Marketing Communications

Marketing Communications:  What to say, How to Say It
George Barna


The following 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. Through away the bones.”


WRITE the vision,” God said to the prophet Habakkuk, “and make it plain” (Hab. 2:2, KJV). Nothing is more important for the success of your ministry than communicating clearly.

Creating the Communication Elements

Apart from decisions regarding what media to use, some key considerations in communications development will motivate the desired response among your target audience. These considerations include your headlines, the body copy, the illustrations and the offer. Other elements, such as the medium, the layout, typefaces and timing (as in seasonality) are also of importance. However, since most of these types of decisions can be made in conjunction with experts such as media buyers, we will concentrate on some of the elements that you will have a more direct influence upon.

The vast majority of advertising prepared for churches relies upon printed media for distribution-newspapers, direct mail, handbills and Yellow Pages. The guidelines that follow are offered with the print media in mind, although most of these principles apply to other media, such as radio and television, as well.


Many respected marketers make no bones about their belief that the single, most important element of any persuasive communication effort is the headline. Some experts state that their own experience indicates that headlines are responsible for 50 to 75 percent of the success of their communications. Reams of research has been conducted to explore the impact of headlines. Here are several commonly held conclusions.

• Communications with a weak headline prevent the rest of the vehicle from gaining the desired exposure.

• A strong headline has the ability to cause hard-to-reach people to spend time investigating the information conveyed in the communication piece.

• A few proven rules help to develop strong headlines.

Here are some of the keys to creating a strong headline

1. Stress benefits in your headline. We live in a benefit-driven society. People’s time is short, so they cut to the heart of the issue and try to determine immediately if a message holds much promise of providing them with a desired benefit. Sensing no such compelling element, they will move on to the next piece of communication until some personal benefit of interest captures their attention. Make the appeal or offer clear and immediate, and describe how the person will be better off in life as a result of having your product or service. The headline is no place for subtlety.

2. The claim must be believable. Today’s consumers have been burned often enough that they no longer take the claims of advertisers at face value. They are skeptical of all claims and only pursue those that appear to be valid. Whatever claim your headline makes must seem reasonable and must have the facts to back it up.

3. The key to grabbing the reader’s attention is to appeal to their self-interest. Your headline can take several approaches: provide news, arouse curiosity, or appeal to a person’s felt needs and personal interests. The best headlines manage to accomplish all three approaches; the most critical element of the three, however, is to underscore points of personal interest or need to the reader.

4. The most effective headlines are those that use concise and simple language. People sift through information quickly. An effective headline is one that uses a few well-chosen, direct, easy-to-understand words that grab them and pull them into the message. Ornate wording, excessive verbiage, scholarly language, pedantic prose serve no useful purpose. Create a headline that is direct rather than clever, Clever headlines often require too much energy to figure out, or they may intimate that the message is cute but fluffy. Most people do not take the time for such messages.

5. Be positive. People dislike negative advertising. Although a case can be made for its use, the research generally concludes that such approaches raise the prospect of conflict in the mind of the reader, causing the potential audience to steer clear of the situation. Alternatively, the negative slant may position the sender of that negative message to gain an image as being one who is confrontational, defensive or aggressive, These are not the attributes you want to have associated with your church.

How can you write great headlines? Study the ones that have a proven track record-the ones developed by successful direct mail copywriters and that get used over and over again because they work. When you write your headlines, do so with a clear sense of the purpose of the communication-to get people into your church, to make them read the Bible, to motivate people to join a small group Bible study, to get them to come to a community event and so on. Write a number of possible headlines, then select the best of the bunch. Then test it.

Which of these headlines would work better for a small church that wants to increase its Sunday morning attendance?

Discover What the Bible Says About Your Family

Visit Us This Sunday and Have the Greatest

Worship Experience of Your Life

Both call for action. However, the second headline is long, is not credible and does not address a desired benefit. Granted, to people who know and love Jesus, the idea of a great worship service is inspiring. But the reason you are advertising is to reach those people for whom the concept of worship may mean little, and who certainly do not find worship services to be motivating enough to get them out of the house on Sunday morning. They need something more captivating.

The first headline would likely draw more people. It gets directly to the point and offers people a benefit of moderate to high perceived value. Most Americans believe the Bible is a good and useful book. However, they generally do not feel they know what it says especially about something as important to them as their family. The headline promises that they will learn something of interest and something that is credible because it is based on the Bible.

