Promotional Decisions for Churches
John J. Considine
Promotion is often the most intrusive element of a firm’s marketing mix, and often the most misunderstood. As stated previously, many people perceive marketing to be primarily advertising since one cannot escape its presence. Many believe advertising is deceptive, encourages senseless materialism and generally lowers the general level of taste. On a smaller scale, many people as a result equate the term promotion also with advertising for many of the same reasons. However, promotion incorporates several other important functions aside from advertising that an organization can use to communicate to its target market. These other functions include publicity, personal selling, sales promotion, which might involve contests, demonstrations, or exhibits, and direct marketing. The point is the marketer has a variety of methods that can be utilized to reach the desired constituencies. The collection of these methods is often referred to as an organization’s promotion mix.
Perhaps a more realistic way to define promotion is as a means of communication. Basically, promotion implies communication about the product or service that is being offered. Similarly, a marketing-oriented church that has identified the types of programs and ministries it plans to offer and has also identified the target market(s) it wants to reach must determine the best way to communicate these offerings to its desired public. A church may have developed top-notch programs, and these programs may truly be well received by the type of person it hopes to attract. However, unless there is an effective means of communication, the intended target market will remain unaware of the church’s ministries, the time and effort spent designing the church’s programs will be wasted, the church’s attempt to grow and reach out to the community will stagnate, damaging the morale of those involved, and the well-intended goals of the church will never be reached. In essence, promotion is the “glue” of an organization’s marketing mix — holding together the other controllable variables.
While poor promotion can ruin an otherwise well-defined marketing plan, it is also critical that a church make sure it can deliver what it promises. An old marketing axiom says that the fastest way to kill a poor product is to advertise it heavily.1 It may be more damaging to the credibility or reputation of a church if it continually promotes messages or promises to its intended target market which it cannot deliver. If a church adopts a motto such as “We care about you” and successfully communicates this message to the public, nothing will be more damaging than a newcomer coming to church and being ignored by all the regular members. Many churches these days tend to utilize similar catchphrases using words like friendly, caring, loving, etc. Those that promote such characteristics must make sure they can deliver these promises, otherwise that image can be shattered very quickly and that person will most likely never return.
Another key consideration regarding effective communication is that the church has clearly identified the segment of the population they are trying to reach. Again, this goes back to the importance and benefits of market segmentation discussed earlier. However, a church, having selected a particular segment, must pick the appropriate means of promotion to most effectively reach them. Promotional strategies for reaching unchurched baby-busters may be very different than those for reaching older baby-boomers.
Obviously, communication is a very complex and demanding process. Ultimately, it demands that the church has clearly identified the programs and ministries it wants to offer, selected the segment of the community that it wishes to attract and whose spiritual needs will be most effectively satisfied by the church’s ministries, and finally selected those promotional elements that will allow it to most effectively communicate these offerings to the intended publics. Ineffective communication will prevent churches from growing and will doom even the most elaborate and detailed marketing plan.
If churches want to maximize their potential, it is essential they understand the communication process.
Communication Process Model
Since promotion can be defined as a means of communication, it is helpful to first understand the basic communication process. While there are several models of communication, the one utilized here is fairly simplistic, yet incorporates the primary elements of the communication process.
This communication process model offered here basically involves a source attempting to transmit or communicate a message to a receiver. In church marketing, the source is obviously the church, while the receiver is the desired constituent (church member, member of target market, unchurched, etc.). The other three components are critical functions of the communication process.
Encoding refers to the source trying to translate its message into symbolic form that it hopes will be noticed and well received by the receiver. For example, a church may know that roughly 60% of the community is unchurched, and they view their target market as the unchurched baby boomers. Their goal is to entice some of these unchurched baby boomers to come visit and become aware of their programs and ministries. This may certainly be a worthy and challenging goal. The problem is: how should a church convey the message about what the church is and what they are offering to a target population that is likely uninterested and perhaps unmotivated to attend? The difficult task of encoding is to translate the church’s message symbolically in such a’ way that will catch the unchurched baby boomer’s attention, make them at least aware of the church and its offerings, and hopefully stimulate some interest into possibly visiting the church. Should a church use words, illustrations, testimonies, a catchy slogan, creative design, sponsored events, or whatever to best convey their message?
