‘We’re All About Free’

A young minister I visited this past week leaned back in his chair, tapped his leg, and began talking about electronic media with me.

As churches go, this one sits just to the right of center on the “average American church” meter. With 100 members, a part-time secretary, a building, and more senior citizens than young adults, it epitomizes what so many congregations today look like.

“We just launched an e-newsletter,” he announced. “We don’t track open rates or clicks or any of that stuff,” he continued, “we do it because it’s free. With our budget, we’re all about free.”

There are many directions one could take that comment, but allow me to pick on the concept of “free.”

Pay Me Now, Or Pay Me Later

This pastor made a decision about the major way members get their information based on economics—he could send the newsletter for free, so, he reasoned, he saves money over sending it through the mail. But there is more to the economics of communication than the cost of ink, paper, and stamps. So let’s get real about these for a moment.

Based on my work and conversations over the years with hundreds of pastors, I have drawn some startling insights into what the real costs of e-newsletters are.

Staff Salaries. It’s true that e-newsletters do not carry the cost of paper and postage. But they do carry the cost of time. And time, as they saying goes, is money. Stories have to be gathered, they must be edited, photos must be obtained and permissions secured, and all of the materials must be compiled into the e-newsletter for launch. This requires staff time, and no small amount of it.

Average number of staff hours per week: 8-10.

In other words, it requires roughly one-quarter of a staff person’s work-week to produce the newsletter.

Volunteer hours. The vast majority of congregations will not be able to afford a staff writer, so you will need to lean on volunteers to write materials. There is a net upside to this—it engages more of the congregation in the work and increases the number of possible stories you can tell. But beware, volunteers must be found, trained, and scheduled. And because volunteers are not paid professionals, they cannot be counted on to meet their deadlines. This is not a criticism—they have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that can easily interfere with their volunteer work. You must be prepared should they not meet a deadline.

Moreover, keep in mind that their work very often will require substantial editing.

Average number of hours spent managing volunteers per week: 2-4

Volunteers are critical to your success, but for e-newsletters to succeed, they must be delivered on schedule, without fail, when you promise. Be prepared for volunteers to miss deadlines, or for their work to require substantial editing.

Analysis. Staff salaries and volunteer hours are all about gathering the information that you will push out to e-newsletter recipients. But for e-newsletters to really pay, you must spend time analyzing the data that’s returned. This doesn’t require great amounts of time, but it requires someone committed to looking consistently at the data and interpreting it.

Average number of hours dedicated weekly to analyzing data: 1-2.

Bottom Line

Your newsletter is in no wise “free.” The fact of the matter is, from a cost-analysis perspective, it’s a wash when compared to a print newsletter. All the hours described above, save the time dedicated to Analysis, is required to produce a print newsletter. So financially, there is nothing to be gained.

The gain comes in the 1-2 hours per week you spend understanding the basic data your e-newsletter produces. From that, you can better understand your congregation’s needs, improve your ability to raise volunteers, and potentially drive more funds to your coffers.

If you aren’t using your e-newsletter’s data to learn what your members are telling you with their clicks and opens, your investment in an e-newsletter is a net loss. You’re spending the same staff time and money, but leaving the most important information on the table.

Join our webinar on August 8 to learn the basics of reading the data your e-newsletter generates and improving your volunteer base. Learn more and Register.

Unleashing Staff Creativity with Data

As leaders of congregations, it’s important to remember that as you come to see the significance of what understanding data derived from electronic communications can mean for you and your staff, your staff may not feel the same.

Data, properly used, can have a liberating effective on staff creativity and energy. But very often, at the outset, your staff may well feel threatened by the emphasis on numbers.

It’s not hard to understand. Unless you’re the top person in the organization, any attempt to introduce data—which is objective and, to many, feels cold—can seem like a threat: to their ability, to their self-esteem, or to their job.

Removing the sense of threat, and bringing about the creativity, can take some time.

Change Comes Slowly

Anything new and different takes some getting used to. Though I have experienced this in my own professional life (as we all have), and have helped employees overcome their apprehension about analytical data, even I need reminders of how hard it can be.

Data, properly used, can have a liberating effective on staff creativity and energy.

I was reminded again on Monday night, July 15, as I watched Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A’s put on a clinic in the All-Star Homerun Derby—crushing shot after shot deep into the New York night.

Afterwards, as he was presented awards—always in English—the non-English speaker’s fear was palpable. And when an ESPN analyst asked him a probing interview question, I began to feel for the young man. It could have been a disaster. Instead, it became a shining moment. After asking the question in English, the analyst, on national television, asked the same question in Spanish. Cespedes answered in Spanish, and the analyst translated for the public.

