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.

SEO basics: 22 essentials you need for optimizing your site

The Creative Brief, Part Two: a Simple Template

[This is the second post I’ve written on the creative brief; to read the first, click here.]

A good creative brief is a simple framework for making decisions on everything creative: key words/phrases, promo copy, visual designs, drama or video storylines… it’s your project guide, helping your team stay on course as you create and implement.

Ours starts with four questions:

  1. Challenge. What’s the challenge people are facing that we’re trying to help them with? What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. Audience. Who are we targeting, primarily? If we had to pick one person that our message best resonates with, who is that? Describe them in detail. This isn’t about a demographic profile, but rather their psychographic profile.
  3. Response.  How are we hoping people will respond, in thoughts/words/actions? What do we want them to do differently, as a result of this project?
  4. Tone. What’s the tone, the vibe, the feel you’re hoping to create? Is it edgy, family-friendly, brooding, irreverent?

There are many templates for creative briefs that are more in-depth, more complicated and detailed than this. Some of those may be better suited for your needs.

But if you don’t currently use a brief in your creative process, start with this one. It can make a huge difference in how effectively your team operates.

“If it’s not on the website, it doesn’t exist.”

Let’s suppose you heard about an event or activity that kind of piqued your interest. Maybe you saw something on Facebook about it, or you heard someone mention it in a conversation, or you’d seen it advertised somewhere. It sounded relevant to you or someone you know, but at the time, you didn’t take action to investigate it.  You were too busy, or an interruption happened – whatever. The point is, you know about it, but you don’t know enough about it to take action: when it’s happening, where it’s happening, how you sign up… if you need to sign up. So you start looking for more information.

Your search probably doesn’t start with Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, unless you saw it on social media to begin with and have a pretty good idea of who posted it. You could go to Google, like almost everyone does. Or you could think about who’s hosting the event, and if you know who they are, you’d go to their website.

Those second two things, by the way, should always have the same result: people end up on your website.

If you’re part of an organization that runs a lot of events (like a large church),  this phenomenon plays out dozens, or even hundreds of times per week. Your communications or ministry team gets the word out about an event, but many people in your audience don’t have the app, email, or printed piece of information at their fingertips when they decide to take action. So what do they do? They go to the web and look for details, probably starting with Google or your calendar/events page.

This is why I have one rule about promoting events for any ministry at our church: information about that event must be online before I even consider promoting it. I say this all the time:

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

My church has a lot of people who run ministry activities and events; there are at least 40 leaders who run both large and small events, spread across 5 locations. Some of them are one-time events, some recurring. Some are targeting niche audiences, some are broad outreach events. But in all cases, we know people are going to look for info about those events online.

With so many leaders and events, but only two communications staff, we run a decentralized operation when it comes to many of our communications functions. One of those functions is publishing events to our online calendar. Think about it; local news organizations like Patch.com and Wicked Local have been doing this for years. Anyone in the community can publish events on these local calendars.

Our administrative support staff are all trained on how to add events to our website calendar, and are given thorough training on how that process works. They are coached on things like using natural language for SEO, and how our CMS handles events.

(This is very different from having access to main pages with evergreen content, which is limited to just a few superusers within our organization).

So when it comes time to promote some ministry activity or event, our communications staff starts with one simple check: we look at our website calendar to see if it’s there. If it’s not, we let the leaders of that event know that it’s not an option to promote it until it’s there. If it’s not on the website, it doesn’t exist.

Details, for those who are curious:

  • Our website is hosted by Monk Development, and we use their Ekklesia360 CMS.
  • We get about 200k visits to our site each year, and our events page is generally in the top 5 most-visited pages on our site.
  • Our attendance is just under 4000 per Sunday.

Teaching Series Graphics Aren’t Ads, They’re Book Covers

One of my favorite TED talks is by acclaimed graphic designer Chip Kidd. He’s a designer who’s worked for NYC book publishers for almost his entire career, designing book covers.

Just book covers.

The thing I appreciate most about Kidd isn’t his talent (which is significant) or his presentation style (which is flamboyant), but his respect for the authors of each book he works on. He treats every cover project like he’s designing a sacred vessel to carry the author’s artfully crafted work to the reader.

Anyone who designs graphics for churches should take their work just as seriously, because sermon series graphics* are basically the same thing as a book jacket.

Think about it: they’re both visual introductions to long form content. They’re both meant to spark enough curiosity to get someone to take action: “pick up this book” or “click on this link.” They both make a promise about what’s behind them, offering a glimpse without giving away the big idea.

Kidd refers to this as balancing clarity and mystery.

Clarity is the connectedness of the visual design to the information behind it. It’s how closely the design matches the content. Things like maps, wayfinding signage, and operating instructions need clarity.

Mystery is what sparks our curiosity. You look at a sign because you need to find your way somewhere. You look at a work of art because it makes you think.

Signs and directions should be easy to read, and take little time and effort to process.

Artwork should take longer to process, forcing you to dwell on it, and consider what the message behind it art is. Like this:

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*Sermon series graphics are the designed artwork we use in digital and print communication channels to show people what our current teaching series is all about. Look at any teaching-centric church’s sermon archives on their website, and you’ll see what I mean. Please don’t call these graphics “logos.” They’re not.

The Creative Brief, Part One

Every project worth your time starts with a plan: the definition of the need, the desired outcome, and the measure of success.

When it comes to creative projects, the plan also includes a critical piece of communication called the creative brief.

The creative brief can be a cumbersome document if done incorrectly. If done well, however, it can lead to groundbreaking work that goes beyond what anyone expected.

This video is a look into the thinking of some of the leading creatives in advertising, design, and architecture around the mission critical brief.

It’s worth your 26 minutes, trust me.

www.vimeo.com/107567840

When you’re done, read my second post on the creative brief for a simple format you can start applying to your creative projects, today.

Thoughts on “Belong Before Believe”

People belong to a group based on its actions, more than its words. They choose to belong to a group when that group does things that they want to get on board with.

Every group that people belong to outside of church does stuff. Clubs, sports leagues, civic organizations… people join them to do, not to be.

If your church is putting “belong before believe” language in their marketing, you’re missing out on the wonderful opportunity that clubs and organizations are capitalizing on. Because in doing that, you’ve just created “us” and “them.”

In clubs and other organizations, there’s only “us.” And the pitch to join in is always built around the action. If you join in, you belong.

If you want to make people feel more interested in participating in the life of your church – regardless of how much of your theology they believe – just start doing things that make people want to join in, and tell everyone that they’re welcome to join in with you.

If what you’re doing is attractive, then people will join you.

Tourists or Pilgrims 

Pilgrims are seeking a purpose. Tourists are seeking an experience. A tourist might love the experience, rave over it, document it, relive it. But they aren’t committed to it.

Tourists share experiences but they don’t construct them. They’re in it temporarily, not for the long haul. Tourists are consumers at heart.

Pilgrims are on a mission. They have a goal, a purpose of becoming a different person. Pilgrims make things happen. They’re in it for the long haul.

Winning brands treat their audiences like pilgrims, not tourists.

Missional vs. Attractional – a Thought Experiment

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine you have a friend who’s far from God, and they’re about to head out on a mission to Mars. You’ve got one hour with them before they take off, and that hour is on Sunday morning.

If you’d rather have them hear the gospel by watching a great sermon by your preaching pastor, you’re an attractional church. If you’d rather have a person from your congregation share that message – or you’d rather do it yourself – you’re a missional church.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re one kind of church, when really you’re another. A missional church is characterized by it’s congregation, not it’s leadership.

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.