‘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.

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