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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.