The message channel involves the method or vehicle through which the message will be transmitted. While encoding involved the translation of the selected message, the message channel involves the actual channels through which the message moves from the source to the receiver. Such channels may involve use of various media sources, such as paid advertising, spots on television, radio, newspapers, billboards, etc. It may involve face-to-face interaction, basically word-of-mouth which is an extremely effective means of communication for churches. Or it might involve obtaining publicity for the church from various sources. Since most churches operate with limited funds for promotion, they must be very careful allocating where these scarce resources should be utilized. Similarly, church leaders must try to understand the most appropriate channels to reach their intended target market to make sure that their message is being received by their intended receiver.
While encoding involves the source’s translation of the message, decoding is actually the process by which the receiver assigns meaning to the symbolic message. In essence, decoding is the translation by the receiver of the message that is being sent. While the process of decoding is obviously personal and will vary from person to person, churches should try to put themselves in the “shoes of the receiver.” If they are trying to reach unchurched baby boomers, how do they think this type of person will react to their catchy slogan on a billboard, or their advertisement in the newspaper, or perhaps a call or letter from a church member? How will the unchurched baby boomer interpret these messages and what, if any, impact will it have on their attitude toward the churches or their behavior regarding church visitation? Again, this function could render the intended communication goal ineffective if the person is turned off by the message, finds it totally inappropriate, or remains completely indifferent.
The critical feature of this communication process model is that there is some feedback to direct the entire process. Feedback implies that the message was received and understood by the receiver and produced some type of response. For example, a church implementing a promotional campaign to attract unchurched baby boomers must realize that their message will not be reached by all of the intended segment, nor will it produce any type of response from most of this group. Yet, the promotional program might be viewed with success if the church received several inquiries from the group, or noticed several new people visiting the church shortly after the campaign. Other feedback may be even more subtle. For example, church members may hear from friends or relatives that they noticed the church’s message on the “fill in the blank” (TV, radio, newspaper, billboard, outreach program, etc.). While these people who communicated may not wish to visit the church, their communications at least imply that the church’s message was received and at least made some of this segment aware of the church and its ministries.
The first element of the communication process model is noise in the system. Noise is a “catch-all” term which includes any interference that inhibits the effectiveness of communication. This could imply the intended receiver was busy or occupied during the transmission of the message, the existence of competing messages, inappropriate media selection, or even poor message planning. Whatever the source, noise will hinder the communication process and prevent the message from reaching the receiver in the manner in which it was intended.
Types of Communication
As stated earlier, the success or failure of any marketing plan will ultimately be determined by how effectively a church can communicate its message to its intended target market. Any church is generally faced with two different constituencies that it must effectively communicate with. First, a church must continue to keep its current members informed and aware of the church’s activities and programs. No church can afford to have its members become disillusioned, uninformed, and eventually inactive. Secondly, most churches need some level of growth and, therefore, desire to attract new members. Again, this implies a church has a vision for its ministries and has carefully identified the segment of the population that it believes can most effectively satisfy their spiritual needs with its planned programs and ministries.
As a result, George Barna stated there are two basic types of communication necessary to market a church’s ministry.2 He refers to the type of communication the church uses to deal with the people who are already members as “retention communication.” In essence, the goal of this type of communication is to describe church news and make the members aware of the opportunities and experiences the church is offering. In order to retain its current members, communication is important to give them direction, insight, and motivation for their active engagement in their faith. The point of retention communication is to ensure that the regular members feel involved and part of the church family. Whether they actually participate in the church program or activity may be secondary to the point that they were made aware of the offering and it now becomes their decision whether or not to attend. I have seen situations where some church members were visibly annoyed when they learned after the fact that a new Bible class had started, or a church picnic was held, or whatever, and they were not informed of these activities. The lack of communication may lead to an uneasy feeling among some members and may lead them to further distance themselves from church-related activities.
