A Process for Developing a Marketing Plan For Churches

A Process for Developing a Marketing Plan For Churches
By Robert L Perry

There is no fixed formula for applying niche marketing principles to a congregation’s outreach or ministry program. What is suggested here is a sample, not a recipe. It is intended to be a generic process that can be adapted to use in a specific situation. That adaptation may involve changing the process in many ways. For example, in a smaller congregation, the generic process may be shortened and simplified due to the smaller number of people involved. A larger congregation may have some organizational systems already in place that may need to be included in the design process.

The sample process is divided into seven phases: preparation, research, niche selection, strategy design, marketing design, implementation, and evaluation. Each phase includes two to four action steps to complete, with a total of 21 steps to the entire process. The time frame spanned by such a process might be anywhere from two to six months or longer.

To provide an overview of the entire process, the chart on the following pages will provide that “snapshot.” Then, the process will be expanded and described in detail.

Church Marketing Planning Process

Preparation Phase
1. Secure support of the primary leaders.
2. Determine budget for research and initial marketing.
3. Create or designate a task force to guide the process.

Research and Discovery Phase
4. Determine inside research approaches and delegate tasks.
5. Determine outside research approaches and delegate tasks.
6. Hear reports from all research groups.
7. Analyze church strengths and potential target groups.

Selection Phase
8. Determine feasibility and priority of various areas.
9. Determine the level of passion for various areas.
10. Select areas for immediate attention and those for later work.

Strategy Design Phase
11. Design methods and means for target group to be addressed.
12. Develop minimum necessary structure to conduct the ministry.

Marketing Design Phase
13. Apply research to design a marketing plan for launching.
14. Allocate resources for the project and its promotion.
15. Set launch date for project and enlist congregational affirmation.
Implementation Phase
16. Begin the work.
17. Adjust the game plan and continue the work.

Evaluation and Adaptation Phase
18. Secure evaluation of the ministry from those conducting it.
19. Secure evaluation from those who have been recipients.
20. Compile the lessons learned.

Preparation Phase

1. Secure the support of the primary leadership structure or of the congregation as a whole. The consultant or initiator of the niche-marketing idea will need to have an informational meeting with the congregational leaders. If an outside consultant is not used, the congregational leader (clergy) might serve as the facilitator; or a layperson with experience in marketing, strategic planning, or organizational management might serve in this role. Once the appropriate board or committee believes that a niche-marketing plan for the congregation should be developed, action can be taken by the congregation’s administrative structure to give the project official blessing. For some congregations, this may also include securing approval from a judicatory or denominational office. Every setting is different, and the most desirable way to receive official sanction for the effort will vary.

This step is important in order to avoid having the sense emerge later that the clergy, staff, or some board of the congregation is making unauthorized and inappropriate decisions about the congregation’s future. The entire process becomes more palatable for all members and partners of the faith community if it has prior approval for exploration. Leaders should also keep in mind the importance having buy-in by the informal leadership of the congregation. These are people who may be unofficial and unelected, but leaders nonetheless. A preparatory process of education may be involved, but the time invested up front in securing the blessing of stakeholders is well worth the cost.

2. Determine a budget for the research aspect of the effort and for the first round of marketing. There may be funds already budgeted for advertising, church promotion, demographic research, and so forth. For many congregations, however, this may be an entirely new area of financial need. It will be helpful later if an official blessing of the congregation, mentioned in step 1, has been given early in the process. This general approval of the planning process idea helps to secure the specific funds that will later be requested. Obviously, the specific needs cannot be known before the research is done and the niches are determined, but seed money should be allocated to get the project moving.

I would suggest that a smaller congregation beginning an effort of this kind allow at least $500 to $1,000 for initial research expenses, and at least SI ,000 to $2,000 for the immediate costs of any printing, promotional expense, or advertising that may initially be recommended. Once the plan is developed and approved, the actual cost of advertising and promotion will probably be many times that amount, depending on what marketing strategies are deemed most helpful. Clearly, for larger congregations, all of the amounts mentioned will need to be larger. A larger congregation will likely be dealing with larger samples or more samples for research, and the advertising expense may be directed at larger markets.

