Perspectives on External Communications:
The Alban Weekly continues a four-part series on managing your congregational public image. With all that’s going on inside congregations–from printing worship bulletins to creating the newsletter to maintaining a Web site–finding time to communicate effectively with the world outside can be difficult. Yet more and more congregations are feeling pressured to do so. How does one do that well, especially when resources (time, money, staffing, and know-how) are in short supply?
External communications, the buzz word for the effort to interact with people outside the congregation, includes advertising (paid promotion), publicity (information about upcoming events), marketing (establishing or reinforcing organizational identity and defining various constituencies), and public relations (establishing identity as a participant in the community). While these functions overlap, we address them in this series, focusing here on marketing.
Marketing Your Congregation
“Marketing” is perhaps the most controversial aspect of external communications for congregations. Madison Avenue may have something to do with it, having so perfected the art of pitching products to segmented audiences that consumers feel manipulated and suspicious of anyone “selling” them anything, even (and perhaps especially) “religion.” There is a sense that religion should exist beyond the commercial worldliness of traditional “marketing”—i.e. “sales”—efforts.
Yet the reality remains—congregations dwindle, fewer people are regular members of a faith congregation, and the practice of faith gets lost in our modern culture. Denominational affiliations, which used to guarantee a certain loyalty as people moved around the country, are losing their immediate appeal. A good marketing plan enables a congregation to: articulate who and what it is (often drawn from the congregational mission or vision plan), who it wants to serve, what it wants to say and communicate to those it serves and to the world beyond the congregation, and define specific mechanisms to convey and meet those needs.
Marketing, with its analytical and somewhat arbitrary analysis, can feel far away from the spiritual sensibilities that most people associate with religion. Rather than trying to get people to “buy into” the congregation or a specific faith message, it might be more palatable to think of “church marketing” as a form of “evangelism,” inviting others into congregational life and teaching them about the way God is working through the congregation. (Depending on the denomination, this may or may not include proselytizing.)
Clearly define your target market. Do you want to attract new members from beyond the congregation? Improve the involvement of those within the congregation? Some of both? The first step is to know your congregation and what its goals are and then see where the work needs to happen to meet those goals.
Marketing step one: identify congregational groups and key constituencies.
The first step in developing a congregational marketing plan is to review the existing congregation and identify its demographic groups. These groups can be as broad or as specific as desired. Examples include: elderly congregants with many years of membership, young families with elementary school aged children, and single adults.
Identify each group’s specific needs or concerns. This assessment can be broad; as in ‘they are resistant to change’ or very specific, ‘young parents have to worry about children’s nap schedules are so are unlikely to attend gatherings after services.’ Look for areas where group concerns overlap and for those areas with significant differences. Create as clear a picture as possible of these groups. If the means are available, quantify the information.
Marketing step two: consider identified groups in relation to the congregational mission.
Take a good look at the identified groups. Who is missing? How do your congregational demographics fit with those of the neighborhood? (Statistical information about your neighborhood is available through government agencies, the census, and local real estate agencies.) These groups can be as broad or as specific as desired. Examples from within the congregation include: elderly congregants with many years of membership, young families with elementary school aged children, and single adults. External examples might be attracting local college students or new residents with young families.
Marketing step three: identify messages to convey to selected groups.
Next, determine what two or three messages the congregation would most like to get to these groups—reassuring those anxious about change, for example, or that the nursery (and its napping cribs) is available during congregational gatherings. Perhaps your congregation has a day care or after school program new residents might be attracted to.
Again, look for areas of overlap and disparity. In addition to the specific messages, think about possible blocks to communicating with different groups—are elderly folks going to be good candidates for e-mail? Will harried parents have time to read about the congregation in a long news letter article or story? Often, the desired messages reflect or are linked to the mission of the congregation.
Researching and defining groups within the congregation may provide information that is helpful to other areas of congregational life. If the mission of a new synagogue in town is to bring in new, young families, an interview to learn about the issues and concerns of young families currently engaged in congregational life could yield information helpful to those working to welcome new families. Research may also help to confirm or dissuade basic assumptions about a given segment of congregational life. A marketing plan often provides the opportunity to learn more through a congregational survey, focus groups, or other assessment tools.
Don’t forget outside groups as well. If your congregation wants to grow, knowing whom to communicate with and what to communicate is critical.
Marketing step four: decide how best to convey that message.
Once the congregational groups and messages are identified, define specific vehicles to convey the message to the desired group. This may include targeted mailings (both email and postal service), flyers, invitations, newsletter articles, the Web, and non-print communications. Sophisticated software programs are available to help with list management and sorting. These make targeting messages to different groups easier to manage and negotiate. Local chamber of commerce and other business groups often sell lists of prospects.
Finally, implement your marketing plan. If possible, include a response mechanism on your Web site or on a welcome card that new members complete. Ask the simple question, “How did you hear about us?” This feedback will help you decide what strategies are working and which aren’t.
A word of caution: segmenting the congregations can challenge the “whole tent” of congregational identity
A natural tendency of large gro
ups is to subgroup into smaller groups. The power of marketing is its ability to personalize a message to a specific group that leads to a specific action. In congregational life, variety can be a valued goal. Losing the sense of a whole congregational identity can be a danger of segmenting those in a congregation. Careful planning can avoid this.
The Inviting Church: A Study of New Member Assimiliation by Roy M. Oswald and Speed B. Leas
Ever wonder why some people never return after their first visit? Why some join but you rarely see them? Or why others become active participants in your church family’s life and worship? Discover how your congregation can meet growth challenges. Based on Alban Institute research, The Inviting Church includes a self-study design for assessing assimilation processes and analyzing visitors’ perceptions.
In Search of the Unchurched: Why People Don’t Join Your Congregation by Alice C. Klaas
What’s working and not working in your congregation? You’ll explore the factors that inspired and motivated changes to reverse decline as other congregations wrestled with the same issues you’re facing: ministry to current members, ministry to the unchurched, worship, changing neighborhoods, and more.