Marketing generally defines the three main objectives of promotion to be (1) informing, (2) persuading, and (3) reminding. Retention communication can often incorporate all three of these objectives. Members need to be informed of the church’s plans, goals, and activities, and afterwards persuaded to attend and participate. Messages of this type should contain the basic factual information for the member to process — in essence, informing them of the needed facts. Similarly, the message could also include some persuasive attempts on the part of the church to encourage attendance or participation (perhaps providing time and/or resources). Obviously, reinforcement of the message is always helpful, so follow-up messages can greatly remind members of the activities and reiterate the key details.
On the other hand, in order to grow or even survive, churches today must continually enlist new members in the church and encourage their active involvement in church programs. While retention communication is vital to hopefully retain members, Barna cautions churches from focusing solely on retention messages. He believes such congregations tend to become ingrown and experience numerical stagnation and limited community influence. As a result, he advises churches to deploy what he refers to as “acquisition communication” as one of their overall promotional objectives.
Acquisition communication is more complex because it involves more uncertainty. Retention communication is aimed at church members, whose background and spiritual needs should be somewhat understood by church leaders, and is in essence a captive audience, easily reached and accessible. In contrast, acquisition communication is focused on the segment of the population the church hopes to attract. The spiritual and emotional needs of the intended target market are not so easily defined (marketing research can help) and it will certainly be much more difficult reaching this group effectively with the church’s intended message.
Regarding the three objectives of promotion, acquisition communication initially must focus on informing as its main thrust. Its target market must, in essence, be made aware of the church, its programs and ministries, and the message the church wishes to transmit. Ultimately, the church must make these individuals aware of the intended image of the church (or the image it hopes to convey). Many people in the community may not even know the church exists or what makes it different from other churches in the community. Initially, this type of communication must overcome these individuals’ lack of awareness about the church and provide the basic factual information regarding church activities that they can process.
While the factual information about the church (where, when, what) must be provided, there should also be attempts to provide some persuasion in the message. Ideally, acquisition communication should also overcome the individual’s inertia by using persuasion to create a favorable psychological attitude that will ultimately get the person to take action and visit the church or attend one of its programs or activities. While there are a lot of unchurched Americans, there is also a great deal of competition among churches trying to reach them. A marketing-oriented church must attempt to use persuasion in their message in an attempt to differentiate themselves from others and appear to be more effectively addressing the spiritual needs and wants of the desired target market.
The difficult task for churches is to develop both types of communication. It is a difficult balancing act since those churches that are overly focused on retention communication will find it difficult to grow and attract new members and also be a viable force in the community. Similarly, those churches that overemphasize acquisition communication run the risk of alienating and possibly losing their current members who may feel their spiritual needs are being neglected at the expense of constantly trying to reach out for new members. While difficult, church leaders must try to find the right balance between these two diverse but equally important types of communication.
Inappropriate Promotional Strategies for Churches
Obviously, one of the key determining factors for the success of a church’s marketing efforts is its ability to effectively communicate information to its target audience. The important issue for most churches is that having identified the target market(s) they hope to reach and having determined the scope and objective of the message, how does the church deliver the message effectively, while obviously subject to severe cost constraints? Most churches do not have the luxury of a large advertising budget to hire a creative team, have a professional message created, and buy a series of spots during prime-time television shows. Their budgets for promotional strategies will most likely be limited. They may have to solicit volunteers from the congregation who perhaps have a marketing or advertising background to help formulate the promotional strategies. These cost and staffing constraints necessitate that the churches do not exhaust their limited resources by engaging in inappropriate and ineffective promotional strategies.
For example, George Barna describes a newspaper ad for a church that was hoping to reach the unchurched. The ad, while appearing very professional and eye-catching, featured a very stern, almost angry pastor, seated in a chair with a Bible in his hand, who stared straight into the camera. The large, bold caption above the picture read: “Come hear Pastor X preach on why most people are going straight to hell.”3
The church failed to recognize that their communication entered a dimension in which emotion runs deep. Many readers of the ad, however, would interpret the message as a guilt-producing one that placed the church and its people in a holier-than-thou light and characterized the reader as lost and hopeless. Not great motivation to climb out of bed Sunday morning to hear an angry-looking person rail against damnation.4
The point is that in trying to inform the unchurched and trying to persuade them to attend a local church, fear tactics or attempts to produce shame or guilt are likely to fail. Churches face intense competition today from many sectors: secular activities (movies, sport, travel), religious organizations (local congregations, TV ministries, Eastern religions) and human potential offerings (humanism, New Age, etc.). With such intense and diverse competition, churches should not try to communicate their message and ministries through guilt-producing techniques.