The money designated for research may be used to purchase demographic or psychographic studies, maps, or city-street directories; or to pay focus-group participants or a professional marketing company to conduct the focus groups. If professional services are utilized, the amount budgeted will need to be several times more than the amount indicated above. Typically, a professionally conducted focus group will cost at least $2,500 per group, and seldom is a single focus group session sufficient. Focus groups can he organized and conducted by volunteer church leadership al a much-reduced cost.

3. Create a task force or designate an existing group of congregational leaders to guide the research process. There may be an outreach committee, a strategy planning committee, or some other existing group in the congregation that would logically pursue market-driven planning. If there is not, a special task force may be created for this purpose. Creating a new task force provides the congregation with the opportunity to carefully enlist key people who may not be serving on existing committees. There may be church members with professional expertise who can be enlisted; generally, persons enlisted for a project of this kind should be highly motivated, creative, and progressive. They will be working with the facilitator to explore new and experimental areas of congregational endeavor.

Because the work of market-driven strategy development potentially involves both evangelism and social ministry, it would be desirable to have persons with spiritual gifts and passions in those areas serving on the task force. Vision is another helpful quality for anyone involved in trying to cast and clarify the images of the future for the church. In any congregation, there are some of those right-brain conceptual thinkers who can help the congregation imagine potential futures. As niche possibilities emerge, they will likely indicate other areas of talent and expertise that will need to be involved. Areas of congregational life such as music and education will come into play. As those needs become evident, the task force may be expanded to include the needed expertise.

Once a task force is chosen, the group can develop a schedule for its work. Meeting times and places will be determined, and a general time flow for the process may be projected. Completing these tasks (getting general approval for the effort, securing an initial budget, and selecting a task force) will take the process through the completion of the preparation phase.

Research and Discovery Phase

4. Determine inside research approaches and delegate tasks. The first major work of the task force is to plan the internal research methods that are to be employed. The basic questions the task force should ask and find answers for with regard to research methods are:

A. What are we trying to learn?
B. Through what method can we best learn it?
C. From what persons can we best learn it?
D. What questions do we need to ask?
E. How can we best ask the questions to learn what we need to know? (The reader may note that these questions are similar to those listed in chapter 2 on the subject of the design of research questionnaires.)

Each inside research approach utilized should be expanded and clarified with written answers to these five questions. The completed answers to these five questions in a hypothetical congregation, which we will call Trinity Church, might look like this:

A. What are we trying to learn?
– Is our church growing or declining numerically?
– What kinds of people are we most effective in reaching, and where are our current new members coming from geographically, demographically, and sociologically?

B. Through what method can we best learn it?
– We should study the church records and prepare charts and graphs to show our rate of growth over the past 10 years.
– We need a pin map that shows the residences of all of those who have joined the church in the past five years, and we need to interview a number of the new members to determine their basic lifestyle characteristics and personal values.

C. From what persons can we best learn it?
– Church records.
– Those who are newer members of the church.

D. What questions do we need to ask?
-What brought you to Trinity?
-What quality of the church most appealed to you when you decided to join?
– Since you joined, what have you found to be the most appealing aspect of the church?
– Did you visit other churches when you were deciding where to join? If so, what was the primary factor that led you to join Trinity?

E. How can we best ask the questions to learn what we need to know?
– We will form two focus groups of newer members with eight to twelve persons in each group.
– In addition, a written survey will be sent to all of those who joined in the past five years.

This task of recording answers to these key questions helps everyone involved to maintain an awareness of why they are doing the research and what it is designed to accomplish. Once the research methods are set, a schedule of activities can be established to accomplish the tasks. Members of the task force should be delegated to oversee the various elements of the inside research, and the entire task force will develop a time frame by which to have it completed.

