Church Marketing Communications: Hitting Your Target
By George Barna
ONE of the factors that will determine the ultimate success of your marketing efforts is your ability to effectively communicate information to your target audiences.
You will create and deploy two types of communication as you market your church’s ministry. These types are known by their chief end purpose: acquiring new numbers and retaining those you receive. Within each of these approaches you will develop various messages, utilize different media to convey these messages and rely upon different styles of communicating.
Your church’s marketing plan probably calls for some level of numerical growth, to be reached by focusing on reaching a particular segment of the community. Perhaps you are seeking to reach the unchurched. Perhaps your objectives call for an increase in the number of teenagers who get involved in the youth ministry at your church. Maybe your goals and objectives have defined a specific niche within the adult market as the group to whom your growth efforts will be directed. It is to those types of audiences that your acquisition communications are geared.
In most cases, acquisition communications by churches are developed either to persuade people to participate in the life of the church, or to embrace a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the nucleus of their lives. Such communications are aimed at moving the audience from a point outside the body of believers, either viewed as the local congregation you lead or as the aggregate group of people who have accepted Christ as their Savior, to a commitment to Christ through involvement in His Church.
Acquisition communications may require you to publicize your church’s image. Alternatively, it might involve what amounts to a sales pitch: an attempt to .get a person to take an action desired by your organization. That action might be attending a worship service, visiting a small group Bible study, reading the Bible, listening to an audiotape you provide, or some other activity they would not have normally engaged in without the persuasive communication to which they were exposed.
People who are already part of your church, though, would not be much interested in acquisition communications. Yes, they have an interest in your church and they have made a commitment to follow Christ. However, the objective of the acquisition communication is not relevant to their lives at this time—they have already made the commitments sought after by the communication. Consequently, they would not pay attention to the communication, figuring (rightly so) that the message was intended to be received by someone else.
Yet, it is imperative to communicate with the people who already are part of your ministry. They need to be updated on what is happening encouraged with church news and biblical teaching, exhorted though ministry and life-style challenges and made aware of outreach opportunities and experiences. To influence the thinking and behavior of the committed, then, you engage in a form of communication different from that used to influence the unreached.
This second type of communication is retention communications. This effort is directed to those who are already part of the Body of Christ, as demonstrated by their involvement in your church. Your emphasis in these communications is not so much to persuade as to inform. The assumption underlying these messages is that because of their existing commitment to Christ and to ministry as a life-style, the key to make effective ministry easier for these people is to (1) inform them of basic Christian principles (i.e. teaching), (2) alert them to future opportunities (3) encourage them with insights into pastor current circumstances.
Retention communication can be empirical or persuasive in nature. Empirical efforts are designed to inform people by providing factual information they can process and use in a manner they deem suitable. Persuasive efforts are used to facilitate or cause a given course of action: attending an event, providing resources needed for ministry and so forth. Thus, even though these people are already committed to the church and the ministry, communication is important to give them direction, insight and motivation for active engagement in their faith.
In reality a neat, clean division between persuasive communication and informative communication does not exist. Most forms of communication blend persuading and informing into a message that accomplishes some degree of both purposes. Effective communicators consciously strive for a well-conceived blend of the two. Be cognizant of the difference, though, so that as you consider what types of communication you send to people, your message reflects a desirable balance between the two.
Your church will need to engage in both types of communication if it is to remain a healthy church. Congregations that focus solely upon retention messages tend to become ingrown and often experience numerical stagnation and limited community influence. Churches that place all of their emphasis upon acquisition communications generally experience frustration due to low commitment to the congregation. These are the churches where the back door phenomenon is in full force. Many of the people make an initial commitment to the church, but then they depart within a relatively short period of time because their developmental needs are not met. Although communications are not the only means of addressing their need to grow spiritually, the lack of emphasis placed on interacting with the people inside the church is symptomatic of a ministry that is so outwardly-focused it neglects the spiritual needs of its members.
The Communication Process
Many textbooks have been written to explain the theory of communication: the process in which a message is developed by the sender, encoded in images and sound, transmitted by a communication medium, decoded and interpreted by the receiver. We will not focus upon the theory underlying effective communication.
Let’s take a moment, though, to consider the process of communicating on behalf of your church’s ministry Experience shows that to reach people you must think through a strategy. Random communication results in random response. It is neither predictable nor beneficial for the ministry. Once you have determined the nature of your ministry and the necessity of reaching people with information about your church and their own spirituality, you should create a plan for your communication activity.