Which of these headlines is most likely to draw better?

Don’t Visit Our Church Unless You Want

Your Life to Be Changed Forever!

Meet Some Neighbors Who Want to Know You

The first headline starts out negative. People like a challenge, but the challenge itself must be credible and compelling. The assumption underlying the headline is that the target audience does not like life-a bit presumptuous, and not supported by research. Further, the notion that attending a church will change a person’s life forever is, from the perspective of the average consumer, a wild and unreasonable claim.
The second headline is shorter and addresses a felt need (loneliness) with a possible solution. It has no implied threat, only an opportunity to build relationships with people who are likely to be open and friendly. This is the type of image you could use most advantageously in developing your church’s image.

Body Copy

“Body copy” is the term used to describe the wording used In the communication itself, apart from the headline or the captions under pictures or illustrations. If your headline is successful, people will examine the body copy for more information about the promise made in the headline.

Your opening sentences must be real grabbers. Again, because people are deluged with information they are looking for an excuse to reject your communication. If the headline is strong enough, they try the body copy; but if it does not immediately continue the same level of interest and personal gain, they will move on to their next task.

What makes body copy compelling?

• Benefits. Not only should the headline allude to specific benefits to be realized, but the body copy must really drive home the advantages of the product or service about which you are communicating.

• Continuity with the headline. Once your headline puts people in a specific frame of mind, or raises particular expectations, they read the body copy because they want further insight into the element to which you alluded. Do not dis • Depth of information. People won’t take the time to read volumes of information, neither are they moved by copy that is so brief and superficial that they only get a few morsels of information In general, make sure the copy is long enough to communicate effectively the driving sales points, but concise enough to ensure that they will read what you have written.

Some helpful writing hints are: (1) avoid negative copy, (2) do not mention the names of your competitors, (3) write the copy with a specific audience in mind (perhaps you could establish a composite person in your mind whose character and values represent the target audience), (4) urge the reader to take swift and specific action, (5) create the copy when you feel energetic, fresh and excited about the product or service.
Using subheads in the body copy is one of the most effective tools available. When beginning a new section in your body copy, or making a key point, the use of a subhead will call attention to that item. Research has shown that many people read the headline, scan the subheads, and look at the illustrations and captions before making a decision to read the body copy itself.


I doubt that the person who first said “a picture is worth a thousand words” literally meant one thousand words, but even in our overcommunicated, ad-cluttered society, pictures have retained their ability to slice through the clutter and drive home their point Testing of a wide range of communications formats, styles, copy strategies and visual presentations consistently finds that visuals are among the most effective means of communicating with people.

If at all possible, strive to include some illustrations in your printed communications. This might involve photographs, drawings, charts and graphs, or other types of pictures. Make sure that the illustrations you use are dearly connected to a key sales point you wish to make. And always use captions for your pictures. Some of the research we have conducted for Fortune 500 companies has underscored the importance of captions. The sentence or two that gets printed beneath an illustration invariably gets read by the
appoint them.

• Emotional and intellectual information. Provide people with a reason why, communicated with a sense of enthusiasm, excitement, passion and commitment.

• Credible information that supports the basic contentions made in your communication.

• No fluff. Copy that gets to the point, In an interesting but direct manner, captures people’s attention and persuades them much more effectively than circuitous, flowery prose consumer, making that wording a prime opportunity for emphasizing a significant fact your target audience needs to know. The tunes of pictures best suited to advertising or communications meant to persuade are pictures of people, pictures of the product being used or a demonstration of the benefit received from someone who has made use of the product. It seems that the pictures still most capable of arresting people’s attention are those of children and animals.

Extensive testing of illustrations reveals that when pictures of men are used, men are the ones most likely to examine the picture and accompanying copy. When pictures of women are used, women are the most likely audience. Why? Apparently, the picture is a signal that the information is geared to people like themselves. The picture helps the person to discern, quickly, whether or not the message is targeted to them.

The exception, of course, is when the picture is revealing not a person but a sexual allusion. The beer commercials that feature scantily-clad women parading up and down beaches are fairly good at gaining the attention of men, but seem surprisingly inadequate at closing the sale for the product. If the point of the advertising is to earn product recall and increase sales potential, this approach is probably not advisable. Selling through sex is certainly not an appropriate strategy for a church.

Other Considerations

Many other elements can be studied regarding your advertising. Here are a few to keep in mind.