Chapter 2 listed some of the research possibilities: church records, maps and graphs created from the records, member questionnaires, focus groups, storytelling sessions, and personal interviews. Several, hut not all, of these methods may be selected for use by the task force.
The use of congregational records for inside research is always a part of the process. These records are readily available in most cases, and there is almost no cost involved in compiling and analyzing them. The graphs and maps that will be helpful and informative can be developed by members of
the task force or by persons they may enlist. These graphic representations help everyone visualize and better comprehend the meaning of the statistics.

In addition to the church records and maps, at least two of the other four methods should be used. In addition, the task force may think of other ways of seeking inside information.

5. Determine outside research approaches and delegate tasks. The task force will then need to expand its scope of understanding about the congregation and its connection to its community by securing the information that can be gained through outside research. Chapter 4 discussed the choices for outside research as including demographics, psychographics, focus groups, interviews and intercepts, questionnaires, phone surveys, conversations, observations, and high-tech possibilities.

As with inside research, the basic statistical information on the community around the congregation is readily available, and it will almost always be included in the information base. The more sophisticated psychographic data may or may not be available at an affordable price. Among the other research information sources, at least two or three should be used by the task force. The same five questions listed above should be applied.

Task-force members will again be asked to oversee various elements of the outside research, and a time schedule will be established. The entire task force can give general leadership to the process and work together to make major decisions (such as the types of research to be done), but the details of each research effort will be charged to individuals or subgroups. This division of labor provides greater efficiency in the work of the task force. A deadline needs to be established for the completion of all research and the compilation of data so that a time can be set for reporting and analyzing all of it.

Trinity developed the following answers to the five questions as they applied to outside research:

A. What are we trying to learn?
– We want to know which unreached groups in our community our church could effectively reach, and we want to know about groups with unmet needs to which our church should minister.

B. Through what method can we best learn it?
– We will need to secure demographic and lifestyle cluster data for a five-mile radius around the church.
– We will need a separate study of data for the zip code in which the church is located.
– We will need to get clearer demographic information about the typical resident of the community where we are most effectively reaching people. This can be learned by creating a pin map showing the residences of persons who have joined the congregation in the past five years.
– We will need a better understanding of the needs of the people living in the immediate neighborhood of the church. It appears that this information might be best secured by utilizing focus groups and intercept interviews.
– We will also use an observation technique by having members of the church drive the primary highways and streets between the church and where our members live in order to learn from the advertising approaches being used by those selling secular goods and services (for example, billboards and bus shelters). The advertisers have knowledge about marketing to our constituency which we need to learn.

C. From what persons can we best learn it?
– We can best learn from persons randomly selected from the broader community. They will be representative of those we intend to reach.
– The entire population of the area will be analyzed through the use of demographic studies.

D. What questions do we need to ask?
– From the demographics, focus groups, and intercepts, we will ask whether there are specific niche groups with needs our church could address.
– We will ask how our statistics for various groups in our area compare with the national average. In groups where our population is significantly higher than the national average, this may be an indication of a niche we should consider.
– From our observation of billboards of secular advertisers we will ask questions like, “How are secular advertisers appealing to the people who live in our area. What approaches are working for them?”
– With the focus groups and interviews, we want to ask, “What causes you the greatest worry about the future? What concerns do you have about the future of your children and grandchildren? Do you attend a church as often as once a month? Why do you think most people don’t go to church? What advice would you give to a church that really wanted to help the community?”

E. How can we best ask the questions to learn what we need to know?
– The questions will need to be phrased carefully and in a way that is not invasive or threatening. We can ask, “Why do you think most people don’t go to church?” rather than “Why don’t you do go church?” The exception to the impersonal questioning is the one question of, “Do you attend once a month?” This is the best way to identify whether the respondents are actually unchurched. Most people have a religious (denominational) preference and may say they attend church, even if it is only for Christmas or a wedding.

