Crafting an Effective Communications Strategy
“What’s the best communications platform for my church?”
It’s a question that comes up a lot in church communication discussions, but unfortunately there is no easy answer. And that answer further is complicated by the fact that one segment of the target audience complains that they never know what’s going on at church; and another segment complains that there are too many emails and bulletin announcements! Yet another segment of your target audience has never even heard of your church!
So what’s a beleaguered communications person to do? It’s a challenge!
First, let’s ask some better questions.
“What does my church have to offer? Who is my target audience? What do they want to know? Where do they go to look for it?”
Here are four steps to begin to establish an effective communications strategy that delivers well-crafted, targeted communications on the appropriate platforms to the intended audience.
Determine Your Message
Are most of your communications driven by informational announcements? While it’s important to convey information, the Good News in Christ isn’t that the finance committee is meeting at 7pm in the lounge. Evangelism doesn’t happen when we tell people that the vestry meets the first Tuesday of the month.
For an effective church communications strategy you need to know who you are and the role that you play in building the Kingdom of God in your greater community. Think about any corporate marketing campaign – there are ways in which product information is conveyed, but marketing is more about inviting people to participate in a lifestyle. Ads attempt to tap into a deep need that a consumer has and provide them a way to satisfy that need.
So what does your church do really well? Which ministries have a lot of energy? Where do you sense the Holy Spirt at work? Often we spend a disproportionate amount of communications bandwidth trying to attract people to floundering ministries rather than highlighting impactful and inspiring stories of ministry.
What are the needs in your community? Pick one or two, and tell a story about how your church helps people fulfil that need. What do people need to know? In Speaking Faithfully, a must-read for any communications person, Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson write,
“When people come to a church, they need to know something about hope, or God’s love for them, or about the existence of a community of people living according to values that dispute the hopelessness and violence they see around them.”
Know Your Audience – and the Platforms They Use
How many target audiences do you need to reach? Certainly there is an internal audience comprised of existing parishioners. But even that can be broken down – there are the “regulars” who fill the pews on Sunday and show up for most church events, there are the “occasionals” who comprise a growing segment of our busy population, and the “infrequents,” those Christmas and Easter folks who maintain a slender thread of connection to the church. Think about each of these groups – what do they need to hear, what do they need to know?
Regulars may need just the basic information – time, date, location – and may be frustrated if they have to search for it.
Occassionals may need more of a nudge, a narrative invitation that help them to see themselves as part of your community, to see that what you offer fulfills a need that they want to fit into their busy lives.
Infrequents need this narrative as well, plus they may need a basic information about participation. Uncertainty can be a stumbling block! So often at church, we assume that “everyone knows” that a certain service or activity “always” takes place in a certain location, that people are expected to behave a certain way, or to do something in advance, or to bring something with them. Consider the person who doesn’t know, for example, that everyone who attends a Christmas Carol Sing-a-long is expected to bring a platter of cookies or a donation for an outreach ministry. How awkward they will feel when they arrive empty-handed! And that awkwardness may translate into a vow never to return!
Next, consider the most difficult audience of all – your external audience, those folks you haven’t met yet. Demographically, who are the people in your community? Where are they in their life? What are their needs and wants? Where do they go to get their information? Young singles may be connected through digital networks; families may look to publications featuring children’s activities and organizations; older adults may read community newsletters; suburban joggers and commuters may notice yard banners… the possibilities are endless, but it’s important to consider not only your message, but where it can most effectively reach the intended audience.
Secondly, for both internal and external audiences, know the platforms that your audience uses and know the characteristics of each platform. It’s tempting to simply replicate informational announcements identically across platforms. But this approach doesn’t speak to a unique audience, it doesn’t respect the characteristics of the platform, and it contributes to an information overload glut which ultimately complicates your ability to connect with people. For example, rather than simply posting the time, date, and pricing information for a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper in your bulletin, on your website, and on your social media platforms, consider the way each platform might be used to its best advantage. Bulletin announcements might be short and sweet – time, date, and pricing targeting regular attendees. Your website might have this information – in brief bullet form – accompanied by great pictures from last year’s pancake supper along with details that a first time visitor might need to know. On Facebook – which reaches a certain segment of your adult population - you might post more pictures (don’t even think of posting on social media without a picture!), as well as links to pancake recipes, the history of Shrove Tuesday, video clips from last year’s supper, etc. You might create a sharable meme-style image and invite your Facebook followers to share it. You might set up a Facebook event, if your congregants are good about replying to events. On Instagram, you’ll want to post more pictures, but ones featuring teens and young adults. You’ll want to include hashtags specific to your church as well as general, outward facing hashtags to connect your event to the wider world. And don’t forget those informal communications channels too – if your clergy is making verbal announcements during the service about the need for pancake chefs, they’ll need accurate details not only about time, date, and pricing, but about volunteer expectations. This is a different message, a different subset of your target audience, and a different informational requirement.
