Marketing as Conversation

By Jake Dell

The goal of your local church’s marketing effort is to increase the number of inbound leads and to drive conversions (see “Market Your Parish,” TLC, Sept. 9). This is no different than the goal of commercial marketing, except we’re dealing in spiritual rather than tangible goods. Understanding how to increase inbound leads (people who express an interest in your church) and drive conversions (people who actually join your church) is not hard, but it does take leadership, planning, creativity and sustained effort. In other words, it takes a little work.

Most churches are already engaged in some forms of marketing. Any of the basic functions of parish life are marketing processes, including outreach, hospitality, ushering, preaching, maintaining the parish’s website and Facebook page, tweeting, and promoting the Sunday worship schedule. The challenge is to move from efforts focused on maintenance to efforts focused on growth.

What is good marketing? — Good marketing is the beginning of a conversation: it triggers a response. It may entertain and edify, but if it receives no response, it’s not good marketing.

And what’s a good response? We want new people to say yes to continuing a conversation we started about our life in Christ. It’s the very essence of an inbound lead: permission from the audience to keep a conversation going, and the expressed desire to learn more.

Developing a vision and starting the conversation — How can your church jump-start a conversation with your community? Before developing a marketing plan, you have to be clear on your vision, which is your church’s reason for ministry. It doesn’t change from year to year and may even last the tenure of future rectors. In fact, your vision should provide continuity for your church over many years.

What will change through the years, however, are the initiatives your church undertakes to make its vision for ministry a reality. Examples include forming partnerships with local civic leaders, establishing or maintaining a school, increasing enrollment and participation in your adult or youth programs, food or blood drives, pet blessings, etc.

If you’re not clear on your church’s vision and ministry initiatives, you’re not ready to define your marketing strategy. But once you have figured it out, you’re ready to write your church’s marketing plan. Here’s how:

Create your marketing calendar — This is a list of all your marketing opportunities, which are the chances to start new conversations about living a life in Christ. While it may sound like a tall order, fortunately it just takes a bit of planning. Use the liturgical calendar as your template: All of the major holidays are a chance to spread the word about what your church is doing. Then add the local school calendar, the local events calendar, and events from the national or even international calendar.

Then think about the lives of the people you’re trying to reach. What events are important to them? Admission to college? Starting high school? Watching the Super Bowl? Take a look at the editorial calendar for major magazines like Vogue, Wired, Condé Nast Traveler, and Time (available online on their advertising pages). Major media plan their coverage about what’s important to people months in advance. You can too.

Determine your marketing mix — There are five elements to a marketing plan: paid advertising; public relations (PR) and publicity; presence opportunities; thought leadership; and awards and recognition. A complete marketing plan will be a mix of “activations” in each of these categories.

1. Paid advertising means spreading your message by buying someone else’s audience. You might want to post your church’s name, logo, and message in any number of media outlets: the local newspaper’s church directory (online or print); the Yellow Pages or other print advertising; paid search like Google, which drives traffic to your website; paid ads on Facebook, radio, TV, or billboards; and sponsoring scouting troops, booster clubs, concerts, and plays. Your advertisements should always have a clear “call to action,” such as “To find out more about our MOPS program, enter your e-mail address here.”

2. PR and publicity spread your message “organically,” which means to an audience that you are building. Another name for this is earned media. Check the editorial calendar of your local paper and other media outlets and look for stories that overlap with your church’s ministry initiatives. For instance, perhaps the local paper, regional magazine, or convention and visitors bureau is planning an issue on education. If one of your ministry initiatives involves starting a school or adding a grade, you’ll want to contact the editors of that publication to share your story for that article. The best PR practitioners contact relevant local editors, reporters, and bloggers regularly.

3. Presence opportunities give you the chance to set up shop where your potential new members already are. Do you want to broaden your high-school youth group? Why not visit the homecoming game? Are there local music festivals in your area? Go. Be present at the county and town fair, or Christmas-tree lighting, and bring materials that are relevant to the group you’re targeting. Shoot videos of youth-group members describing what they love about the group, and then share them on-site at your booth or via YouTube links in a pamphlet you’re handing out. The goal of presence opportunities, as with all of your marketing efforts, is to start a conversation with someone new and to gain permission to continue the conversation. If a person volunteers contact information you have that permission.

4. Thought leadership is your chance to let your light shine. Your clergy have long years of training and experience to their credit. Each Sunday they create a thought-leadership piece: It’s called a sermon. Sermons can generate blog posts or email newsletters, and they can be parsed into tweets and Facebook status messages.

There’s also a lot of other knowledge among your members, who know a lot about living a Christian life through all its ups and downs. Ask them to talk or write or make a video about the first seven years of marriage, becoming a parent, growing old, and as many more Christ-related topics as you can think of. Post links to this thought-leadership content on your website, on your Facebook page and on Twitter. People ask Google all the time if God loves them, if their life has meaning, if Jesus is real. On your website and in all your marketing outreach, provide the answers from your own experience, then invite your audience to join your mailing list. Package your best content into a regular email newsletter. Each time you receive an email address, a phone number, a Facebook like, or a Twitter follower, you’ve been given permission to continue the conversation.

5. Awards and recognition involve taking credit when credit is due. Compete with other churches for the best service-project idea. Check out organizations you already partner with. What contests or competitions are they holding? Make sure you enter and make sure you publicize it when you win. Or be the source of the award: host a preach-off with other local clergy, give an award for the best youth programming, or recognize when fundraising goals are met. And whenever you receive or give an award, be sure to tip off the local media. Awards and recognition showcase the best parts of your congregation’s life together and can create word-of-mouth buzz. In turn, this raises your parish’s profile and generates interest from outsiders who want to find out more about you — and who want to be included in the conversation.

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

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