• Typeface. The style of type should be legible. The point size sufficient to allow people from your target audience to read it with ease. Use of bold and emphasized type should be sparce but strategic.

• Layout. Strive for a professional, clean, flowing, uncluttered look The placement of the illustrations, the amount of white space and the distribution of the copy should be intelligent, built around ease of reading and stand out as attractive.

• Color. Color can help or hinder your print communications. Black and white pieces can communicate more effectively than high-cost four-color pieces, if the technique is used properly. Work with a good artist who has a great sense of color and spacing to achieve the desired effect for the lowest budget. Consider combinations that save money and capture attention, such as use of one or two ink colors, achieving a third color by using a tinted paper stock.

• Seasonality. At certain times of the year people make decisions about certain products or services. People do not need to hear about VBS programs in the winter, nor is anything achieved by mounting school enrollment programs in the fall. People have already made their decisions and have just begun the new school year. Launching membership drives during the late spring or during the summer months is usually disastrous. No matter how good your materials are, recognize the decision-making calendar on which people operate.

• List reliability. If you conduct a direct mail campaign and rent a list (i.e. mailing labels) from a list broker, make sure the list is continually being updated, and that the original source is reliable. Some lists are compiled-pieced together from several other lists. Others are original-developed by the list owner from original research. Sometimes, rented lists are updated by the owner just once a year, which means that up to 20 percent or so may be outdated by the tail end of the year since 15 to 20 percent of the population changes location each year.

Mixing Media

Most communications experts will tell you that your best media strategy is one that relies upon a blend of several media to reach your desired audience. This multi-media strategy enables you to reach people in different contexts, with different messages geared to making the same impact and retards the potential for commercial wearout.

After you have identified what your media budget will be and who your target audience is, use the available research to create a media plan that will provide the most cost-efficient means of reaching your target group as many times as possible. If you can major on targeted media, do so. If you can use mass media to your advantage, without cheating your marketing effort financially, pursue those opportunities. The important thing is not which media you choose, but what outcomes result from your choices.

Testing Your Message and Creative Presentation

One of the central tenets of effective communication is testing. Just as the three core principles of real estate are location, location, location, the central principles around which influential communications are built are testing, testing, testing.

Two methods of testing are informal testing and formal testing. Your best strategy is to employ as many methods of testing your communications as possible. Remember, with many people in your target group you will have just one chance to persuade them to take the action or embrace the perspective that you desire. It is in your best interests to maximize that opportunity by using the strongest possible communications.

Suppose you have written a mail piece or a newspaper advertisement. How might you test that communication vehicle? Try these approaches.

1. After you have written the piece, let it sit for one or two days, then come back to it. Having a fresh perspective, you can more objectively evaluate whether the piece adequately conveys the key points you wish to put before your target audience.

2. Have someone else read your headline and body copy out
loud to you. As you hear the words you can get a perspective different from when you stare at them on the page at your desk. As the reader stumbles through certain sections you can be fairly confident that the difficulty is the wording, not their reading ability. After you have made your own notes ask them for their opinion of the copy.

3. A more formal approach to testing might be to seek the opinions of people who might be part of the target audience. Focus groups are an ideal means of having your target audience respond to the communication. (See chapter 5 for more information on this research technique.)

4. You might attempt a real-world evaluation by conducting an in-market test. if you wish to evaluate your direct mail, for instance, you might divide your mailing list in half, randomly, and send two different versions of a communication, each version to half the list. By including some way of tracking the response, you can determine which approach worked better. in such testing, limit the test variables to a single item so that you know what caused the variation. in other words, if you send out a self-mailer (i.e.. brochure) that has the same body copy but different headlines, you can determine which headline was more effective. if you sent out two entirely different brochures-different headlines, illustrations, body copy, paper stock, size, typefaces-you would know which brochure was more effective, but would not have any idea why. Next time you develop a brochure for a direct mail campaign, you would be no wiser than before regarding what elements are most useful when trying to persuade your target audience.
Similarly, you can test your communications that might run in newspapers or magazines by split-run testing (putting one version of an ad in half of the printed editions, the other version in the other half).

Ultimately, your testing should enhance the impact of your communications. in chart 19 are some of the most common mistakes made in communicating with your target audience-mistakes you can avoid in the creative stages of developing your campaign, or that may be detected through your testing of a finished product.

Public Relations

Another media-driven approach to communicating with your target audience is to make use of the media through an editorial focus. This might entail getting news releases published or having feature articles written about the church and its people. These approaches cost little but can reap enormous benefits because the dissemination of the information by the media appears to bear their stamp of approval.