These sample responses illustrate how a planning group might deal with the questions that help clarify the best ways to gather outside research.

6. Hear reports from all research groups. This meeting will be a longer and important one for the task force. They may wish to include some additional congregational leaders in this meeting due to its importance. The individuals and groups who were involved in all of the inside and outside research projects will report. The facilitator and the task force should coordinate the order of those reports and determine the appropriate length of each report. In general, I would suggest that about half of the available meeting time be allocated to reporting, and that the other half be devoted to analysis and interpretation of the reports. I have found that a minimum amount of time for this meeting would involve 90 minutes for the sharing of reports, and 90 minutes for the discussion and analysis of the information.

A more desirable way of scheduling this session would be as an all day retreat. In many cases, a Saturday will provide the best timing for a retreat. This format will allow the first few hours for reporting from the research groups, and the last few hours for processing and drawing conclusions from the information shared.

When reports are made on the inside research, the task force will be looking for relevant information about what the congregation does well and not so well. A pin map will say some things about geographic areas where the congregation has proven to be effective in outreach. Surveys and other research methods will help to show programmatic or functional areas in which the congregation has been most effective in its work. When outside research reports are given, the task force will be listening for new information and insights about potential niche groups and approaches for future outreach. For example, the demographic data may reveal a large number of people of a certain ethnic or language group living in the vicinity.

7. Analyze church strengths and potential niche groups. Ultimately, the outcome of the retreat or reporting session is hoped to be a consensus listing of the strengths of the church and a priority list of potential niche groups. The group should attempt to be objective and honest in the evaluation of strengths. All churches would like to believe that they are friendly and welcoming, but honest observation may bring into question how truly sensitive and caring they are towards outsiders. Before church leaders claim a given strength for the church, they should be sure that their judgment is born out from several sources. In other words, the friendliness is more reliably demonstrated if it emerges from new-member interviews, guest interviews, and church-facility observations (for example, convenient parking, welcoming entrance, or helpful signage), rather than from interviews with long-time members.

Niche Selection Phase

8. Determine the feasibility and priority of various niches. Either at the retreat meeting or at a later session, the task force will need to carefully evaluate the potential niches and make some decisions about the order in which to attempt to address them. Chapter 5 provides some guidelines for evaluating market segments. Congregational leaders will need to apply these guidelines to assess how feasible and advisable the segment may be as a focus for outreach or ministry.

9. Determine the level of passion and calling within the congregation for various niches. There will be two important questions to answer in the affirmative before the church begins to work on developing ministry to a given niche group:

A. Is there an inclination for us to adopt this niche group as a potential ministry focus for our congregation?
B. Who in our congregation has a passion or a calling to reach this kind of person? Regardless of how logical and obvious a given niche effort may seem, if either of these questions is answered in the negative, the ministry effort will probably not be effective.

When a niche group surfaces as a possibility, the members of the task force may know of someone in the church with a strong interest or a particular identification with the group. That can be explored through personal conversations with the individual to determine whether there is a calling or a passion for that ministry or outreach. Another way of searching for persons with a particular passion may be to run items in the congregation’s publications that ask for persons with certain interests to contact a designated person on the task force. Subsequent conversation will help clarify whether the passion is present.

10. Select niches to be addressed immediately and those to be considered later. Out of all of this consideration, a priority listing of niche efforts will be developed. Some of the niches may be easily addressed, and others may need more time and preparation. The financial cost for some projects may require additional time to secure. The need for ready volunteers may necessitate a delay in the launching of some projects. This priority listing may need to be amended and adjusted over the course of time, but initially it is helpful to have an idea of where the congregation will focus its efforts and energies. A midsize or smaller congregation may want to limit its initial niche outreach efforts to one or two groups; a larger congregation might attempt to focus on three or four to get started.

