The 8 Axioms of Church Communication

These are 8 things that I say all the time around the office, so often that they’ve turned into axioms. At least for me.

#1: You said exactly what you wanted to say, but that doesn’t mean they heard exactly what you wanted them to hear.

Maybe you’re caught off guard when your beautifully crafted call to action doesn’t lead to, well… action. Or you’re surprised by some harsh comments on what you thought was a pretty solid social media post. Or that blog post doesn’t get shared.

This is why.

We all have filters that create bias in the way we interpret any message we see or hear. Just remember that bias doesn’t just affect what you hear or see; it also affects the things you say.

The things you say don’t sound exactly the same to anyone else as they do to you.

#2: If it’s not on the website, it doesn’t exist.

We live in an on-demand world. SEO matters. The one place people still seek the latest update is your website (that’s changing, but it’s still true). Your website is your growth engine and your cornerstone communication tool.

#3: A strategy always starts with who, and who can’t be everyone.

What makes a movement grow? Starting with your minimum viable audience. Learn about targeting audiences here.

#4: Your brand is the connector between your mission and your culture. The stronger the brand, the stronger the connection.

Investing in your brand pays dividends for a long, long time. Not just your logo, colors, and fonts. I’m talking about continuity between every touch point people experience, from the narrative of your social media to your building signage to the graphic on your volunteer’s t-shirt.

#5: There will always be more good ideas than there is capacity to execute.

Learn to say no. If that’s too hard, start with “not yet.” No will come.

#6: Design matters. 

Notice I didn’t say “beautiful design matters.” While aesthetics are important, design is about more than making something look good. It’s a way of thinking that says every element of something people experience has a purpose.

Design isn’t just a value, it’s a tool. Pick it up and use it.

#7: Social media matters. 

Social media controls the narrative around your brand. The kind of church you are on social media is the kind of church you are, period.

#8: Simplicity matters. 

Simple messages are more easily understood, more memorable, and more repeatable.

Simple processes are more easily followed.

Simple steps are easier to take.

Complexity stifles engagement.

The Caution Tape Effect

You probably love your church lobby after Sunday services. It’s a beehive of activity – conversations and connections, sharing stories and burdens and prayers, new people being greeted, etc.

Now imagine if you took caution tape and blocked off your lobby, so that after church people could not engage with each other, but had to edit the building without talking to anyone.

This is what happens when your church doesn’t have a presence on social media. Just like your people wouldn’t feel as good about church if they couldn’t chat in the lobby on Sunday, there are people who feel less connected when you aren’t engaging them on social media during the week.

The 5 Components of a Successful Brand

Admit it: you love branding. I have yet to meet a passionate, engaged-with-their-job marketing or communications person who isn’t All About The Brand. I am, too! I’ve designed logos, helped a few organizations create new brands for themselves, and worked with and for organizations as they figure out what to do to improve the brand they have. I love that kind of work.

However, too many organizations limit their view of their brand to visual components like a logo or color/font combination. And some say “brand” when they really mean “culture” or “mission.”

Either way, there’s a lot more to a brand than a newly designed logo or visual system. Plenty of organizations with not-so-trendy logos win at branding all day long. And they do it by remembering the 5 components that make their brand successful:

  1. Purpose over promise. You need to have a clear, tangible, repeatable expression of the reason you exist. This may or may not be your mission statement; it could be a tagline. For example, where I work our mission statement is discovering life with God for the good of the world. But we’ve been using a simple tagline lately: find your go. (Actually, we’ve been using the hashtag #findyourgo, but it’s definitely a tagline too.) If anyone connected to your organization – whether it’s attendees, employees, donors, or customers – can’t reiterate the purpose for why you exist, your brand won’t help you grow.
  2. Consistency of narrative and design. Consistency leads to familiarity, and familiarity is good! It doesn’t lead to boredom; it leads to front-of-mind presence, and positive associations. Attach it to everything you do! Creativity should be applied in designing your brand, not in using it. Don’t let brand variations creep into your marketing. Stay consistent visually, costly reinforce your main Big Idea through the stories you tell, the things you celebrate, and the things you ask your people to do.
  3. Emotion that inspires loyalty. Psychologists have observed a strong correlation between emotion and decision making. People who experience damage to the part of the brain that affects emotion also experience a profound difficulty with making even simple decisions, like what to eat for breakfast. Emotion is necessary to help people become intentional about connecting with your brand, about choosing it over the other options that are in front of them. Nike has always been great at this.
  4. Employee engagement is an incredible barometer of a brand’s strength. If your employees and partners aren’t excited about your brand, how likely is it that your brand will resonate with your constituents? If your staff wear your t-shirts by choice, you’re on the right track. Keep going.
  5. Responsiveness matters today more than ever. Be human, not an institution. Take advantage of every opportunity for conversation you get. Lean into social media the way a 13-year old leans into Instagram. Don’t just talk; listen.