At a minimum, your church should have a special mailing list of all of the mass media outlets that reach your community. This includes all of the newspapers, television stations and radio stations that serve your area. You should be sending them news releases on a regular basis about key news or events related to your ministry. You would be surprised at how often a professionally written, sharplooking news release will see the light of day in the media (especially local newspapers).

What is newsworthy about your church? The following are some typical items that formed the basis of news releases sent by churches to local media, and were picked up for coverage by these

• Creation of a recycling station located in the church parking lot. Anyone with recyclable materials could drop off these materials for collection.

• Hiring of a new pastor or associate pastor including information
tion about his or her background and new responsibilities.

• Plans for expanding or renovating the church buildings and

• A special event, such as a concert, speech or other presentation, to be delivered by a person of repute.

• Awards or commendations bestowed upon the church, its
leaders or its members by some outside organization such as an association, a denomination or a government agency.

• Publication of a new book by the church’s pastor, including a synopsis of why the book was written and the central thesis of that book.

• A schedule of Easter or Christmas services, along with announcements regarding related events or services (such as child care).
• A trip to a foreign country, as a short-term missions project, taken by a staff member and members of the church. The release described their experience at the site and the impact it made on their lives. A few pictures, taken by one of the individuals on the trip, made this into a high-profile story.

• A retrospective of the life of the church on its 50th birthday.

The events or circumstances you propose for release through your local media will vary, of course. However, realize that as part of the community, if something is taking place within the life of your church, it may well be deemed newsworthy by your local media. It is in your best interests to find out. Not everything you present to the media will be covered, but the fact that you gain free exposure to a wide audience with the apparent sanction of the media makes the effort well worth your while.

In some cases, the news releases sent to the media were not used immediately, but were held for use in a larger, related story at a later date. In other cases, the news release itself was not used, but the media made a note of the name of the church’s pastor as a person who was a local expert and an involved person regarding a local issue of importance. The pastor was contacted regularly for a “Christian viewpoint” on that issue, generating very positive coverage for the church, positioning it as a socially active and concerned body.

Another reason for getting to know the people in the media locally is that they possess much useful information that could benefit the church as it develops programs and marketing concepts. The media leaders are also key gatekeepers in the community. Getting to know them personally not only enhances your chances of gaining exposure through their medium, but also enables you to influence their views on issues. Since the media has such a profound impact on what people believe and the life-styles they embrace, influencing these gatekeepers is, in itself, a viable and powerful ministry, if handled properly.

Writing a News Release

There is no uniform or “right” way to write a news release. However, plenty of gaffes can be avoided by knowing and attending to a few simple rules.

Every day, journalists are flooded with news releases. At a recent seminar of editors and journalists from leading newspapers, radio and television stations, the word came through loud and clear to the nonprofit organizations that comprised the audience: “Don’t waste our time with unprofessional, trite, poorly conceived communications.” The media rely, in part, on organizations to alert them to newsworthy situations, but they are also sensitive to being used for the organization’s purposes. Their task is to provide news and perspective, and they are happy to get help in their job; but they are cautious about relying on information of low credibility.

One study suggested that the average news release receives less than two seconds of time from the journalist who receives it. This means that your release must be a winner from start to finish-in appearance, format, content and audience selection. Here are a few ideas for you to consider as you create news releases.

• Create a special letterhead for news releases sent from your church. Sending your releases on your church stationery may have the effect of either turning off journalists not predisposed to churches, or appearing too much like a letter rather than a piece of mail designed to make the job of the journalist easier. The large letters at the top of the page (or running vertically along the left margin of the page) should spell out “news release” to clarify the purpose of the correspondence.

• Provide a brief synopsis of the key information in a one or two sentence opening statement preceding the title. This
frames the issue for the journalist and enables him to quickly pick up the direction of the piece.

• Write the release in journalistic style: Begin with the most important information and work your way through to the least important factors.

• Whenever pertinent and possible, provide photographs that would make the story more newsworthy or appealing to the reader. If photos are available but not accompanying the release, indicate that photos are available upon request.

• Limit the length of the release. If the story is hot, the journalist will follow up for more information. The key for the release is to capture the attention of the journalist. Be sure to provide the name and telephone number where a responsible contact person can be reached should the reporter require additional information.

• Include quotes from pertinent individuals if possible and relevant. This personalizes the story and saves the reporter from having to make the necessary calls and conduct an interview.