Similarly, many churches’ main method of promotion is a newspaper ad which appears on Saturday on the religion page along with all the other church ads. Many of these ads are purely factual — providing the basic information of where and when, the name of the pastor, etc. There is generally very little in these ads that could possibly persuade an unchurched individual to attend or even differentiate one church from all the others. I seriously doubt how effective these ads could be. First, they are all lumped together — a mass of small-sized ads for different churches, all providing the same basic information. Secondly, who reads the religion page? Most likely people who already belong to a church and/or have an interest in the religious activities in their community. Perhaps more importantly, how many unchurched Americans spend their time scouring the religion page?
In contrast, I was intrigued by an ad by a church in my community that appeared not in the religion page, but right smack in the middle of the sports section — the only one of its kind. While it provided the necessary factual information, it also listed all the various programs of its ministry — which were quite extensive. It includes singles’ groups, support groups for the divorced, youth groups, family activities, social activities, other support groups, etc., — something for everyone. The fact that it provided additional information that might persuade an individual to attend and the fact it appeared in, of all places, the sports section (!!) was very unique and totally different from all the other church newspaper ads. Not surprisingly, this church started a few years ago, is the fastest-growing church in the area and has become one of the largest in all of Central New York.
As stated previously, some churches have adopted clever, catchy phrases as their motto or slogan. Again, the problem is that the church better be able to deliver what it promises or else all credibility will be lost and the motto may result in more harm than good. The church needs to ask itself whether or not it can deliver what the message promises. In the secular world, not delivering what is promised would be labeled “deceptive advertising.” Obviously, churches, while having good intentions in their promotional offerings, can also be guilty of this.
For example, George Barna describes such a situation involving a small church in the Midwest. This particular church strongly promoted its motto, which was “the friendliest church in town.” Certainly, the motto was a nice, no offensive expression, but the church’s reliance on the motto in their promotional strategies developed some unanticipated negative ramifications. First, the motto effectively alienated the church from others in the community. Second, the church failed to realize any growth, despite a healthy number of visitors passing through the doors. The fact was the message promised something the congregation did not delivery.5
Another problem is that some churches, while obviously subject to budget constraints regarding promotional activities, may select a medium solely based on its low, low rate. While it is certainly prudent to be cost-conscious, it is also important to evaluate just what you’re getting for your money. Each week I received a “Pennysaver” newspaper which includes hundreds of small ads, most of which describe items for sale, upcoming garage sales, services offered — such as lawn mowing, painting, handyman jobs, etc. Interspersed among these types of ads are also ads for various churches. Again, they provide only factual information, but I wonder how effective they are in attracting new people. The advantage of these ads is that they are relatively inexpensive and are mailed to people in the community, but I am suspect of their impact.
Similarly, others caution against choosing a medium based on its low rate rather than on its cost per 1000 readers/listeners, or viewers. Instead, it is more important to compare audience size, image, and response results of other churches that have advertised in various media. Secondly, some churches fail to fully utilize the unique advantages of the medium, especially television. For example, if the church decided on television, then the virtues of the ministry should be demonstrated rather than merely talked through a TV script. Similarly, if billboards are used, avoid copy with a number of words or statements since drivers won’t have time to read them.6
Finally, another problem that might doom a church’s promotional strategies is the church’s inability to match its strengths and offerings to the identified needs and preferences of its target market. It is evident that today’s churches cannot be everything to everyone. Having identified the needs of the segment of society it hopes to attract, and believing it can provide for those needs, it is imperative that the church successfully match the target market’s preferences with the strengths of the church’s ministries. Furthermore, it is essential that they can communicate this information to the desired clientele by selecting the right medium.
In their task to successfully communicate the desired information to their target market, church leaders often face serious constraints on their promotional activities, such as limited budgets, resistance internally and externally to the use of certain media, and pressures to avoid controversial messages. In addition, church leaders must deal with the diverse goals of retaining existing members and persuading others to join the church. Thus, it is imperative that church leaders choose the promotional methods that will most effectively accomplish these objectives yet remain within their budget constraints.
