Church Advertising Observations: What Does Not and What Does Work

Church Advertising Observations: What Does Not and What Does Work
Jeremy Harrison


While driving home from a family vacation today, we passed a billboard for a church. It read:

“The church for people who don’t like church.”

As I continued to drive, I started thinking about it. I’ve seen many variations on this campaign across the country. So why does it always bother me when I see ads like these? Today I finally had enough time in the car to figure it out.

First, a disclaimer. I’m a marketing guy. I am not really a church marketing guy. But as a believer who happens to do advertising and marketing for a living, I often pay attention to church marketing.

Does your church advertising work?

Perhaps you think there’s room to improve it, or you are on the verge of giving up on church advertising completely. Before you do anything drastic, consider these three reasons why I think most church advertising (like the campaign I saw on vacation) simply doesn’t work.

1. It doesn’t resonate with as many people as you might think.

When churches run ads like this one, I think they assume it appeals to most of the people in their community. After all, the majority of the local community is not in church. Therefore, the majority of the community doesn’t like church. But this logic is flawed. It takes energy and effort to experience something and then decide you dislike it. Most people don’t dislike church. It’s worse than that. They couldn’t care less about church. Most people are completely indifferent, and as a result, this advertising doesn’t speak to them at all.

2. It beats up on an already-damaged brand—the church.

If you think of the Church (with a capital C) as a brand, we can all agree that the brand is in bad shape. But the answer is not to run an ad campaign that distances your church from other churches. In fact, I believe this approach probably hurts your local church more than it helps. Remember, the majority of your community is indifferent. As a result, they don’t care enough to take time to understand the nuances between your church and the church down the street. So any time we speak of the church—with or without a capital C—we should seek to build it up. Yes, that includes your billboard campaigns.

There isn’t a megachurch on the planet with an advertising budget large enough to completely separate themselves from the larger brand of the Church in the eyes of a public that doesn’t care.

3. It doesn’t speak to many people at an emotional level.

All effective advertising speaks to people at an emotional level. As a marketing professional, this can sometimes be difficult to do, especially when my client is selling something boring, like a technical mechanical thing-a-ma-jig to a purchasing manager. But we always try to find a way to make an emotional connection.

When I think about the church… the great commission… the power of the gospel… the stories of changed lives… that is a story that is just teeming with energy. It has the power to connect with people at an emotional level. So why on earth do we throw away advertising dollars with ads that compare our church to most other churches, when most people don’t care about church?

Don’t feel bad. It’s understandable why this approach is so often used. When pastors and church leaders see billboard concepts like my example above, it speaks to them at an emotional level. You love your church. You are passionate about what you want to accomplish in your community, and are understandably excited to share how different you are. But remember, the majority of the people who drive past your billboard aren’t looking for a better church. They don’t think they need church.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you’re selling something that everybody buys (like toothpaste, cell phones or automobiles) then do marketing that focuses on differences between you and your competition. But if you’re selling something that most people don’t think they need (like church), then focus your marketing on why they need it!

Fantastic. I just wrote an article about how ineffective the church is in advertising. It would be a little ironic if I ended here, wouldn’t it? But there’s more to share. In my next post I’ll share eight practical steps you can use to design a church marketing campaign that will speak to the majority of your local community… the people who couldn’t care less about church.

Now, here are eight steps to attract people in your community in a compelling way:

1. Identify people groups in your community based on their passions.

Most people in your community are not thinking about going to church. But what are they thinking about? What are they passionate about? What are they excited to pour their time into when they get home from work? Get a diverse group of people in your church to brainstorm… you will quickly come up with a dozen or more groups of people.

2. Who can your church most effectively reach?

Let’s be realistic. You can’t effectively reach all of these groups. The way you reach a Harley-Davidson fan is typically different from the way you reach a gardener. Your church is uniquely equipped to reach some of these groups very effectively. This has a lot to do with the personality of your church. Pick a few of these people groups that overlap with the people already attending your church, and/or the people you as a leader are passionate about attracting. Before we continue, many churches have tried steps one and two, and then built outreach events accordingly. That’s why we often see church softball leagues, motorcycle rallies and Super Bowl parties. These activities are good, but they don’t usually speak to people at a deeply emotional level. As a result, you end up with the second best softball league, motorcycle rally, or Super Bowl party in town.