There are certainly plenty of other ways to help strengthen your brand. These are just some that I’ve learned along the way, and from great resources like Marketo and HubSpot.

My main point here is: don’t limit your brand work to a visual branding project. We’re all in the branding business, all the time.

Simplifying Your Model

The multisite church movement has been around for some time now. Along the way to adding more sites, many churches have realized something: adding sites doesn’t necessarily mean growth. New locations are being added, but overall attendance and engagement isn’t increasing – at least anywhere near to what was hoped for.

Churches in this situation are almost always experiencing challenges to scaling their ministry across multiple locations. This is primarily a result of one thing: their model wasn’t built to scale.

Maybe it’s a program-centric approach to ministry, or systems for recruiting volunteers. Maybe it’s worship music style, or the way the church manages systems like finance, facilities, or communications. But what they’re finding is that the complexity that developed at the first site doesn’t work across the second, third, or fourth.

If your church finds itself in this position, it’s time to simplify. But how?

Here are a few ideas to get started on the path towards simplification:

IDEA #1: CENTRALIZE SUPPORT… ALL SUPPORT.

Think of two kinds of churches, at opposite ends of a continuum:

Church A has what I call the “legacy of the pastor-secretary” model. Each pastor or ministry department leader has an administrative support resource, dedicated to their ministry or possibly shared with one or two other pastors. The pastor comes up with the vision and strategy, and the administrative person helps with planning and execution. Functions like finance, facilities, tech, and communications are centralized, and the pastor-admin teams work with these centralized departments to do ministry.

Church B has what I call the “internal agency” model. In this model, pastors utilize centralized teams for all of their ministry needs: a marcomm department to create marketing and promotional materials (print, video, digital, etc.), an event planning department to help execute on events and initiatives (at least 80% of our ministries are, technically speaking, events), and facilities, finance, tech, or volunteer recruitment departments. Pastors rely on volunteers more heavily for lower-level administrative functions: room setup and cleanup, for example.

Church A has more redundancy of function across their administrative generalists; those generalists all design communication materials, all do room reservations/setup, all design and printing of materials, etc., and handle any other functions necessary for pulling off the ministry activity. It’s less efficient, and quality suffers.

Church B has less redundancy, because it has people who take on more of those functions: event planning, marcomm, etc.

The central agency model lets the agency act as a constraint on the volume of ministry activity that the pastors can generate, reducing the overall volume of activity. The central agency has the ability to say “no new thing in the pipeline” when they are full of things to execute on.

IDEA #2: REDUCE YOUR NUMBER OF LEADERS.

I know this sounds counterintuitive (all churches need more leaders, right?) but bear with me. In modern, growing organizations, leaders generate activity. Gone are the days of organizations filled with managers of managers who manage. And in churches, this is especially true. Leaders are developed or hired for the express purpose of generating ministry activity. But that increase in leader-driven activity can overwhelm the staff who are given the role of helping implement that activity.

There are three ways to get this under control:

  1. Hire more leaders to manage and control the amount of new stuff the existing leaders are generating;
  2. Hire more support staff who are able to help implement and execute ministry activity;
  3. Reduce the number of leaders generating ministry activity.

The first option helps manage activity better, but at great cost. Not many growing churches have layers of management in ministry, do they? (Maybe I’m wrong in thinking they don’t, but I think they don’t.)

The second option is also expensive. But if you had a lot more support staff, you probably wouldn’t be so concerned with streamlining your ministry model, since you wouldn’t be hurting so much.

The third option is the most direct path towards simplifying your ministry model.

IDEA #3: TIGHTEN YOUR ALIGNMENT.

