Market Your Parish
  • Tuesday, August 28, 2012

By Jake Dell

Mention advertising around Christians and you’re sure to provoke a reaction. Suggest that churches should market to certain targeted segments of the national population and you’re starting to tread forbidden turf.

But last May a group of 52 seminarians, vestry members, lay leaders and active clergy all gathered at the University of the South’s School of Theology to learn how to think more like fictional 1960s-era ad man Don Draper. Could churches learn anything from the golden age of advertising?

The Church has known something about effective marketing and advertising for a long time now. The introduction to the Gospel of Luke (1:1-4) has all the hallmarks of an effective product pitch: It casts doubt on the quality of the competition, vouches for its own superiority by appealing to eyewitness testimony, and offers a “satisfaction guarantee” based on Luke’s integrity.

Albert Lasker, one of the greatest ad copywriters of the past two centuries, championed the idea that commercial advertising was “salesmanship in print.” In other words, the printed word could replace the door-to-door salesman. St. Luke knew as much. If Phillip could be so effective a witness to the truth of Jesus Christ during his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, how many more people could be reached by a well-written advertisement for the truth?

Church advertising is no more than evangelism in print.

If advertising is salesmanship, then the great ad men of the 19th and 20th centuries concluded that the only way to tell good advertising from bad was by sales figures; good advertising benefits the bottom line. On a similar note, good Church advertising keeps bishops busy with confirmations.

Jesus sent the first disciples out in pairs to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God door-to-door, person-to-person. Later, the Church added epistles and gospels to its marketing mix. Still later, during the preaching revolution led by the Dominican and Franciscan friars, the Church perfected the preaching model at scale.

It wasn’t long before the Church adapted to the disruptive new technology of the printing press and other forms of mass communication to spread its message. Finally, it sent missionaries to nearly every inhabited corner of the globe. It’s a proud legacy that spans 2,000 years.

In contrast, commercial advertising has only been around for a little more than a century. But despite being the greatest marketing organization the world has ever seen, the Church has been, for the most part, sitting on the sidelines during the ad revolutions of the past 50 years. That’s ironic, because commercial advertisers have no qualms about appropriating our vocabulary (“technology evangelist”).

Effective commercial advertising sells products. Effective Church advertising gets confirmed, communicant butts in the pews. Both commercial marketers and Christian evangelists chart their success by one measure: conversions.

A converted consumer becomes loyal to the brand, or an “evangelist,” to the point of recommending a brand of car or appliance or cosmetic or consumer packaged good to family and friends. A converted Christian who has taken all the public steps (baptism, Holy Communion, confirmation, regular attendance at Sunday worship and financial support) to demonstrate visible, outward adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ becomes an evangelist, or “brand ambassador,” for the Church. Effective marketing and advertising — whether it’s commercial or evangelical — drives this conversion process.

The Conversion Funnel
The consumer conversion process starts with a conversion “funnel.” The funnel first siphons in the widest possible targeted reach of all those who might consider buying a certain product and, through rigorous market research and then very targeted advertising, narrows them down to the point of sale. The Church’s conversion funnel is similar. It starts by reaching all of those who might consider going to a church “someday, maybe, when I have the time,” and narrows these potential converts all the way down to the point when a bishop’s hands are placed on a confirmand’s head.

There are four stages to the Church’s funnel: intention, consideration, evaluation, and conversion. Good evangelists, like good advertisers, learn how to speak differently to people at each of these stages. The story is the same throughout, but the messages will change to meet the potential convert’s stage and other needs of the moment.

People interested in learning more about the Church’s message — known as “inbound leads” or prospects — drive the conversion process. Most churches have at least a rudimentary lead-generation system, even if it’s just the guest register to handle walk-ins or a visitor card in the pews. But the traffic to your congregation’s or diocese’s website is also a source for leads. If all your church has is a homepage with very general information such as your address and phone number, then you aren’t even trying to convert the traffic that’s coming to your site — however pretty and up-to-date the site may be.

Use your website as an entry to potential conversions. Use Google Analytics to look at your traffic: How many unique page views does your website attract in a month? Is it more than your average Sunday attendance? Don’t think of your website as a single homepage where everyone has to come in through the front door. Your website should change as often — more often — than the liturgical seasons! Are you blessing the animals? Set up a special page just for that. Is your church school holding an enrollment drive? Make a new page. For almost every reason a person might Google your church, you should have a separate landing page for them to discover.

If your church has a social media presence (which you should), Facebook likes and Twitter followers are also leads — and good ones, at that, as they can be your digital word-of-mouth evangelists to their friends for your church. Personal referrals and word-of-mouth recommendations generate the highest-quality leads. What’s your plan for using these leads to convert some people in their network into confirmed, communicant members?

By using digital media intelligently and purposefully, you can increase the number of inbound leads quickly. Your goal is to build a list of people who have shown an interest in what your church has to offer. You want their names, email addresses, phone numbers and a record of how and why they contacted you (e.g., “via custom landing page on website, for blessing of the animals” or “pew card, for church school”).

As a group of skeptical theologians realized after further exploration of the dirty word advertising last May, commercial marketing is much like church marketing, in that they both require a coordinated strategy of sending messages to a targeted group of people so they buy a specific product. By the end of the first session, participants agreed on one thing: all of us really are advertisers; and the church — be it a congregation, diocese, denomination, or the universal Body — cannot afford not to market itself.

Jake Dell is the manager of digital marketing and advertising sales for the Episcopal Church.

Market Your Parish


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