How to improve your church's communication

An Interview With Brad Abare, one of the founders of Church Marketing Sucks

WRN: I noticed looking at your 10-year reflection on your site you’ve mentioned as technology is changing you’re still noticing some of the same issues with church marketing. What are some of those specific changes in technology you’re referring to and what are those issues you are still noticing?

Brad Abare: Good question. The technology I was referring to is in the broader scope of technology, in the last 10 or 15 years whether it’s mobile technology, the fact that we can have everything in our hand. Whether it’s social where everyone is connected to every other person on the planet. We feel closer. More access than ever before.

That is what I meant, on the technology side of things. Its availability and accessibility. The downside of that is we have some of the great problems we have particularly seen in the last couple of decades. Communication, in regard to churches, meaning we continue to assume that technology is going to solve the problem of getting our message across or getting the point across or helping people understand X, Y, Z. It’s really just helped get the message more complicated and more nuanced and more frustrating because we have more ways to do it, but less is getting through. That is the disconnect and concern in that context.

“It’s really just helped get the message more complicated and more nuanced and more frustrating because we have more ways to do it, but less is getting through.”

WRN: What population have you found to be the hardest in communication? Is it current members that might have lapsed? Bringing in new members? Which group is the hardest for churches to communicate to generally?

BA: It is all over the place. There are churches that do better than others in different populations: some do better with insiders, others do better with outsiders. Usually, they are not as good at the opposite. Communicating to the congregation, communicating to members, some of the issues there, the issue here is that they assume everyone gets it because they send it out on a Sunday or send it out on a church bulletin, or we send it out in an email newsletter, or our Facebook group. That is a problem.

With communicating to outsiders we get discouraged by thinking that we have to outdo or overdo what other churches are doing, or more to the point of competition, its often leader time, shopping with the Christmas season, or Sunday sports. It is appealing to the hole of the heart, that everyone is searching for something more meaningful and churches are trying to break through the clutter and the noise beyond the discount coupons and referral for a friend stuff.

“Churches are trying to break through the clutter and the noise beyond the discount coupons and referral for a friend stuff.”

WRN: You emphasize different marketing channels like Social Media or Email. How do you help someone who is not tech savvy to improve communication for their church? What advice do you give them using those strategies or do you recommend a completely different path?

BA: When they say they are not tech savvy I actually love that. I think it adds a lot less complexity to the situation. And it depends on who they are trying to reach. If they are trying to reach 25-35-year-olds they are probably not able to reach them without some element of digital communication in their strategy. Chances are pretty good if they are not tech savvy they have other people in their church who are not tech savvy who they should probably buckle down and try to reach. The churches that are digitally savvy often miss the people who aren’t. This is what goes back to the uniqueness and beauty of churches – there are so many options, so many variations, so many colors and stripes and lots of different ways to do it. So just because someone is not tech savvy, that is not a deal killer, but it does mean they are going to have to work a little harder to walk the block and be engaged in the community. Definitely not just from a desktop computer or laptop.

WRN: What if they say they are tech savvy but not complicated? Or is it unique to each situation?

BA: Depends. Are they focusing on church growth? Growing the number of their parishioners? Trying to grow the engagement of the current congregation? Are they trying to reach out to the neighborhoods around them that are not members, but are of different socioeconomic status and need help with food or clothes or rent? Who are they trying to reach and what are they trying to do with that? Just like any marketing communication, whether traditional or for churches there is no “one size fits all.”

WRN: What have you found to be the most popular need of those who seek out your help?

BA: Because of the nature of our organization and whose behind it we are definitely contacted by those that are not complicated but are not afraid. They don’t have the sophistication or digital communication or marketing communication done online or social media, etc but they are not afraid. They are trying to figure out what should I do? What could I do? What could be done?

The ones who are sophisticated don’t need us. They are the ones that are writing books on it. They are the ones that are probably volunteering with us or are on the board. They are trying to give back. That would be more the people that are helping and serving.

WRN: What is the common feedback that you see from working with people?