I say this all the time: a strategy always starts with who. Who are we striving to best reach and serve in our ministry? Are we targeting families with young kids? People with felt needs? Upscale professionals looking for a high-quality church experience? People who’ve never been to church? This needs to be defined by your organization’s senior leadership.

Next, ask every ministry to define their who, and the specific objectives that reach and serve that audience. Then you can see how well they align with the defined strategy. The ministries that are most-aligned with reaching the audience that the leadership team defined are put in the “keystone ministries” bucket and get full support. Leverage them for growth, and hold them accountable for it.

Ministries that aren’t aligned with the defined objectives are let go. We can’t keep them going, so we sunset them over the next year. This includes events, even long-standing recurring ones. These aren’t helping us grow, so they have to go.

Some ministries won’t be aligned with these strategic objectives, but the negative impact on the church culture of getting rid of them could set you back more than it helps. These ministries should be put into the “maintenance mode” bucket. Don’t highlight them in your communications, don’t put them in the main menu on the website, and don’t feature them on social media. But they can continue to operate as they currently do.

In a way, these are all variations on the same theme, just different means to the same end. And they aren’t mutually exclusive; you can apply one or all of them.

But no matter which strategy you choose, remember this: begin and end with prayer. Your strategy doesn’t matter if God isn’t behind it.

Listening to a Quieter Voice

Every church comms person hears feedback. Whether it’s from our coworkers or other leaders at church, from volunteers, or from people in the congregation, we hear feedback on our work: “our new website looks terrific.” “I love the graphic for our new children’s event!” Or even, “our new logo is amazing.”

It’s the reason we spend so much time on announcements, email newsletters, and designing that oh-so-perfect visual for our long-running women/men/young adults/etc. connection ministry. We’re all seeking that positive feedback, and – whether we admit it to ourselves or not – it drives a lot of our decision-making.

But there’s another kind of feedback that’s a little harder to hear; probably because it’s external. We tune in to this loop when we’re doing things like planning an ad campaign, working on the SEO of our website, or writing a press release. Our goals and attention are entirely focused on the person who isn’t already part of our church. We gather data, analyze it, and get brutally honest with ourselves when we answer hard questions about how well we are (or aren’t) reaching people.

This external feedback loop is quieter, and harder to hear. I’ve never been in a staff meeting and heard, “nice job with optimizing the SEO on our blog,” or “way to target the right audience with our latest AdWords campaign!” That just doesn’t happen (though I sure wish it did).

Yet these things – how many people find your website, connect with you on social media, and see your ads – are key drivers of church growth. No matter how sticky you are, if you aren’t bringing visitors into your church, you aren’t growing.

I have a weekly dashboard that tracks all kinds of stats: new visitors to our campus web pages, Facebook reach, campus visitors, in-person attendance… this is my primary feedback loop.

Data doesn’t tell me how much it likes my work – at least not in the same way that a welcome team volunteer tells me they like our new info packet. Analytics are a subtler, softer voice. They’re a thousand nods of the head, clicks to learn more, and conversations in the parking lot.

Their voice might not be so loud, but they’re still telling the same stories of lives being changed.

Time for a Gut Check

Growing your church requires a lot of things: solid strategy, strong leadership, compelling content, planning and organization, and some technical know-how. Putting those together in the most effective way possible is essential to taking on the task of growing your church.

But every once in a while, you need to step back for a gut check moment. Strategy, leadership and planning are your engines of church growth, and those engines require fuel. So before you start planning, designing, writing, or meeting, take an honest look at your level of these three things:

Passion – all movements have energy that comes from the collective passion of lots of people. They share it, talk about it, and live it out.

What are you giving your people to be passionate about, that they can’t resist sharing?

Commitment – sustains you through the natural ups and downs that are unavoidable. Commitment is the multiplier to passion.

How are you best supporting the leaders in your community, helping their commitment remain strong enough to weather the ups and downs?

Directional focus – passion and commitment can take you anywhere, but you don’t want to go anywhere. You want to go somewhere. Make sure your teams have a clear picture of exactly where you’re headed.

How clear and well understood is your organization’s mission and vision, and how aligned is your staff structure to that mission?