A task force might decide to begin its practical work with a single niche as an experimental learning effort. I recommend that congregations begin with more than one effort, because experience has shown me that at least one failure is likely, and having multiple lines in the water is more likely to result in a successful ministry launch. If a congregation begins with a single niche and runs into problems, it may scuttle the entire marketing project. Two or more efforts at the beginning increase the probability that one or more will yield positive results.

Strategy Design Phase

11. Design the methods and means by which the niche group will be addressed. One by one the task force will make plans for how the church will conduct the ministry or evangelism to a given niche group. The task is to develop a strategy for addressing the niche. Keep in mind the principle of providing multiple entry points for new persons receiving ministry or outreach efforts. These goals and plans should be committed to writing by the task force or a subgroup of the task force, and if persons who will be directly involved (those with a passion for the work) have been identified, they may be enlisted to help develop the plans.

12. Develop the minimum necessary structure to conduct the ministry. Whatever new ministry or outreach effort is planned will require some degree of organization. The design of the new initiative, however, should not be an occasion to create new and expanded bureaucracies; the simplest and most logical structure will be the best. Minimum organization to create efficient administration and accountability is the goal. Where the congregation has existing structures that can adequately manage the work, new structures may not be required. The particular ministry may only need a coordinator or a small team, with clear understandings of where they go for assistance and guidance. Emerging ministries should not be micromanaged or overmanaged, but neither should they be lone-ranger efforts disconnected from the congregation as a whole. They should be viewed as a part of the total ministry of the congregation.

Marketing Design Phase

13. Apply the earlier research to design the marketing plan for launching the niche project. Chapter 4 includes information about how marketing may be developed to appeal to certain niches. The task force should work on planning the best possible advertising and promotion of the new ministry, working within their budget limits. Chapter 5 also contains helpful suggestions for developing guerilla-marketing approaches that maximize available funds. This offers the congregation the challenge of exercising great creativity to obtain maximum marketing results with minimum investments of limited resources. The task force will need to have a written plan for the progression of marketing efforts.

14. Allocate the resources necessary for the project and its promotion. At the launch of the marketing planning process, some basic budget for the projects was designated. Now, as the plans become more specific, a more precise budget can be requested. The task force will work with the appropriate administrative structures of the church to propose and explain the need for additional resources for doing the ministries and for marketing them. There may be instances in which additional funding is not needed, but most circumstances will require more money than was originally granted.

15. Set a launch date for the project and enlist congregational affirmation, involvement, and prayer support. The individual niche project may only involve a handful of people in the congregation. It may be heavily dependent on one or two individuals with a passion for serving the particular persons who make up the niche. It is important, however, that the entire congregation be aware of the effort and be providing prayer support and any other needed resources, such as volunteers, materials, or promotional assistance. The setting of launch dates will also need to be coordinated with the overall church calendar and other emphases that the church may be doing, and it will need to be done only after the persons directly involved in the effort are on board. A part of the word-of-mouth marketing that is so important to new initiatives will be generated, as members of the congregation become aware of and supportive of the niche effort.

An official launch date for the effort provides the entire congregation with an opportunity to commission or bless the workers who will be involved in the ministry, and it informs everyone of its formal beginning. It also marks the beginning of the marketing strategy that will be employed.

Implementation Phase

16. Begin the work. The task force will empower and encourage the persons conducting the projects and the people leading the marketing of the effort. The new ministries will probably be launched one at a time as the necessary elements are in place. The task force is the oversight group that will coordinate all of the efforts and schedule their beginning.

It is important, however, that the task force coordinate its efforts with other existing leadership groups in the congregation. The primary role of the task force as implementation begins is coordination, not policy making or controlling. This vital coordination with congregational structures, paid staff members, and the larger congregation as a whole will determine the success of the efforts.

17. Adjust the game plan and continue the work. As the various projects begin, there will be unexpected and unintended results. The task force should keep a big-picture concern for them, but each ministry may have its own coordinator or small group of leaders. Either the coordinator of the individual ministry or the task force may see ways in which strategies need to he adjusted and improved. There should be flexibility in the system that allows for constant and quick redirection and improvement. If the plans are not cast in stone by an official congregational vote on every detail, they can be more easily adjusted with emerging circumstances.

