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.

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.

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.

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.

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!