Leaders need to ask these three important questions at least a few times per year. No matter how good your strategy is, no matter how strong your leadership, no matter how engaging your content is – if you don’t have passion, commitment, and a clear picture of the direction you’re headed, you won’t grow.

The Measurement Mindset

“If it’s not worth measuring, it’s not worth doing.”

That’s an old saying in the marketplace, and it’s especially applicable to the discipline of church communications. The measurement mindset might as well be in your job description. It’s that important.

It’s not uncommon to get resistance among church staff to this idea. How do you measure the work of the Holy Spirit? How does a pastoral care visit get quantified? How do you measure spiritual growth?

But if you’re a church communications person, you are not entitled to resisting this idea. 99% of what you do isn’t just measurable, it’s easily measurable. Here are a few examples of things that are not hard to track and measure:

  • Web site visits
  • Web site visits by new people
  • Social media likes, follows, shares
  • Digital community size
  • Email newsletter open rates
  • App engagement
  • How your congregation is adopting digital communication channels vs. print
  • Live stream views
  • Google searches for your church

Recently I claimed Tuesdays for data gathering and analysis. I thought about “measurement Mondays” but usually Mondays at my office are all about meetings and debriefs, plus planning for the week ahead. So I renamed Tuesday to Tuesdataday.

It might seem a little extreme to dedicate 20% of my week to that one thing, but I did it for a couple of reasons:

  1. Everything I do starts with a strategy, and a strategy always starts with who. Who’s engaging with us on social media? Who’s giving us reviews on Facebook or Google? Are new people finding the right things on our website? Who’s watching our live stream – regular attenders, or new people?
  2. I’m trying to lead by example. It’s hard to make an informed decision without information, and too often churches launch ministries and assess their impact based on anecdotal information. But even a bunch of anecdotes is not the same as data. While it’s hard for some ministries to measure their impact, almost every ministry has some concrete measurement that, if used to make strategic decisions, could help lead to stronger results.

Tuesdataday isn’t just about running reports; it’s about putting that information into a format that our leadership can use. So I take time to process the information, and format it in a way that’s helpful for our senior leadership. (Here’s an example.)

Of course, the reality is that I never end up with the whole day open to spend on measurement and analysis anyway. It’s more like a guideline. But as long as I’m continually working with a measurement mindset, I’ll be making better strategic decisions that have a greater impact on growth.

So how much time do you spend on gathering data and analysis?

What a Bunch of Teenage Activists Can Teach Every Communications Professional

Responsiveness, clarity, and discipline matter as much as creativity.

Vanity Fair just published a behind-the-scenes look at the teenagers behind the #NeverAgain movement. Described as a “meme factory,” this group of students are all survivors of the Parkland, FL school shooting in February 2018.

Their goals are threefold: a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; universal background checks; and overturning legislation that prohibits the CDC from studying gun violence. Their strategy is to remain a dominant media presence (not just social media) that changes the conversation around gun violence in America.

There’s a lot to talk about in this article, but as a church communicator, I couldn’t help but be amazed at all I can learn from this group of young people. The things they do intuitively are the very things that churches struggle to do occasionally. And where churches are embracing the same strategies as the #NeverAgain group, they’re seeing growth.

Here are a few of the things that stood out to me:

They know where their audience lives. How do younger millennials and Gen-Zers get their news and information? Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and most of all, YouTube. “What a lot of my generation does is come home from school, eat a snack, and watch whatever’s in their subscription box from YouTube. That’s how they got a lot of their information.”

10 million people watched the #NeverAgain/March for Our Lives kids on 60 Minutes. Combined, the core group gets that many interactions on social media almost every day. They understand that influence is a direct result of creating community around content.

They are prolific content creators. They work as a team, and if nobody says no, they assume it’s a yes and move forward. Whether it’s a tweet or a video, they’re always making.

The end goal isn’t online activity, it’s offline activity. And their approach to offline activity is well-managed. They realize they can’t be everywhere all the time, so they planned the DC march and delegated the planning for other regions’ marches. But they sent out briefing documents, conducted conference calls – recognizing that one bad tweet can undo it all.

They stay on-message. They’re not anti-gun, just for more common sense around gun laws. They reiterate the specifics of their agenda over and over again: ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; universal background checks; re-authorizing the CDC to study gun violence. They stay on-message, and don’t depart from it.