To begin with, many churches need to move beyond the established practice of limiting their promotional activities to the placement of ads in the telephone book or putting a sign on the church grounds or possibly placing an ad in the newspaper (again, on the religion page with all the other church ads). While signs, telephone ads, and copycat newspaper ads are informative, they do nothing to persuade a potential attendee. Churches tend to be great imitators when it comes to these forms of promotion. However, since the content of these messages is virtually the same, they would likely have little, if any, impact.
On the other hand, research indicates that the most believable and best-remembered form of recommending a church is the personal recommendation of a trusted friend. Basically, the most effective means of getting people to experience what a church has to offer is having someone they know who belongs to the church simply invite them to try it. This “word-of-mouth” advertising builds upon an established relationship which implies that the invitation springs from a credible source.
George Barna is extremely enthusiastic about the effectiveness of personal invitation. Based on a national survey he conducted among unchurched adults, he found that 25% would attend a church if a friend ever took the time to invite them. Based on approximately 70 million unchurched adults in America, this implies that roughly 18 million adults are “waiting” to go to church. If church leaders can instill in their members the vision of church growth and convince them that they are the actual marketers of the church, this could be a very effective and inexpensive means of attracting new members.7
“Word-of-mouth” advertising ties in directly with the P of product in a church’s marketing mix. As stated previously, if one of the key aspects of the product of the church is the offering of relationships with others, then it is logical that the best way to promote a church is through the development and growth of meaningful relationships with others. It follows, therefore, that if members of a church perceive the relationship with others in the church as being supportive and meaningful and also believe their personal relationship with God is being strengthened, then one can assure that these individuals would be more likely to invite their friends and neighbors to attend church with them and hopefully enjoy the same benefits they found enjoyable. It is logical that if church members are satisfied with the “product” offered by the church, then they are certainly more apt to consider inviting others, who may only be waiting for an invitation to attend.
Aside from personal invitation, there are often promotional factors that are also feasible for their communication objectives. For example, some churches have found some success in using direct mail. William Novelli suggested that direct mail has some key advantages for nonprofit organizations. First, it can be very focused: it can achieve maximum impact on a specific target market. Assuming a church has identified a specific segment of the community it seeks to pursue in demographic terms, the mailings can be directed to householders that contain such people. Secondly, direct mail can be private and confidential, a major benefit for religious organizations, whose messages are often perceived as very personal matters. Third, costs per contact and costs per response can often be very low, which again is appealing to religious organizations with very low budgets. Finally, results are often quite measurable, and this can help make marketing programs more accountable.8
A more nontraditional way of introducing people to a church is sponsoring a community event. Such a practice gives the visitors something of value the very first time they come in contact with the church but in a very nonthreatening setting. Similarly, events geared for children can also be beneficial. If done properly, the kids enjoy the activities, the parents who accompanied their children see the joy and excitement experienced by the kids, and come away with perhaps a positive feeling toward the sponsoring church. However, it is critical for the church to be able to transfer any newly generated interest in the church and goodwill resulting from the event into the next step — a visit to the church.
One church that used the community event process to great advantage is North Coast Presbyterian Church in California. It began an annual series of events called Kidsfest, in which several weekends are devoted to serving the needs of the community. The church has utilized the events as an opportunity to gain community exposure and to position itself as being in touch with the interests of young people and capable of putting together a program of events that will help parents nurture their children.9
If a church is sponsoring some community event, it certainly would be advantageous for them to also contact the local media and perhaps invite them to the event — in essence, obtaining needed publicity to generate community awareness. If the media sends a reporter to cover the event, the free exposure could be invaluable. Similarly, by getting news releases published or having feature articles written about the church and its activities, the church can gain enormous benefits because the dissemination of the information by the media appears to have their stamp of approval — lending a degree of credibility. Church leaders need to remember that the media has a profound impact on what people believe and the lifestyles they embrace.