What an extraordinary change from our not-too-distant past. As a child, I recall watching Roberto Clemente, and listening to announcers consistently call him Bobby, refusing to use his real name. A subtle, and at the time, pervasive racism fueled by fear of a culture few European Americans understood.

Change has indeed come—but it has taken a lot of work on both sides. And the same will be true in your congregation as you begin using analytics.

Pick at Yourself

The most important thing to remember is to be quick to pick at yourself.

When in staff meetings, be the first to point to something you did for the website or the newsletter and point out that it didn’t do very well numbers-wise. Then listen to your staff. Do they say things like “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” or, “it was a really great piece, don’t feel bad.” If they do, chances are good they are projecting their own fears of offering pieces that don’t do well—and they are watching to see how you handle it.

By being quick to point out your own failures, and then ask the probing questions why (Did I word it well? Was this the best time to run it? Do people really want this material? Was it placed poorly on the page?) staff members will begin to see that data is not a tool for judging them, but a way of learning more about their own work and thinking about ways that they can do things better.

So long as you treat your staff members the way you treat yourself when their article numbers are down, you should begin to notice something powerful: the staff taking ownership of the work, and being willing to risk more and more to produce quality material.

By using data to reflect, and not punish, you give people room to expressive their creativity and learn for themselves.

It’s a great gift for you; most important, however, it’s a greater gift to your church.

Hospitality and Cold, Hard Data

Placing technology and faith at odds with one another has become something of a cottage industry in the world of faith. It’s not that we’re uncomfortable with technology; very few of us don’t interact with the internet, e-mail, or social media daily, if only at a cursory level.

But many faith communities remain suspicious, fearing that electronic communications can quickly de-humanize the faith experience. This is unfortunate, as in the congregational setting the information that electronic communications provide, courtesy of Google Analytics and the data that other communication tools provide, can be a real source of strength for building hospitality.

Before looking at how the data generated by technology can build hospitality, let’s look a bit closer at the tension between technology and faith.

Why Are Faith and Technology at Odds?

Many are unaware that electronic communications can teach as well as push information into the ether. On one level this is simply because understanding the information that electronic communications provide takes training and a certain amount of experience.

On a deeper level, many are still burdened by the faux tension that exists between technology and faith. The number of essays and articles that describe this abound, and examples are not hard to find.

Consider this very good commentary published in Religion News Service on July 8 by Tom Ehrich in which he argues that religion has succumbed to simple thinking. A big part of the reason?

We should be teaching the arts of subtlety — learned through literature, history, ethics and philosophy. Instead we teach how to make things work profitably through engineering and technology. Those are useful skills, but they shouldn’t be allowed to override a grasp of nuance and complexity.

Or this one that ran July 3 in Patheos by Paul Jesep.

[Technology] can empower, but also dehumanize and emotionally disconnect people renewing the purpose and relevance of spirituality often enhanced through religion. This is why religion is so important today.

There are many reasons for the faith/technology juxtaposition. The tension between science and faith runs deep in Western history (if you don’t know Wellhausen, you should—he is among the early flashpoints in this debate). Recent works by the likes of Richard Dawkins have understandably put people of faith on edge.

Add to this the the heeby-jeebies that so many of us have about math to begin with, and it’s easy to understand why we want to put the hard numbers behind electronic media (Google Analytics) at odds with the very human expression of faith and grace.

Can Data Be Hospitable?

The perceptions are unfortunate, as behind the cold, hard numbers generated by Analytics and other programs that track our every move on the web are real people.

Carefully read and interpreted, these numbers can provide insights into those who take the time to read the materials that we make available. To be fair, let’s admit up front that a cold side to this does exist. Anyone who has visited a website (say you click on page about Maine) then flipped to his or her Facebook page only to discover an ad screaming “Vacation in Maine” knows that the ad isn’t accidental.

In fact, so much of marketing today is about mining data and using that to “know” the people on the other side of the screen.

But there is a warmer, more hospitable way to approach this data. Especially in the confines of congregations. Unlike major corporations that can’t possibly know the real people behind the data, congregational leaders can, and do. Even within relatively large communities of faith.

That knowledge alone changes the dynamic. In congregations, analytics are not just numbers, they represent the people you minister to. And information gleaned through social networking channels and e-newsletters allows you to see exactly who is reading and reacting to your work and information. By clicking, liking, and following they are revealing a great deal about themselves to you and your ministry team. Information that can sensitize and strengthen your interactions with your members.

Data, in short, opens the door to hospitality—an ancient ideal in Christianity as well as many other world religious traditions—by allowing you to put yourself in the shoes of those you serve.