Your first step might be to identify the communication objective you need to satisfy, to see your ministry move forward as articulated in your marketing plan. Your communication objectives spell out what needs to be communicated, to whom and for what purpose. Addressing both acquisition and retention goals, here are some type of objectives you might pursue in your communications.
• Creating positive awareness of your church and its ministries,
• Encouraging people to contribute more money to fund the ministry.
• Preparing people for specific courses of action to be taken by the church that might normally result in negative feelings toward the church,
• Informing the congregation of future plans and the reasoning behind those plans.
• Inviting people who have no church affiliation to attend events at your church.
• Recruiting, encouraging or acknowledging the volunteers regarding ministry involvement.
• Laying a foundation for the development of new or deeper relationships between people in the church.
• Expressing gratitude to individuals who have contributed in some tangible way to the ministry
• Directing the ministry efforts of the paid staff.
• Explaining perspectives on an issue with the intent of influencing upcoming decisions related to the issue.
• Encouraging those presently committed to active ministry through the church to remain so committed.
• Exploiting a competitive advantage.
• Confronting negative information regarding the church, its ministry, its people or its plans for the future by proposing an alternative point of view.
• Reshaping people’s perceptions about the relative importance of conditions or responses, the quality and impact of such elements, or the parameters of the potential marketplace.
• Reinforcing people’s decisions regarding involvement with the church or its ministry.
Whatever your communication objectives are, they should be directly tied to the marketing objectives of your church. Communicating with an audience consumes resources_time, money, physical resources and the like. It is in the best interests of your church to carefully think through the details of how any given communication process will help your church achieve its ministry goals. There is no value in communicating for the sake of communicating.
Try to avoid the tendency to overcommunicate with people. In America, people are overwhelmed with communication; much of it is unnecessary, meaningless or poorly targeted. The best dictum to follow is one your mother might have said to you when you were younger: If you don’t have anything worth saying, just be quiet. You generally communicate more effectively by saying less than by saying more, and by communicating only when necessary, rather than incessantly.
The message you communicate is likely to be shaped in some respect by your perceptions about the audience segment for which the communication is designed. Telling a teenager about the importance of attending a worship service must be done differently from trying to convince a baby boomer of the same necessity In trying to persuade unchurched people to attend your church, the message you send to an ex-Catholic who wants to attend church but is fearful and ignorant of what Protestant churches are like, takes a different approach from one you would take if your audience were born-again Christians who had turned their backs oft church because of past bad experiences in a congregation. Thus, as you determine what types of information must be conveyed by your church, it is important also to underscore the target audience for such communication efforts.
How do you know who the target audience is? If your marketing plan is properly developed, the plan itself will indicate the intended recipients. How do you define your communications objectives? Again, your marketing plan is the key: Your communications are a response to a need outlined in the plan. As you develop your communication devices, the marketing plan will be one of your key tools for determining the nature of your message, methods and monetary needs.
Getting ready to communicate a message also requires you to count the cost and check the calendar. If you are communicating through some type of direct or mass medium—that is, that some means other than word-of-mouth—the costs add up very quickly. The cost of communicating may, in itself, determine actual medium you will eventually use. For instance, the average commercial run during the Super Bowl costs an advertiser mere than $700,000 for a single airing, and many thousands of dollars to create and produce. No church in America can afford such an extravagance, nor would such an airing provide the targeted results that churches typically seek to achieve. However, commercials broadcast on local radio stations cost $20 to $30 an airing, so if a station has a good track record of reaching the type of people who comprise your audience, scheduling a flight of radio spots might be advantageous and effective.
One means of getting a perspective on costs is to determine ahead of time what your communication budget will be. Outline the various pieces of communication scheduled for the year as outlined in your marketing plan. Then get cost estimates for different media strategies. Here is how one church approached this task.
What communications will we send to our audiences this year?
Our marketing plan identifies the following:
• Monthly newsletter to church members;
• Weekly worship service bulletin, with one insert;
• Monthly letter from the pastor to church members;
• Annual report, about 50 pages long, for each church member;
• Yellow Pages ad;
• Brochure prepared for first-time visitors;
• Mailed invitation to community residents to attend:
1. Special Easter sunrise service,
2. Christmas Eve candlelight service,
3. Membership drive community mailing;
• Annual stewardship campaign letter;
• Annual congregational meeting letter regarding election of officers, policy changes;
• VBS flyer to homes of parents;
• Weekly newspaper advertisement in Courant-Journal.
How much will these communications cost?