The combination of a church-sponsored event along with coverage and publicity by the local media could be a powerful marketing tool. The news releases regarding the event or even describing the church itself will hopefully attract some reader’s attention. Secondly, the media exposure could stimulate some reader’s interest in the event and/or the church, leading ideally to the desire to attend. Finally, the desire to attend, again either the event and/or the church, will hopefully lead to the desired action — actual attendance. The AIDA theory (attention – interest – desire – action) is an important goal for any promotional strategies and is certainly very applicable to describing what churches are hoping to accomplish.
While the previously mentioned tactics — personal invitations, direct mailing, sponsored events, news releases — are effective, yet relatively inexpensive methods, some churches may be fortunate to have a sufficient budget to engage the mass media in an attempt to attract new members. George Barna determined that evaluations of reactions to church advertising clearly indicates that most people believe advertising is an appropriate activity. However, when comparing church advertising, as a whole, to advertising from other industries, church ads were rated lower than all other types. People generally felt that church ads were not interesting, memorable, or persuasive.10
It is estimated the Americans are being bombarded by about 2000 messages per day. Unfortunately, most church ads do not break through the competitive clutter and attract people’s attention. Martin Marty points out: “A religious group that offers no presentation of itself in a competitive, complex society will go undiscovered — or if it is already known — it will wane and disappear. The question is not ‘will church advertise?’ but ‘How?’11
Again, consider the majority of newspaper ads for churches. Very unimaginative, these ads list the church’s name, address and telephone number, pastor’s name, times of the service, and perhaps the title of the sermon. These ads are generally placed on the page or two devoted to religion in the Saturday edition of the newspaper. Most likely, these bland, copycat ads are basically only reaching the people who are already religious and have a church home. It is questionable how effective this type of advertising can be.
The problem is that church ads, whether in the newspaper, radio, or television, compete directly with all the other messages urging consumers to react in a prescribed manner. It is essential that all those churches who consider using the mass media understand its complications, costs, and uncertainties. More importantly, church leaders need to determine the expected impact of these media sources.
In his study of successful, growing congregations, Barna discovered that advertising tended to be “informative” rather than “persuasive.” Because they were promoting religion upon a different medium (word-of-mouth) to achieve persuasion, they used traditional forms of advertising primarily to build awareness. For example, one church with an $8 million annual budget was spending less than $20,000 on advertising, but still realizing 14% annual growth in attendance.12 The lesson from these successful, growing congregations is that advertising does have a role in the church’s promotion mix and that role is primarily to generate an awareness of the church and perhaps what differentiates it from other local churches. However, what is needed to complement this initial awareness and provide a more persuasive message will be the “promotion” done by its members through word-of-mouth, extending personal invitations to friends and neighbors, inviting them to share the spiritual, emotional, and social relationships they have developed at the church.
The communication goals of a church should be twofold. First, it needs to develop effective retention communication capabilities to keep its current members abreast of the church’s vision, opportunities, expectations, and mission. Like any for-profit organization, a church needs to keep its current customers satisfied and keep them informed as to what the church is up to. Second, a church needs also to focus on acquisition communication strategies in order to attract newcomers and eventually persuade them to become active members of the congregation.
As mentioned previously, there are estimated to be over 70 million “unchurched” Americans. This represents a huge potential market for any marketing-oriented church that desires to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of this untapped segment. If such a church can effectively reach these people and inform them of the church’s offerings, opportunities, and progress, and be able to demonstrate how these features can match their spiritual and/or emotional needs, then this type of church may enjoy unprecedented growth in the 90s.
Certainly, mass media ads conveying something interesting, or informing about a special event, or even indicating how the church is unique and different, and which are believable can be somewhat effective. However, I believe that since most churches operate on severely constrained budgets, they should consider the previously mentioned tactics which have been highly effective for some churches and are relatively inexpensive. Most importantly, a church should not overlook its most important means of communication — its own members. By considering every member a potential “marketer” of the church, church leaders need to successfully communicate to its members the vision of the church, its goals and objectives, and ideally energize them to willingly participate and become actively involved in the successful accomplishment of the church’s mission. Certainly, a member’s sincere invitation to others to come visit will be a much more powerful promotional tool than a small ad in the newspaper or a 30 second spot on local television.
The above article, “Promotional Decisions for Churches” was written by John J. Considine. The article was excerpted from chapter seven in Considine’s book, Marketing Your Church.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
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.”