Conduct a Communications Audit
Once you’ve done the work on developing a strong congregational message and identified various internal and external target audiences, it’s time to be specific and ruthless! Consider every form of communication in your parish: digital, print, formal, informal.
These might include, but aren’t limited to:
- Church website (and any sub-group website)
- Social media official pages and accounts (consider each platform separately!)
- Social media member groups
- Communications apps such as GroupMe or WhatsApp
- Email newsletters, and regular and sporadic/one-shot email communications
- Member sub-group (such as church families, choir, commissions) digital email lists, shared digital spaces
- Mailed print communications – postcards, letters, brochures
- Member sub-group flyers, newsletters, or take-home print pieces
- Print bulletins
- Print and digital “features” magazines or longform publications
- Clergy blogs, sermons, or other editorial pieces
- Church “welcome table” or “information table” print pieces such as ministry brochures, directories, annual reports
- Posters/flyers in the church
- Posters/flyers in the community
- Yard banners, electronic signage
- Calendar entries, event listings, etc., on non-church/community digital publications
- Print ads, articles, features in non-church print publications
For each of these platforms, identify:
Who currently reads or views this communications piece?
What are the characteristics of this platform? What stories can it be used to tell? Is it predominantly a visual or a verbal form of communication? Is there a way to increase the visual appeal?
Who is the current audience for this communication piece, and does the current audience align with the target audience? If your current Facebook audience is adults, posting about the upcoming youth mission trip may reach parents and grandparents of potential youth participants, but not the youth themselves.
What does the target audience want to know? Your Instagram crowd may not want to attend an adult forum on end-of-life planning; and your senior adults don’t need to know about how to register for the youth lock-in.
When does the target audience need to know this information or hear this story? Families may need many months advance notice for a weekend retreat; people ready to walk out the door to come to dinner may need last minute information about what time a fish fry. People may need to hear about the nature of God’s unyielding love in a time of national or community tragedy.
How much information is necessary on each platform? A bulletin announcement may expand on the brief details shown on a visually-appealing yet informationally brief poster or yard banner. Think of one as the “headline” and the other as the full story.
How many times does the target audience need to see the information? Advertisers know that repetition is essential. One maxim suggests that people need to see something three times before it registers.
What are the impediments the target audience has as far as receiving, processing, or acting on the information? Printing a long-string of random characters that makes up the URL of a registration form link in a print bulletin isn’t helpful; better to say “See the Children’s Ministry page on our website for online registration” in print form and use they hyperlink in the weekly email blast.
Once you’ve gone through the exercise of evaluating each of your communications pieces and platforms, it becomes far easier to allocate communications initiatives to the proper platform, with the necessary timing and frequency, to target the intended audience!
Set an Editorial Calendar
Christmas comes every year. So does Holy Week. For all of those seasons and events that we can plan for, it’s important to have a communications calendar in place! A good editorial calendar achieves a few purposes:
It clearly establishes internal communications expectations and helps communications coordinators set and enforce submission deadlines.
It manages information overload – by scheduling regular and anticipated communications, you’ll know where the “gaps” are and have a sense of where and when you have slots for those unanticipated messages that need to be sent.
It creates a sense of anticipation and expectation on the part of your target audiences – if they know when, where, and how often they can expect information, they will be less likely to miss important messages.
It highlights the down-times and ensures that no target audience goes too long without hearing from you. This is important not just informationally but for building and maintaining community connections.
Communications is Ministry
While there is no “best” communications platform, there are steps you can take to actively improve your church communications strategy!
Communications is ministry. If you can establish an effective communications strategy that delivers well-crafted, targeted communications on the appropriate platforms to the intended audience, you will be doing your part in building the Kingdom of God and inviting others into the process.
- Lisa Brown
Our goal at Membership Vision is to help churches and other faith communities to tell their stories in the digital space. Each church, irrespective of size, has a living and active story to tell, and technology provides an opportunity to share that story in a way that is welcoming and engaging. We ease the burden of keeping communications current, by leveraging content, and harnessing the many ways that members of our communities connect with each other, both inside and outside of the church walls. We aim to remove technological hurdles and allow churches to communicate online in an effective and sustainable way. Contact us firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 626-0143 to talk about the ways we can help your church build a digital presence.