• If the information has a time element when it can be released, that date should be noted at the very start of the release with a phrase such as FOR RELEASE ON JANUARY 25. Otherwise, it is helpful to use the phrase FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE at the beginning of the release.

• If the release concerns something of a theological or spiritual nature, cleanse the copy of terminology that only the ecclesiastical crowd will recognize. The media are in business to communicate effectively with the common person. Inserting terms that such people are unlikely to comprehend will earn the release a rapid and unceremonial death.

If you decide to use news releases to communicate with the community, you might request a brief appointment with the news editors of the local newspapers and radio stations. Bring a sample release with you and get the editors’ reaction to it Each person has a preferred style, and learning how to meet the needs of the information gatekeepers can help both parties. During the meeting you should ask questions that will help you work within the media out-
let’s system more effectively: (1) the slowest news days, (2) the best person to send your releases to, (3) the best way to send your releases, (4) specific elements to include or avoid, and so forth.

News Events

On occasion, your church will engage in some type of event that might be newsworthy. Take advantage of the opportunity for media coverage by calling the local news bureaus and inviting them to the event. It might be a news conference in which a church representative announces some type of action, or some momentous activity takes place:

1. A church boycott of a store;

2. The donation of a large sum of money to a community charity;

3. Announcement that the pastor is running for elected office; 4. An official statement regarding the impact of a local policy; 5. The opening of a new facility; 6. The retirement ceremony for a revered, long-term pastor;
7. A community-wide family event that draws a thousand people.

Because these events consist of important information of interest to the community, the media may send a reporter to cover the event. The free exposure you receive can be invaluable. If you have the ability, and the event warrants the effort, you may prepare a press packet for members of the press who attend. The packet might include the text of any verbal presentation that is made, a pertinent photo for media use, a backgrounder (which is a brief report providing the background details related to the central issue), and other documents or materials that might help reporters get a clear understanding of, and useful angle on the story.

Got Your Message Across

At the start of the marketing process, as you think about the awesome challenge of getting your message across to your target market, that task may seem overwhelming. That is a natural initial reaction. It is an awesome task to communicate clearly, just as it is to preach a clear and motivating sermon or to teach a captivating and lifechanging Sunday School lesson. But the potential impact of your marketing communications is no less significant-and no more difficult. It will take planning, careful reflection, toying with different strategies, and testing your efforts on small but reliable groups of people before going full speed ahead with a final product.

God has provided your church with the tools, the techniques and the technicians to get the word out to your target audience about your church. Your task is to pull those resources together and provide sufficient guidance to see the process maximize its productivity. Like many of your church colleagues around the country, you will reap the joy of knowing you are getting through to people when you have figured out how the marketing communications process can be another invaluable tool in your ministry toolbox.


20 Common but Avoidable Mistakes
Made in Church Communications

1. Promoting the features of your product or service rather than its benefits to the target audience, 2. Advertising benefits that are of little importance to your target audience.

3. Seeking creative development (or approval) from a committee rather than from one or a small number of individuals who are very focused on the task at hand.

4. Operating with unrealistic expectations in mind regarding the ability ofyour communications to reach the
audience and persuade them to act as desired.

5. Promising more than your church is likely to deliver.

6. Attempting to have an impact through communications with a budget that is too small.

7. Not getting the message in front of the target audience often enough; single-exposure communications have limited impact.

8. Trying to be too creative. The communications thatwin awards are often not the ads that result in effective communication.

9. Imitating the communications efforts of other churches and ministries.

10. Making fun of the audience: Regardless of your intentions, the audience is notoriously thin-skinned. 11. Entertaining instead of selling people on your main idea.

12. Engaging in negative advertising: People often remember the negativity rather than the positive solution you are offering.

13. Failure to gain objective feedback on how the target audience responds to the message and its execution. 14. Using the wrong medium to convey the information to the intended audience. 15. Focusing your copy on the product or service rather than upon your audience.

16. Setting arbitrary limits on the amount of copy rather than using as much copy as it takes to efficiently make your point.

17. Using the wrong appeal: When you don’t know the audience intimately, sometimes it’s easy to misjudge what they perceive to be the most attractive appeal.

18. Complexity: The most effective communications ore those which demonstrate simplicity in form and content. 19. Failure to arouse people’s curiosity.

20. Confusing graphics: People will not make the time to disentangle that which appears convolluted.