Individuals consistently clicking information about health care issues or mental health issues may well be signaling a great deal about their own situation that they may well have been hesitant to voice. Being aware of this can only improve your empathy, and your ability to create a hospitable environment for that individual.

Technology and hospitality are not disconnected—they are two sides of the human coin.

Successful E-Newsletters Are More Than Artful Design

When Chancellor Baptist Church decided to launch an e-newsletter, the staff’s excitement was palpable. Everyone would want this, they reasoned, so it would go a long way toward ending communication problems in the church. If events and information are in the e-newsletter and in the printed newsletter, no one will miss them. After all, everyone reads the printed newsletter—and surely everyone would read the e-newsletter. Right?

The reality was shocking to all involved. Over the first three weeks, only about 50 of the congregation’s 250 regular attendees signed up for the e-newsletter. And over the first month, no more than 15 percent of readers actually clicked a link in the newsletter.

Such is the reality of online newsletters. Whether you are pondering launching your first e-newsletter, or looking to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success.

According to MailChimp—an e-newsletter service that sends out billions of newsletter emails each month—the average open rate (emails opened in a window), un-open rate (emails never opened), and click rate (emails in which a user clicks at least one link) for e-newsletters within the realm of religious media are as follows: Open rate, 29.6%; un-open rate, 69.0%; click rate, 3.7%.

Shocked now? Think about this: If you have 100 members in your church and everyone signed up for your e-newsletter, you could expect 30 people to open it. (That means that they click to open your newsletter from their email program, or the email appears in their email program’s preview window.) But remember that final statistic, the click rate. About 30 people may “open” and see your newsletter—but that does not mean 30 people will spend time reading it—and only a few will follow those links that you so thoughtfully placed in your e-newsletter.

Keep in mind that these are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate. I estimate about 10%. And, if effectively trained newsletter editors are at the helm, those numbers can push higher—upwards of 30%-35%.

As you start, consider the shock value of the real-world numbers I have shared here. This is the time for you to contact friends in your congregation who care about the way you communicate. Talk about how surprisingly little impact you may be having through your long-trusted newsletters.

In a minute I will share some good news about how to begin breaking through this wall of missed communication. But, first, I’ll start the process of honestly talking about this problem.

Church Newsletters: How We Tackled the Challenge

Chancellor Baptist Church is my home congregation in Virgina and we were excited about launching an e-newsletter. Then, we were surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletter readership. But the next insight was an even greater surprise. Many of us had assumed that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter.

The truth is: In congregations nationwide, the majority of men and women are not reading print newsletters—and they probably never have. A simple test of your own reading habits suggests why. If you receive snail-mail newsletters and magazines, how often do you read them cover-to-cover? At all?

Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on how Americans use a typical five hours of leisure time per day. Mainly, Americans watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes) and socialize online (37 minutes)—far more time than they spend reading (17 minutes). Now think about all the materials that cross a person’s field of vision in the course of a day: Emails, regular mail, magazines, best-selling mysteries, reports from work—the reading list goes on and on long before someone decides to curl up with a church newsletter.

E-newsletter statistics bring that already existing situation into sharp relief. If only 10% of your members actually engage your e-newsletter by clicking something, it’s safe to assume that probably the same percentage are engaging your printed materials.

Why Your Congregation Should Develop E-newsletters

The reality of your readership may be shocking, but e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can—hard data about the people in your congregation and what they look at.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, once the initial shock wore off, people began looking closely at what people were paying attention to within our new e-newsletter—and what they were ignoring. Whatever e-newsletter service you choose, you will find that your newsletter staff can receive easy-to-read reports on what people actually are reading in each issue. We discovered right away that many of our long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored.

On the other hand, write ups about members soared. Think about that for a moment and it makes a lot of sense. If you have a precious few minutes to scan your congregation’s e-newsletter, your eye is likely focused on finding something about your family and friends. A short profile about an active member is likely to catch a lot of eyes.

So, our church began to adjust the balance of newsletter items. Over time, our new mix of stories provided an even more valuable lesson: Member profiles get lots of views the first time they run—and people come back to them again and again! To facilitate this, there’s now a convenient way to access an index of all profiles in every e-newsletter issue.

What else did people enjoy? Videos of baptisms also did very well, as did discussions of new educational materials the church is considering. In short, by paying attention to what people actually accessed in the e-newsletters, the staff learned what members want to read. This began to increase the value of the newsletters, rather than leaving this potentially important communications tool mired in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years.

More important, because of the newsletter, the staff is gaining a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives—the first goal of any growing congregation.

