A New Way to Market Your Church

Perhaps the best line ever voiced about social media was never said of social media at all. It’s spoken by the no-nonsense Captain in the classic 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke.

There’s a grand failure to communicate when it comes to social media, because the vast majority of users in the church–and elsewhere–continue to think of social media tools as a way to market themselves to the world.

A Frontline piece last week will forever change your opinion about this.

Inverting the Funnel

Generation Like explores the inversion of marketing that social media has wrought. (If that sentence turns your theological ears on end, hang with me. It all comes back to you and your church.)

For as long as there’s been marketing, it’s been driven by the “funnel.” You caste as wide a net as possible, then filter prospective clients from non-prospective clients via a series for sieves, until you have people most likely to interact with you.

The classic marketing "Funnel." Caste the net, and narrow down.

The classic marketing “Funnel.” Caste the net, and narrow down.

Sound familiar? Canvassing, encouraging people to invite friends to church, community events, pancake breakfasts, mailing flyers. These are all examples of the classic marketing funnel.

Turn It Upside Down

Social media has turned this model upside down. No longer are you the marketer, but your clients become your marketers. To simplify greatly what the documentary describes, a clothing store’s best bet for selling is not the splashy ad in the New York Times, but the teenage girl who sings the praises of her new jeans to her 20,000 Facebook fans.

“But wait,” you say, “that’s no different from wearing branded clothing.” True, except it’s more complicated.

With branded clothing, you’ve convinced people to shell out large dollars for a product that improves their image with their friends.

With social media, big organizations are trying to convince individuals with the largest followings to pay attention to you.

In short, now, PepsiCo fears Tyler Oakley (watch the documentary).

From PBS documentary "Generation Like."

From PBS documentary “Generation Like.”

Bringing It Back Round to Church

So how does this apply to the church?

Hands down, the greatest concern of congregations is bringing young people and their families into the church. And everything, it seems, has failed–consistently, for 30 years.

Churches blame increasing secularization, travel sports, and a range of other issues for their failure to bring the young in.

Complaining about things you can’t control, however, will never advance your work. Worrying about the things you can control can make things better.

And your outreach (let’s call it what it is–marketing) to the young is something that you can definitely control.

Begin with the young people and families in your church who carry iPhones and tablets, and work with them to create content that they can place in the body of their photos and videos. Engage them in the process, and allow them to be your marketers extraordinaire.

Just One More Thing …

Be sure to watch ALL of the documentary. This marketing does not happen by accident. It is carefully orchestrated.

Every detail, every connection, everything.

“Viral” doesn’t happen magically.

With some love and attention, however, you may come to appreciate better how to find the solution to your communication failures.

Something about this feels relevant …

… so began the email I received recently from Anna Belle Leiserson, the genius behind the best blog I know for churches about developing websites–FaithAndWeb.com.

“This” is an article in the New York Times titled “Faulty Websites Confront Needy in Search of Aid.” The bottom line of the article is this: if you think the new website for the ACA is a mess, spend some time poking around the websites for states’ unemployment compensation. In short, it’s a crap shoot.

To those who work with these systems, there is no surprise. Companies, government agencies, and, yes, even churches (large and small) have a long history of making poor decisions about websites at the very earliest stages. And never find their way out.

One fairly large nonprofit I advised in years gone by was dumping tens of thousands of dollars annually into a website that 1) couldn’t be updated by most people in the office, 2) regularly messed up online transactions, and 3) broke down more than a working website should.

And yet, they would never change, and kept throwing good money after bad. The reason? We’ve invested so much, why change now? It’s laughable in print. Not so much in reality.

A Heavy Price

Your church website–though certainly not as complex as that described in the New York Times piece, or even that used by many organizations and nonprofits–must work and work well. And when it doesn’t, you pay a heavy price. Including:

Communications Paralysis. Whether you use a website alone, or have Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and whatever happens to be all the rage in your community, your website probably plays a big role in anchoring the content. I have seen first-hand more churches whose websites are seriously constraining their ability to communicate well. They buy inexpensive programs that limit their number of pages, their ability to adapt their sites, and on and on. As a result, they end up creating a greater communications log jam with each online tool they add.

Lost Income. People love to give online. We pay for everything else online, so why not make our contributions online? But if you set it up poorly, or select poor software, or your software and website are constantly battling one another and keeping people from giving, they’ll quit. Quickly. Out of frustration, or out of security fears. Either way, you and your congregation lose.

Lost Visitors. People looking for a church to attend (or looking for anything else, for that matter) look first to the web. Your website is their primary window into your world. Select one that is cheap-looking, or acts like one that is cheap, and you are costing yourself visitors. And you can measure this. Google Analytics tracks new visitors who come to your site and then go away. See what those numbers are. If your site doesn’t support Google Analytics, you have bigger problems with your site.

No Excuses

There was a time not so long ago that there were legitimate reasons that churches skimped on websites. Hiring private developers was expensive (and no guarantee of success), and they required people who knew how to code.

Those days are long gone. Today, companies like iPage make launching a sophisticated, good-looking website easy and affordable. And you don’t need to be a coder (but you still need to be a tweaker).

Yes, it takes work. No, you shouldn’t try and do it alone. And yes, it’s a bit scary to go from what you have–no matter how flawed–to something new, no matter how much better.

But you must.