BA: It is certainly encouraging. It helps keeps us going. We are all volunteers. None of us take paychecks or salaries from this and so we continue to volunteer and be a part of it because of the churches that we help. From everything from the small churches that feel we have given them a lift from the resources and materials or books or training to the moderately sized church whether its 400-500 members, but they don’t have the have the sophistication or ability to hire out. It is certainly encouraging and very grateful.

“None of us take paychecks or salaries from this and so we continue to volunteer and be a part of it because of the churches that we help.”

WRN: Has there been a time, based on feedback, that you have implemented and changed what you have done?

BA: The training events. For a long time, we had resisted training events. We were certainly not against training. We just felt that we were not the ones to go into that kind of product offering to speak because there are a lot of good ones and great people offering those advantages. So we just offered support. We continue to have people coming to us asking for training events because we are not a personality-driven thing. We are not a big mega church thing, a small church thing, or a denomination thing.

We come from a neutral playing field and really provide some robust training. We have done that for the last four years, selectively. The price point is a little higher because we want to make sure the people attending really want this and we try to keep the groups small, about 20-25 people.

WRN: Has anyone expressed concern that this might dilute the message of religious doctrine by using marketing techniques? That the message and the story should speak for itself. As you say on the site, the Bible has the greatest stories ever told.

BA: Absolutely. That even continues today, but less and less when we started in 2004. There has been a progressive slide in that regard. That said, it is still certainly a palpable concern and I have it too, as one of the founders because the second it starts to feel slimy or slick or packaged or too complicated then I’m wondering “am I missing the message?” The story of the Gospel in the Bible is not overly complicated. It did take the technology of its day and there are certain principles of going where the people are. Let’s love people generously. These are messages that are still relevant today. I just think there is a lot of competing for the attention and affections of people and churches need to know how to inspect and redirect it.

“There is a lot of competing for the attention and affections of people and churches need to know how to inspect and redirect it..

WRN: Are there any techniques in traditional marketing you find less effective or more underhanded that should be avoided?

BA: I would probably steer clear of direct response line of marketing in the sense of how to get as many people to look, click, or come. That type of an approach is certainly not what I would apply in the church context. I understand in the marketplace there is a place for it, that infomercial, middle of the night kind of appeal. “Call now, supplies are limited.” That is the kind of marketing and kind of approach. Too many churches try that approach. And it works because it taps into the emotions that are heavy in all of us of fear, of isolation. All the stuff that anyone can play on. And then when your service and product can solve that pain for me I will want you. And some churches are guilty of that too.

WRN: So you mean clickbait?

BA: Or it could be “God has amazing plans for your life. Order my book to learn how.” Or “we know the secrets, so come to our marriage classes this weekend.” It is one thing to make it available, it is another thing to market it and be a little bit gimmicky.

WRN: Are there particular techniques you find especially effective?

BA: The churches that get their congregation actually doing what the church says that they do are the churches that I see as most effective. The churches that say “we love our community, we are a place in the community, and we engage our community.” You can tell pretty quickly if they believe that a lot. If you find people that are actively involved in surrounding community, in the schools, in government, in all of society that keep a community running. That is where I see the most effective communication and attracting more and more of the people that can perpetuate that.

“The churches that get their congregation actually doing what the church says that they do are the churches that I see as most effective.”

WRN: So engagement is the metric that should be used?

BA: Absolutely. I would argue that is probably on the top five things. The latest study is that is what pastors want. That local engagement. If that could be the metric rather then the butts in pews or how much money is donated. I understand why we continue to do that. If we only measure butts or dollars we are missing that. Engagement is what we should be measuring of the help of the congregation.

WRN: Where should people start on your homepage?

BA: If you go to ChurchMarketingSucks.com and if you look at the very top that says “read this first,” that is the starting point. It has the popular and preferred information.

WRN: Is there any other advice or information you want to share with people who want to improve their communication or an audit they should be giving to themselves to see if they need external support?

BA: The one question that I would lead with, with a nod to Peter Drucker, is what is your church doing and how is that going for you? It is a very simple question, but its very hard for people to answer. “Well we do everything: we do outreach, we do services, we do fund-raising.” Well, what are you really doing? What are you really trying to see happen? And how is that going? And if they can really answer that if the communication can come around, if the messaging can come around, if the pastor/sermons can come around to continue that support what it is what they are trying to do then I think that is a great way.

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