Getting Past the Newsletter Jolt

It’s up to you: You can use this data and follow the examples of many congregations that are honestly facing up to the failures of most older newsletters. This week, gather friends and staff in your congregation. Share this column with them. When you meet, ask the tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter when you receive no feedback about how it’s being used? Could the expense and effort of producing print pieces be put to better use? Is it worth buying Yellow Page ads when studies show people turn to the internet first when looking for a church?

Begin to rethink your existing budget for advertising, printing and mailing—and you may discover you can free up money for new projects. Rethink the hours that staff and volunteers spend on existing media—and think about the new excitement they will feel when you can demonstrate that their “item” or photo or home video was popular in the new e-newsletter.

Finally, think about the excitement your community will feel, when a short story about one of your members winds up shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks—and winds up drawing a friend or relative to walk through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

Don’t let the initial shock deter you from opening a more powerful window into your community.

This article originally appeared in Read The Spiritfor which I write a regular column on faith communities and technology. 

Mind Your Communications Models

Church Marketing Sucks has long been a premier forum for church communications. So any studies they release bear notice.

A few days ago, CMS released some preliminary results of its Church Communication Survey, which attracted 766 responses. Two things caught my eye that point to acute issues for any church searching for answers to communication issues. The first was this line:

“Nearly 40% of the churches represented had an average weekend attendance over 1,000. The largest concentrations were in the 200 to 1,000 range.”

Here’s why that matters. According to a study on church size described by Fast Facts About American Religion, published by Hartford Seminary—a leader in studying American congregations—less than 3 percent of the churches that people attend in the US are in congregations with more than 1,000 worshipers.

Why are so many of those surveyed by CMS in such large congregations, when the vast majority of people attending congregations do not attend these mega-churches? In all likelihood it is because the CMS study is not statistically sound in its sample size, as the report profiled by Hartford Seminary is.

This is not a problem for CMS, so long as in the final report they indicate that the report is not statistically valid. But is should give congregations using the final report, when it is released, something to think about.

When planning your communications needs, it’s important that you consider the size of the institutions that you look to for inspiration. Bigger churches have more income at their disposal, larger staffs, and the ability to invest in high-end technology, which gives the illusion of effectiveness—perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t.

it’s important that you consider the size of the institutions that you look to for inspiration.

Looking to these institutions as models can generate a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mindset, while taking your eye off of the things that really matter when it comes to communications success—both disseminating information to, and learning things about, the church you work in.

The second point worth noting is this one: “Design-savvy: We asked what other roles these communicators have had in their careers and designer topped the list. Low on the list? Copywriter and church pastor.” (Find the breakdown here.)

This suggests that design is going to be important in the communications take-aways that come from this study. Again, this is not to suggest that design is unimportant—it matters a great deal, and I am an admirer of well-designed sites.

But should design be the most important thing on your mind when analyzing your communications’ needs? Rather than a first-level concern, I would suggest that it is a second-level concern. Once the communications house is in order, then the finishing touches can be applied, the pretty paints laid down, and the furniture arranged just so. But good design will not take the place of a well-executed communications strategy that produces two-way learning.

should design be the most important thing on your mind when analyzing your communications’ needs?

The findings with the CMS study are preliminary—let’s not jump the gun on what the final study will show or claim. As with everything that Brad Abare does with this group, I am sure that they will be careful with their claims and their data. Moreover, valuable information will emerge.

But when thinking about your own communication plans, don’t forget to be careful that your models for success are of comparable size and focused on outcomes that will deliver not just looks, but substantive information that leads to invigorated ministries.

Welcome to Sacred Language Communications

Church leaders are awash in answers: New technology tools aimed at solving this problem or that issue. Theories that promise success if you just follow a particular approach. Or services that promise to do it all–for a very steep fee.

Sacred Language Communications was launched with a different idea in mind.

  • Language is what binds your church: Whether you are united by a shared liturgy, a dynamic leader, a common cultural background, or any of a thousand possibilities, your community shares a distinct language that is your own.
  • That language is sacred: You are a church, and your members are people of faith. The way you communicate demonstrates this. Churches are not businesses–though there are business aspects; nonprofits–though they are structured as such and are frequently goverened as such; or charities–though they do many charitable acts. Churches are distinct, sacred. How you communicate with your congregation must reflect this.
  • Communication channels are two-way: Unlike in many other avenues of life, church communication channels should offer a dialogue. Both those who build and manage the channels and those who receive information from them are in a dialogue, constantly learning from one another. Learning how to understand this dialogue is central for your success.
We are here to teach you how to talk with your members via technology; to dialogue and improve each others lives using the communications channels you have or choose.
This approach stresses careful attention to data, and careful attention to living language.
I look forward to getting to know more about you and your church.
Martin Davis, Principal and Founder