By Jake Dell

We all do it. When looking for information, we use Google. It is no wonder, then, that when people have questions about God, many no longer turn to a priest, but instead search for answers online.

What might this mean for the marketing that drives evangelism, membership in local churches, and discipleship? Is it possible to fish someone out of that vast Internet ocean, make a connection, and connect him or her with a local ministry? Can this be accomplished in a manner that is personal and scalable? Several staff members at the Episcopal Church Center decided to find out.

We conducted a prospecting test that focused on mothers of young children in New York City. “With an estimated $2.1 trillion in spending power, moms influence 85% of all purchase decisions, and buy nearly everything for everybody,” Caroline Winnett of Nielsen NeuroFocus wrote for Forbes.com. We wondered if this decision-making power could influence a family’s choice of a church.

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From Episcopal Resurrection: Having demonstrated “proof-of-concept” during an experimental campaign conducted by the Office of Mission Communication of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in partnership with the Diocese of New York and Forward Movement from August 15, 2014, to November 15, 2014, we propose conducting a three-year online digital evangelism test in order to reach new people and new populations with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and to connect them to local ministries of the Episcopal Church.

Children ask questions about God all the time, but when their mothers turn to Google for answers they will likely find answers from Wikipedia, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or maybe an online edition of the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia. They almost certainly will not find anything from the Episcopal Church or other Anglican sources. To put it bluntly, we do not exist.

To reach these mothers, we simply needed to create an online presence that not only answered their questions, but answered them when and where they asked. Our solution? A marketing campaign that hinged on Google AdWords. With a Google grant and a small advertising budget we bought phrases such as “How do I talk to my child about God?” or “Should I baptize my child?” We also sent an email blast to the 40,000 subscribers of NY Metro Parents. The goal was to persuade mothers to download our free guide, “How to Talk to Your Children About God.”

The campaign ran from August 15 to November 15, 2014 — the season of “back to school, back to church” — and was limited to Manhattan ZIP codes. When it was over, just short of 100 people had downloaded the guide, after first giving us their names and email addresses. Throughout the campaign we nurtured this growing prospect list with periodic updates to our Big God, Busy Mom weblog. We also prayed for each lead by name and let them know by email that we had done so.

Several mothers wrote to thank us, and one asked for more information about the Episcopal Church. We sent her a copy of Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers: Exploring Christian Faith by Ian S. Markham and C.K. Robertson. The mother then asked several important personal questions about God, sin, and reconciliation. Clearly it was time for us to help her find personal pastoral care.

The first few attempts to connect her with a local church came to naught: the nearest church in her ZIP Code had closed, which we learned from a Yelp review. I met the rector for coffee, explained the test campaign, and then sent the mother her referral via email.

We built this campaign from scratch; we deployed a marketing software platform, developed content, and bought advertising. The cost of acquiring these 100 names was high — about $200 per person. But the startup costs could be amortized across several subsequent campaigns, and it is reasonable to expect the cost-per-acquisition to be somewhere between $30 and $50.

Yet even paying $30 to $50 for a referral is out of reach for all but the richest of our congregations, and most of our dioceses. If a handful of parishes or dioceses built a similar program, they would incur enormous waste; the same “evangelism dollar” would be spent over and over, making the same investments in software, content, and advertising, but with narrower effects and skyrocketing costs.

This, however, is not to say that the campaign is not scalable. It is scalable, so long as we build on this initial investment and maintain efficiency with a clear separation of roles. In fact, it can be an opportunity for each level of the church to do exactly what it does best while bringing more people to God.

In our test campaign each player had a role to play, and only played the required part. The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, with its churchwide mandate, built the platform and invested in the content; the Diocese of New York played a vetting role in recommending a local priest for referral; and a congregation stepped up by providing pastoral care. DFMS staff did not vet a local ministry; members of the diocese did that. The diocese did not generate leads; the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society did that. And neither the Society nor the Diocese of New York tried to undertake pastoral care. A local priest did that.

It’s no accident that Jesus chose two fishermen as his first disciples and bade them to be “fishers of men.” From the very beginning, the Church has been in the fishing business. But our nets have never been made of willow or flax or nylon but of people: networks of people joined as one. With a little creativity, a little coordination, and, yes, a little investment, it’s not hard to believe that God will bless our work, or to imagine that 100 will soon become 1,000, and then 10,000. By each playing our part, we can begin to grow again.

The Rev. Jake Dell is the Episcopal Church’s manager of digital marketing.

Image by Prawny, via morgueFile

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