Evaluation and Adaptation Phase

18. Secure evaluation of the ministry from those conducting it. Those who lead the ministries will be evaluating the effectiveness of the work as honestly and objectively as they can. The task force will want to establish a regular procedure for having the ministry or outreach workers assess
whether the effort is fulfilling its purposes. Such evaluation may be done by a combination of written surveys, interviews, or observations.

19. Secure evaluation from those who have been recipients. A second form of evaluation is for the task force to secure evaluation from those who are the recipients or the intended recipients of the ministry or outreach. These are the persons who can provide the best insight into whether it is working and why it is or is not fulfilling its mission. Evaluation from these persons may be obtained by personal interviews by ministry leadership or by carefully worded written surveys.

20. Compile the lessons learned. Every experimental ministry effort has lessons to teach us. In this sense, no experiment in ministry is a failure. If the effort completely fails to fulfill its purpose to reach the people it had hoped to reach, it still provides leaders with valuable information about what works and does not work. The analysis of the failures becomes important, because it is in this process that the priceless insights for future efforts come to us.

The market planning task force will compile, discuss, and record all of these lessons, including the evaluations that were done in steps 18 and 19. These lessons learned will not only be helpful for congregational efforts in the future, but these school-of-hard-knocks lessons may be helpful to others attempting similar strategies in other places. This is how our local experiments may enhance the overall effectiveness of the larger mission of God.

21. Make a determination of whether to continue, how to adapt, or how to otherwise apply the learning’s of the experience. The task force, along with the ministry leaders, will at some point decide whether the ministry should continue, be changed, or be discontinued. Reasons for pulling the plug on an effort might be:

A. The ministry is not working-the intended niche is not being reached. The people who are leading the ministry do not have the necessary passion, skills, or commitment to make it work.
C. The congregation is not supportive or interested in the effort.
D. The marketing costs are too great for the benefits they produce in terms of ministry or outreach accomplished. It must he kept in mind that depending on the purpose of the ministry, no visible benefits may be expected for some.
E. The niche is responding, but in numbers too small as to have significant results or to justify the resources and efforts being invested. An example might be a project to help middle-aged single adults find social relationships. If those responding from the potential niche group were only a few persons in the community, and if the cost of newspaper advertising to reach them were substantial, it might be determined that the results being obtained did not justify the cost incurred.

When a market-driven project is laid to rest, there is a great tendency to put it quietly out of its misery and to feel a sense of failure. On the contrary, a failed effort should he celebrated, and its benefits should be highlighted. The effort probably did some good for someone, either the ministry participant or ministry recipient. The effort resulted in important lessons being learned. The effort itself is a sign of life and entrepreneurial energy in the church. All of these and other outcomes can be legitimately celebrated. The celebration might take the form of a time in a worship service when the above results would be acknowledged, or a recognition of those persons who had worked in the effort. Congregations do not often do a good job of celebrating their successes, not to mention their poor habits of celebrating failures. This occasion becomes an opportunity to recognize the work people have done, the sincerity of the efforts that were expended, the value of the lessons learned, and the accomplishments of the project, even if they were meager.

If the ministry or outreach is succeeding, it may be continued and enhanced. There will still be lessons to be learned and recorded. The successful effort may also lead to other possibilities for new niches or new ways to reach people with innovative techniques. Small successes can be the building blocks for more and greater successes.

Much of the success of niche marketing efforts will be determined by the attitude and outlook of the congregation. If those who are members see the congregation as being a community-oriented, beyond-the-walls effort, their niche projects will more likely have the needed motivation and passion to succeed.

“A Sample Process for Developing a Niche Marketing Plan,” excerpted from “Find A Niche and Scratch It.” By Robert L Perry.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”