Church Marketing Research: Know Your Marketing Context
By L. D. Pelter Sr.
The point of church marketing research is to understand the environment in which you are operating, assess your effectiveness and efficiency in reaching your target market(s), and make on-the-fly adjustments to maximize your impact. Without a keen sense of your context, you’ll likely flounder as you move from one failed approach to another trying to find something that works. You see this displayed in many– perhaps most– churches as the senior pastor and other paid staff put in 60 frenetic hours each week only to make no progress. While multiple factors are at play in this scenario, a key driver of ineffectiveness is a failure to grasp that the environment is constantly changing and internal activities need to be continually evaluated in light of these changes. The world is not static. To keep up with it, you must occasionally pull out a bottle of Windex and look outside the windows of the church. Here’s how to clean your outreach windows…
The Market: You, Your Competitors, The Environment and Your Audience
Despite its apparent complexity, you really only have to look at four factors to stay on top of your outreach activities.
Factor #1: You
Of all the parts that make up a market, you would think this would be the easiest to control. As you’ve likely learned, however, changing the form or substance of church programs and ministries can be daunting. Entrenched interests work diligently to maintain the status quo. People lose sight of the real reason for your church’s existence. Self-preservation becomes the rallying cry for every ministry from the women’s guild to the kitchen team. In spite of these roadblocks, senior leadership must press forward with a commitment to reach seekers and skeptics at all costs– even if it means hurting feelings, disbanding decades-old ministries, or losing some members. If even one leader fails to embrace this concept, you will likely fail. (The height of the glass ceiling of outreach effectiveness is determined by the most change resistant member of your leadership team.)
Market Rule 1: You must be willing to change– even if it hurts
Factor #2: Your Competitors
This is a slippery concept to grasp for most churches but your competitors are NOT other churches. The Bible tells us to delight in other people finding the lord. Whether that person “finds” Christ at a Baptist church or Lutheran church is, in my mind, not nearly as important as them having found God! If our paradigm as churches were to become one of abundance (“there are many people to tell about Jesus”) rather than one of scarcity (“that church has more members than we do”) Christianity would benefit tremendously.
Our real competitors, then, our found in society and the spiritual realms. We need to convince people that believing in God will bring much more fulfillment than sleeping in, watching Desperate Housewives on TV, or reading the Sunday paper. In addition, we need to acknowledge that the devil does not want people to enter into a relationship with Christ. These are our true competitors. To overcome them we must develop plans than offer compelling reasons for people to engage with the church. We must also pray for guidance and strength. Finally, we must continually monitor the competitive environment for change.
Market Rule 2: Churches are not the enemy
Factor #3: The Environment
We all live in an external environment that greatly impacts our actions and perceptions. The dominant political, economic, social, legal, religious, and technological perspectives are important factors to consider when trying to understand context. When these forces come together they can create a sort of collective psychology that influences the very way people see themselves and the world.
As an extreme example, consider the impact of the social-economic-political-religious-technological environment that birthed and maintained Hitler and the National Socialist party in Germany prior to and continuing through WWII. An entire group of people adopted a warped sense of reality.
In a much less malevolent way, the same thing is occurring today as millions of people don’t see the need for God. While it’s impossible to fully define and understand the contour of our environment, we must try to isolate some of the key influencers that are informing the worldview of so many people. Some likely candidates include materialism, individualism, a growing need for community, anomie, and the ubiquity of the internet.
Once some the key environmental players are identified, you can begin to develop strategies to either counter or fill them. For instance, if you believe, as I do, that people are crying out for genuine community you may want to look at bolstering your small group ministry. Perhaps it’s time to hire a full-time small groups pastor/coordinator? Maybe you should begin to market these groups aggressively to your internal and external audiences? I suggest identifying just your top 1, 2 or 3 environmental drivers and focusing on them, you will probably not be able to effectively handle any more than a couple of these huge issues.
Market Rule 3: Identify a couple of key environmental drivers AND act on them
Factor #4: Your Audiences
You have many audiences: your target market(s), your members, your visitors, your staff, your volunteers, and more. Further, these audiences are not mutually exclusive. For instance, you may have a volunteer who is a member who is also in your target market. Regardless of the composition of your audiences, the common thread holding them all together is that they will change over time. Some of the changes will be minute and some will be cataclysmic, but change will occur.
To stay on top of this change you must constantly take the pulse of your audiences in order to fully grasp their mindset. A great way to accomplish this is to take opinion leaders from each group out for coffee periodically and asking provocative questions such as: “Where are we missing the boat?”, “What will we need to be doing better 5 years from now?” and other questions that you’d probably rather not ask. If you’re not comfortable doing this, hire a consultant to do it for you. (The consultant may even be able to gather feedback these people aren’t willing to share with church leaders.)
In addition, you may want to conduct periodic surveys or focus groups to gain insight into the feelings of your key audiences. There are some great resources available on writing simple surveys that get to the heart of a key issue. Similarly, focus groups can be conducted by someone in your church who has a background in marketing or you can hire a consultant to run them. Either way, the more focused the research the better. Also, simple is almost always better. You’re not J. Edgar Hoover, you don’t need to know everything about everyone. Too much information is harmful to your health. Major on the majors.
Market Rule 4: Stay in near-constant touch with your primary audiences
From: Church Marketing 101 by L. D. Pelter Sr.; Zondervan 1998
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study and research purposes.