Responsiveness. They leverage every opportunity. They move fast. From script to filming to social post in a couple of hours, not days. They don’t wait until Monday to jump on an opportunity.

They take risks. These kids are from an upper middle class suburb, and have lives full of opportunity and comfort. But they are choosing the less comfortable road ahead of them for the greater good. They regularly receive death threats, to the point that their office location remains a hidden secret.

They understand how much tone matters. They vet the tone of what they do to avoid too much sarcasm, too much anger, sounding too easy to write off. They are aware of each other’s strengths: some are acerbic and wonkish, some are emotional, some are comedic/satirical.

Basic rules: no profanity. no violence, actual, symbolic or implied. No personal digs. MLK’s third principle of nonviolence: defeat injustice, not people.

They are brash and bold in the brainstorming phase, but cautious in the editing room. They don’t always get their tone right at the start, but they refine it until it works. Anyone else find this remarkable for a team of high school students with a political agenda?

On Copywriting

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

– Gary Provost

Most churches are focused primarily on delivering information verbally. Sermons, announcements, prayers, scripture readings… all verbal. Part of the reason for that is that most people vary the tone of their voice, their inflections, and their posture when they speak. It just comes naturally.

But in writing, people only hear the voice in their head. The only variations in cadence, tone, and posture are often just the ones they’re projecting onto the words they’re typing – unless they consciously make an effort to vary those things.

When you write shorter copy for things like promotional pieces or short bits of information in your app or website, keep it clear, use the 3 C’s I mentioned elsewhere. But when it comes to blogging,  or longer-form content, make sure you incorporate variety of sentence length throughout your writing.

When Not to be Creative

Creativity is highly valued in today’s church world. Churches put countless hours into crafting creative elements in their worship services, making promo videos or graphics for a teaching series, even a Christmas video.

And this is a good thing! It’s not easy to stand out in today’s crowded infoscape. In the 1970’s, the average person was exposed to about 500 marketing messages per day; now it’s closer to 10,000. Many consumers switch screens up to 21 times per hour in a typical day.  It takes a lot of creativity to get people’s attention.

But there’s one place where being less creative actually helps: search.

When you want your sermon highlight to stand out in a regular attender’s Facebook news feed as they scroll by, you need to be creative. When you want a visitor to open the follow-up email you sent them, your subject line has to be creative.

But when you want someone to be able to find you when they’re looking for you or something like you… that is not the time to be creative.

Google (let’s be honest here: when we say search, we mean Google) doesn’t care about your creativity; in some ways, it even penalizes it.

Google is only interested in determining one thing: is this content relevant to the person who’s searching for something right now? And it does that by asking a few different questions.

First: does the content contain the keywords that the person is searching for? If you’re creating content for the person who’s in need of a recovery ministry, then you need to put the word recovery in your content (obviously). But you also need to include likely synonyms for your keywords, because not everyone thinks like you do. Some people (usually church people) search for a recovery ministry; but many more search for recovery programs or recovery groups or recovery meetings. So make sure you write those into your copy as well. Not everyone thinks like you do, and Google is trying to think like everyone.

Second: is the content using natural language that would be helpful to the person searching?  Some time ago, Google eliminated the value of keyword spam, the senseless repetition of a word multiple times in a piece of content, which looked like this:

“If you want to learn about church marketing, then church marketing blogs can help your church marketing team get better at church marketing, whether they have experience in church marketing or no experience in church marketing, whether they have lots of church marketing resources, or no church marketing resources….”

You get the idea. You’ll get penalized for repeating keywords over and over again, so don’t do it. Instead, think like Google does. AI is real, people! Google’s search engine actually reads your copy like a person, and determines whether the copy sounds like a good source of information for the person searching. So write naturally.

Third: what do other people think? Okay, so Google’s not really asking you for your opinion on things. But it is using data to figure out what content is “good” and what isn’t, starting with, how many other people clicked on the link to that content when I showed it to them in the results of this same search?

I know it seems unfair; you’re probably thinking, “how am I supposed to get people to check out my web page content when I’m not showing up in search yet?” Good question.

Google weighs more than just clicks in search results. How many people viewed the page? How long do they stay on the page when they do there? How many links send people to that page? These are all measures of content quality.

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