• Our current newspaper ad runs weekly, is 2 line-inches by 2 columns, with one photo, and costs us $480 a month. To expand the ad to twice the line-inch count would increase the cost to $840 monthly. Decreasing the size to 1 line-inch would drop the cost to $300 monthly.
A mailing to each household in the community sent third- class bulk rate, nonprofit mail, costs 11.1 cents a piece in postage; an average of 20 cents a piece if we use a self-mailer; an average of 12 cents each if we send a letter; about 3 cents for each piece handled by the letter shop; about 1 cent a household for the mailing labels of community residents. First-class mailings cost 29 cents for postage; postcards are 19 cents.
• Mailings to the congregation reach about 350 households. The letters from the pastor, sent first-class, average $155 a mailing (2-page letter). The monthly newsletter, in the 11×17 folded format (4-page), sent second-class postage, runs about $105 an issue, delivered. Postcards sent to the congregation by first-class mail typically run about $90, inclusive.
• Radio spots on the classical music station run $15 for 30-seconds during early morning, midday, late night; $27 during morning drive time; $25 during evening drive time. On the soft rock station, spots run $10, $16, $18, during their respective time slots; on the MOR (Middle of the Road) station, the spots cost $9, $13, $13, respectively.
• Television spots (30-second) can be acquired for local sponsors by our cable company. Costs vary by the channel on which the spots run. The best audiences for us may be USA Network and Family Channel. Ads run $75 on USA Network, during prime time, $55 during fringe, $35 during morning. Rates on The Family Channel are $70, $57 and $40, respectively.
• Only 2 outdoor signs (billboards) remain available to us since all others have long-term commitments. The sign at Sherman and Wilson runs $150 a month, minimum 6 contract. The sign at Broadway and Ninth rents for $400 monthly, and has a 1-year minimum.
• The ad in the Yellow Pages (1 column by 1month. Switching to other directories drops the price, but also the coverage and the readership. Dropping the display ad and sticking with a line listing in boldface would cost $35 a month.
What has worked—or failed—in the past?
• Television never seems to reach our audience, if they are reached; it may be that our low-budget production has failed to motivate them to respond. TV does not seem to be in our future.
• Radio has had mixed results. It seems better at creating interest in special events than in growing attendance at regular events (such as worship services). The people who generally respond are young adults.
• The Yellow Pages seems responsible for about one new family each quarter. They are generally new to the community and seeking to find a church to replace the one they left when they moved.
• The direct mail campaign to bring adults in during our membership drive has never had much impact. Suggest we either increase the number of mailings sent to homes and target those households to reflect our target demographic, or drop direct mail.
• We have never tried outdoor ads, but First Baptist claims that their experience was negative—one year, no apparent impact.
• The church mailings seem to hit their mark. The newsletter is read by a seemingly high proportion of the church participants. The pastor’s letters have a high profile. The reminder postcards seem to hike attendance at events. The annual report, however, does not seem to get much of a read, nor do the stewardship materials.
Armed with this type of information, a church can make more informed decisions about how to communicate in the future. Some of the key decisions, though, require additional consideration: the Selection of media, timing of the media use and the nature of the message or messages to be communicated through such advertising or other appeals.
Using the Mass Media
Several forms of media are available to your church to convey a message to an audience. The most common of these are radio and newspapers, although some churches also use television and magazines. The media are usually known as mass media, because they deliver to the mass audience (as opposed to a targeted or segmented portion of the aggregate audience). In considering the potential value of these media, you should know how media analysts evaluate the impact of these media. Using various researches, they look at information such as ratings, share, gross rating points, audience demographics, impressions, reach, frequency and CPM. Here is a brief description of these terms, and how you might apply them to your decision of which media to use.
• Share: This is the percentage of the total viewing or listening audience who is watching or listening to a given program. The share is expressed as a number: “The Tonight Show” has a 27 share, meaning that the program has 27 percent of all people watching television while that program is on the air. Used for radio and television analysis, the cost of your advertising is set in conjunction with the ratings and share of the audience delivered by a given program. If, for instance, you contact a Christian radio station and ask about their advertising rates, you might find that their highest rated pro gram commands substantially more money for a commercial than do other programs they air.
• Rating: Also used by radio and television stations, the rating IS the percentage of all people who could potentially listen to or watch a program who were actually doing so. Unless every potential viewer/listener is tuned in, the rating will always be lower than the share, since the denominator on which the rating is calculated (i.e. the total possible audience) is larger than that for the share (i.e. actual audience during that time slot). Also expressed as a whole number, if you were told that the “Paul Harvey Report” has an 18 rating, that would mean that of all the people with access to a radio in your market, 18 percent of them listen to his program.