That’s why step three is so important. I don’t see churches doing this:

3. Learn what keeps these people up at night.

Do you want to reach your community at a deep level? Identify what keeps them up at night. What are those deeper emotions that drive them to obsess over their motorcycle, climbing a corporate ladder, or never-ending home improvement projects? What chronic problems do they deal with in their lives? These fears & problems will vary a bit from each group you identified in steps one and two. Sometimes it relates to the passion (e.g., parents worrying about their kids) but usually the thing they pour their time and passion into is just a facade for what keeps them up at night.

Step three may make you uncomfortable. I understand. But advertisers are capturing the hearts of consumers by speaking to them at a deeply emotional level. They tell them that the thing they are selling will make them happy. Advertisers do it in a manipulative and deceitful way way, but you can do it without manipulating or deceiving. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are sharing the Gospel! You have something to share that will actually transform their lives!

4. Develop practical biblical teaching. In step three you identified a chronic problem or fear that these groups of people face. What does the Bible say about this topic? If you’ve listed a problem or fear in step three that you don’t think the Bible addresses in a practical way, then you probably are still listing symptoms instead of root problems.

Pick one of these fears or problems. Prepare a multi-week teaching series, and make sure that each week offers its own practical action steps, as well as benefits for attending. Each part of the series should include specific action steps that will help them with the thing that keeps them up at night.

5. Don’t water it down. It may be tempting to dilute your teaching to make it more more seeker-friendly. But if you hit on a problem that speaks to them at an emotional level, they want all the information they can get. Consider showing them the tip of the iceberg and point them toward additional resources through scripture, and trusted Christian authors. People who think scripture is irrelevant have probably never discovered that there are practical answers to the specific problem they face.

Now that the teaching is developed, it’s time to re-engage your advertising campaign! But your ads will no longer talk about your church. You are about to earn their attention in a compelling way.

6. Design advertising that speaks to these people at an emotional level. Focus on what keeps them up at night, and the practical outcomes of your teaching. Make a promise about what practical benefits they’ll get for taking action. By the way, your call to action should probably not start with visiting your church. We all know that’s a risky proposition for some. This leads to step seven.

7. Create a marketing funnel. You need to create “baby steps” that people can take before they step foot in your church. Don’t require people to visit your church to start learning about solutions to their specific problem. Instead, earn their trust with some practical teaching on your website that will help them even if they never visit your church. This will help earn their trust and prove that you are a credible source of information. Yes, effective baby steps will get more people in the pews for your teaching series. But it will also get many more people interacting with you through your website, even if you don’t know who they are there. I will write more about how churches can use marketing funnels in a future article.

8. Make your advertising more targeted. Billboards and direct mail are fine, but you should supplement them with more targeted forms of marketing. In steps one and two, you identified groups of people who have specific interests and passions.

Did you know that using Facebook you can advertise to these folks in a targeted way? For example, there are more than one million people in the U.S. who “like” Harley- Davidson on Facebook. And despite the rural community where I live, 1,540 of them are within driving distance of my church! You can run targeted, local Facebook ads that tie your message to their passions, and you only pay when someone clicks.

Thousands of ads are running at this very moment that suggest random products or activities will fill the void in consumers’ lives. The ads get results because they speak at a deeply emotional level. When we begin to understand this, it suddenly seems silly to run ads that differentiate your church from other churches.

To a small church on a shoestring budget, this idea can be daunting. “I’m competing against national ad agencies for the attention of local consumers… are you kidding me?” But take heart. You have the real answer to people’s problems. And that can make all the difference.

The above article, “Church Advertising Observations: What Does Not and What Does Work” is written by Jeremy Harrison. The article was excerpted from: web site. October 2012.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, the material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.