurs, or ad men (and it’s not a stretch to include preachers here), have deep within them a desire to create, to make, to craft. All are equipped with God-given talents, and putting them to good use honors and glorifies the One who gave them. That work makes us feel more alive, more connected to our Maker, more in tune with the universe as He created it.

Pressfield depicts the barrier between that fulfilled life and the life we live every day as a “dark antagonism to creativity,” the anti-Muse, the enemy within. It’s called Resistance.

Resistance takes many forms: fear, self-doubt, busyness, distraction. It’s the sum of all the things that keep us from acting on our desire to create, to make, to craft. It’s a malevolent force of nature, but within us, relentlessly pushing against our capacity to create. It usually wins.

In my experience, there’s a form of Resistance that is particularly troublesome for mission-driven organizations, and especially churches. In these cases, Resistance often sounds something like this:

I’m not a marketer, I’m a pastor.

I’ll leave the promotional stuff to the experts like you.

I’m too busy working on my ministry to spend time on marketing strategy.

I trust you communications folks to write the copy.

This idea that the work of creatively promoting some church activity or ministry is better left to others supposedly more well-equipped for this work is a form of Resistance that’s especially effective in today’s post-christian culture.

There’s no societal force pulling people in to the increasingly-foreign experience of church anymore. So leaders and pastors spend countless hours crafting experiences that help people grow closer to God, but spend woefully little time thinking about how they’ll get people to choose to participate in those experiences. As podcaster Rich Birch has said through his blog UnSeminary:

“Many leaders need to think as much about how they market and communicate what is happening at their church as they think about what they’re actually doing. In the same way that artisans wish they could just make their art and not have to find people to purchase it, we can fall into the false notion of believing that our quality experiences are enough on their own.”

Overcoming this type of Resistance is what this blog is all about.

This blog is my best to empower those self-declared “non-marketers” at churches and mission-driven organizations with the wisdom and tools for communicating effectively about their ministry.

It’s my own way of fighting Resistance, and I hope you find it helpful.