Gross rating points: If you add up all the ratings of the programs on which you advertise, the total represents the gross rating points (GRPs). This number gives you a rough idea of the amount of “media weight” or emphasis that has been placed on advertising your product. If you advertise on a program with a 10 rating (meaning 10 percent of the aggregate possible audience was tuned in), twice during a program with an 8 rating, and once during a show with a 6 rating, your GRP total would be 32 (10+8+8÷6). Technically, this implies that you have shown your message to the equivalent of 32 percent of the households in the market. Theoretically, the more GRPs you buy, the more times your advertisement has gained exposure.
• Impressions: This is the same as GRPs, but is expressed in terms of the total number of people reached, instead of as a percentage. Realize that, like GRPs, the impressions made with your advertising refer to the equivalent number of people who have seen the ad, In reality though, there is likely to be considerable duplication of people; neither GRPs nor impressions tell you how many unduplicated households or people have been exposed to the ad.
• Reach: This represents the number of people or households who have seen your advertising within a prescribed period of time— i.e. your total unduplicated audience. Used in all media research, reach refers to a 4-week period for television or radio; for magazines or newspapers reach reflects the total reading audience for a specific Issue or edition. Reach is most useful when attempting to calculate the aggregate impact of a given medium. For instance, if you run an ad on 4 radio stations, you might have purchased 65 GRPs. However, when the same people are counted just once, you might discover that 45 percent of those GRPs represent the same people who were exposed to the ad more than once. Your reach, then, would be 20 percent. Also remember that the ratings systems in place today do not measure actual attention paid to your ad or the percent who recall the ad, but only the proportion who were exposed to the particular medium in which it ran.
Frequency: This describes the average number of times people or households, depending on your unit of measurement, have been exposed to your advertising. Frequency is important because research has shown that the typical consumer must have multiple exposures to a message before grasping the content. Frequency is often used in conjunction with reach to determine a media schedule that will deliver the most cost-efficient, targeted audience for the advertiser. By combining these measures, for example, you could create a series of media scenarios for your advertising and analyze their likely impact. You might learn that a given schedule of radio spots would deliver 40 GRPs a week, resulting in having reached 32 percent of the male audience that is 18 to 34 years old, having an average frequency of 1.7 exposures during a 4-week period. By using media schedules and research, available from a media buying agency or an advertising agency that might handle your media buying, this type of analysis is possible.
• CPM: This stands for cost per thousand and serves as a Standardized unit of cost. Typically, you would determine the CPM for different media efforts and select the approaches that provide the most efficient audience delivery.
Making sense of your media schedule is no simple task. In fact, if you purchase advertising time or space without the benefit of audience analysis, using measures such as those described above, you are begging for trouble. Making decisions without the pertinent information is unwise under any conditions. Doing so in a media buying context can undermine good ministry intentions and otherwise strong marketing efforts. Bad media decisions can rapidly consume your budget for no apparent gains, adding to your ministry frustration, impairing your ability to be good stewards of funds and causing your congregation to be gun-shy about ever using the media again.
To reduce much of the anxiety and danger related to using the paid media in your marketing efforts, you might consider the possibility of working with a qualified media buying agency or adverting agency. Even though your account will likely be tiny compared to most of the accounts the agency handles, you might find an agency that is sympathetic to your needs, or one that specializes in working with limited-budget nonprofit organizations. Agencies that buy media time or space get a commission from the media whose time space they purchase. Every time they place an ad in the newspaper for you, the cost will be the same to you, but the agency will receive a commission for bringing the advertiser to that media outlet. Beware, though: In some markets newspapers do not allow commission for religious advertising, since they charge lower rates for such ad space. One of the great values of working with reliable media buyers is that they can provide you with a media plan that suggests the reach and frequency such advertising might generate.
Using Targeted Media
In the past decade the nature of audience communication has changed radically. Although television, radio, newspaper and magazine advertising formerly represented the dominant means of reaching an audience, more and more advertisers are moving away from reliance on these mass media. Instead, they are turning to targeted media”—communications vehicles that enable them to reach a more narrowly defined, concentrated audience.
As people have become more sophisticated and segmented, so has the media used to reach them. Many organizations spend enormous amounts of money advertising their products, but never rely upon the traditional mass media to convey their message. Why? Because there is so much waste in the delivery of the audience, in other words, of the total audience who might be exposed to the ad, only a small fraction of that audience (e.g. 2 percent) are your target group. Yet, you pay to reach the 98 percent who you know will not be interested in your product in order to reach the 2 percent who fit your target audience profile. That represents a massive amount of money and really limits your chances for success. You can turn to targeted media to reach the hard-to-find people. What are these media? Direct mail, card decks, specialty publications and telemarketing are the most common. In some ways, you can even treat radio and cable television as forms of targeted media since many of them now reach such specialized populations.
The fundamental concept of targeted communications is that by sending your message only to those individuals who are likely to have an interest in the message, you have achieved greater efficiency in your communications. Rather than earning a certain level of awareness among people who are likely to have no interest in your product or service, you can normally achieve a higher level of awareness among your target audience for the same, or less, money spent on communication.
Direct mail remains a valuable tool for church marketing. Assuming your church has identified a specific segment of the community it seeks to pursue, in demographic terms, your mailings can be directed to households that contain such people. Although the cost of using a targeted mail campaign usually winds up being higher per household than is true for a mass mail campaign (i.e. mailing to every household in the targeted geographic area), can be stretched much farther and generally reaps greater dividends.
Notice that for the targeted approach, the cost per household was higher. Why? Because the cost of printing the brochures was higher due to the smaller print run and the mailing list was more expensive because it is more selective. Yet, here is what the choice boils down to. This church could spend $17,800 to send a brochure to each household one time. It could spend $4,310 for a single exposure to the households most likely to be interested in the message being communicated. Or it could spend $17,240 (less than the cost of a single community-wide mailing) to reach the target audience four times, either with the same message or with different brochures. Given these options, and knowing that multiple exposure to a message increases the likelihood of impact, which option would you choose?
Do not be naive about the use of any type of media, targeted or mass. The proportion of people who respond to such communications tends to be minute. The average response to a direct mail pro motion is around 1 percent. Some churches have found that they have garnered up to a 10 percent return through a multi-stage, targeted mail campaign. Be aware that no matter how clever and appealing your mailings may be, a relatively small proportion of the audience will respond in the desired manner.
A variety of formats can be used in direct mail campaigns. The most common are postcards, letters, self mailers, newsletters Even though the majority of adults still examine every piece of mail they receive, you must work hard to ensure that your piece stands out in the crowd and quickly communicates that it is a piece worth reading.
Using Free Media
Do not overlook communication opportunities that cost you nothing or Very little. These free media sometimes possess the highest levels of credibility as is the case of word-of-mouth (WOM) communication.
Churches have begun to develop entire communication campaigns founded on a WOM strategy largely because the research consistently suggests that church attendance is increased largely through the use of WOM. People most frequently visit a church because someone they know and trust talked with them about the church and invited them to attend. Often, those same people who visited with a friend had rejected the call to visit the church that had been promoted through mass or targeted media. It was the credibility of the personal relationship that established the viability of the message.
Some of the better-known types of systematic WOM campaigns include:
1. The Friends Day approach—a church identifies a special day in which everyone is charged to bring a specified number of friends to visit.
2. Community Cleanup Days—a church takes responsibility for combing the streets of the community to pick up garbage, enlisting friends to help in the cause, sponsoring some type of cookout afterward at the church for those who participated.
3. A 10k run/walk for the homeless—people in your church seek outsiders to sponsor them in a 10-kilometer run designed to raise money to feed, clothe and shelter the homeless people of your community
These are only a few of the person-to-person types of programs churches might undertake to get more people acquainted with and interested in your church.
WOM ought to be recognized as a frontline form of media to be utilized by your church. Do not assume that effective WOM will happen on behalf of your church. People must be encouraged to Use their relationships as a means of reaching people. They must be taught what information to convey and how best to convey it.
Other free media are impersonal and do not have nearly the punch of WOM, but can be used for good, effect. Signs and posters placed in strategic locations, such as on bulletin boards in high traffic, public places (public libraries, public schools or univerS1 shopping mall kiosks) can result in greater awareness of an event or organization. Handbills, the flyers handed out to people on the street or placed in shopping sacks by sympathetic merchants, can also have a positive effect.
Knowing how to work your way through the media market is no simple task. New technologies are emerging all the time, using sophisticated measurement systems that provide complex statistics. And with the limited media budget your church probably has for communications, it is important to make the most of every opportunity and every cent available to you. It would be best to assign this area of marketing activity to someone who understands media marketing and who will provide consistent guidance for the church. Poor media marketing can quickly swallow your budget or communicate the wrong image or message. Take the media management process as seriously as you want the recipients of your message to take your church.
Excerpted from Breaking Ground for The Harvest by George Barna
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.”