“Why does church marketing fail?”

From Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study

I recently had a question from a friend who attends a small church with a smaller budget but interested in marketing and outreach their congregation about the pitfalls of church marketing.

“Sam, why does church marketing fail?”

So with her permission, here’s my response…

The reason most church marketing and outreach efforts fail is lack of follow-through and consistency. We all want the quick dopamine release that comes with likes, hearts, and favorites based on our social media posts. But marketing (well, good marketing) isn’t about the quick and transient. Patience is part of the very intrinsic nature of the concept of marketing. Churches, particularly dealing with a budget, do a poor job of recognizing that.

Second, church marketing tends to be generic and formulaic. Perhaps because of the common practice of churches getting many of their resources like Sunday School materials (or pastors who “borrow” sermons from the internet), Vacation Bible School posters etc from a central office or approved denominational body, church marketing, church marketing also tends to be generic and not in touch with the surrounding community. But like politics, all church marketing is local. Not everyone can walk in and teach the youth Sunday School class even if they are using LifeWay materials. Not everyone can walk in and run your church’s marketing or outreach efforts even if they have a Facebook account. Nevertheless, church marketing often doesn’t live up to expectations because it is formulaic and generic rather than reflective of the local community.

Third, church marketing and outreach efforts often do a very poor job of asking “why would anyone who is not coming to our church want to come to our church?”. Salvation? Good luck marketing theology. In reality, if a church is going to embark on marketing or outreach, the church should first ask existing members “WHY?” as in “Why do you come to this church?”. Once you have answers to that first Why, ask Why four more times with the responses. The “Five Why’s” is common tool in setting up marketing and branding efforts and can really help clarify both a church’s identity and what makes it special (or not). I love doing this with our clients and it always leads to unexpected and surprising places. Don’t assume… ask why.

Church marketing is often targeted at the wrong audience. Denominational identity is rapidly becoming less of a “selling point” and something that can be used as a marketing point. I often have clients who initially want to “target (insert denomination here)s living in our town.” If you’re a Baptist church targeting Baptists in a few zip codes, you’re not going to have great success with your outreach. That time has passed as we now have more Millennials than Baby Boomers. There’s a reason we see many youth-focused churches dropping denominational labels in their name, even if they were planted and / or affiliated with a particular denomination or church.

Last, churches often target their outreach efforts to what I call the “seldom attenders”. You don’t want a congregation full of “seldom attenders” even if they write big checks once a year. A church should market to those who will attend every week and take part in activities and programs frequently. “I like the pastor’s preaching” isn’t a “selling point” anymore. People, particularly younger cohorts of people, want experiences. In this world of on-demand movies and music and dating and socializing, it’s the experience of your church that will directly help growth. Be authentic and own who you are (and the WHY’s from above). If you’re traditional with traditional hymns and everyone wears “Sunday Dress”… own it! There are people in your community who want that experience. Don’t market what you are not because you see the non-denominational warehouse church down the street bursting at the seams with involved young families. Churches, as all businesses and nonprofits, should tap into the unique experience of worship or the incredible feeling of belonging to a community of people seeking something larger than themselves.

Oh, and don’t be pretentious. If you don’t think your church is pretentious and wonder why it’s not growing, it’s probably because your church is seen as pretentious. You can’t market earnestness. But you can drop the pretentions and be an authentic congregation. That’s a whole other conversation though 🙂

Moving beyond links

I’ve long argued that “links are dead” (going on a decade now). Some of that was hyperbolic to discuss the need for a better mechanism to derive value or information from one site to the next or from a marketing campaign.

It looks like Google might be moving beyond links as well and towards more of an “entity database” where the connections and relationships between search terms are prioritized. I can get behind that.

The idea that we can push our rankings forward through entity associations, and not just links, is incredibly powerful and versatile. Links have tried to serve this function and have done a great job, but there are a LOT of advantages for Google to move toward the entity model for weighting as well as a variety of other internal needs.

Source: Google patent on related entities and what it means for SEO – Search Engine Land

Don’t fall for lots of likes and retweets

Also good advice for churches and nonprofits doing social media marketing on a shoestring budget:

Bots manipulate credibility by influencing social signals like the number of aggregated likes or shares a post or user receives. People see a large number of retweets on a post and read it as a genuine signal of authentic traction in the marketplace of ideas. Do not fall for this. Trends are basically over—they’re too easy to manipulate. This goes for any information online that feeds off of public signals, including things like search autocomplete or content recommendation lists. Journalists can no longer rely on information sources reflecting some form of online “popularity.”

Source: The bots beat: How not to get punked by automation – Columbia Journalism Review

Large implications as Facebook shuts down Partner Categories

This is significant. Many large companies (Fortune 100 type) have their own data sets on customers and potential customers and audiences they’d like to target. They’ve been able to combine that data with Facebook’s or Twitter’s own user data in incredibly effective (and cheap!) marketing campaigns tied to email newsletters and website promotions. None of that really changes here.

What does change is the democratization of that ability to do intensely targeted marketing for smaller companies and groups. Many of my clients, for instance, are nonprofits and churches operating on shoestring budgets but aware of the incredible reach that Facebook provides. Part of that reach had to do with Facebook’s Partner Categories program that allowed for companies or groups to use customer data with 3rd party data sources (Experian, for example) for campaigns at a reasonable cost. That aspect goes away now.

This third data set is primarily helpful to advertisers who might not have their own customer data, like small businesses or consumer packaged goods companies that sell their products through brick-and-mortar retailers.

Source: Facebook is cutting third-party data providers out of ad targeting to clean up its act – Recode

It’s a good move for many reasons and I expect to see many social outlets follow suit (Twitter, for example). However, it does make the playing field that much more complicated for smaller businesses or groups that don’t have the ability to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on customer surveys and data collections.

This multi-device, multi-channel world that we’re living in presents tremendous opportunity, but the reality is that connecting these experiences is still very challenging. Especially on a budget.

Changing Conceptions of Marriage and Church Marketing

Fascinating stats here for same-sex and different-sex marriages. To think of marriage as a trophy or celebration of what two people have accomplished in life that come together into a new stage directly flies in the face of so much of what churches of all stripes and sizes (but especially my beloved Baptist tradition) have supported:

According to the Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage—the age at which half of all marriages occur—was 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men in 2017. That’s higher than at any time since the Census began keeping records in 1890. It is six years higher than when I got married in 1972 (at the typical age of 24). In my era, a young couple usually got married first, then moved in together, then started their adult roles as workers or homemakers, and then had children. (I scandalized my parents by living with my future wife before I married her.) Now marriage tends to come after most of these markers are attained.

Source: Andrew Cherlin: Marriage Has Become a Trophy – The Atlantic

In an era where church attendance is declining and church donations aren’t keeping up with expenses, it’s interesting to ponder what something like the institution of marriage might mean for the future health of congregations based on their marketing and messaging.

If you automate tweets for marketing purposes, you might want to read this

Back in January, Twitter announced upcoming changes to its service that would discourage use of automation tools for “amplification” of tweets. Now we’re beginning to see the effects of this change.

One of the great things about using Twitter for marketing is the relative ease of “amping” up tweets and causing increased “velocity” which signals to the Twitter algorithms that more followers should see the tweet. If you’re using the default Twitter app on the web or on your device or tablet, you’re not seeing all the tweets of all the people you follow in real time. Instead, Twitter (much like Facebook or Instagram) uses machine learning algorithms to try and determine what you might want to see. That’s still a big revelation to many, but it definitely impacts how we use Twitter for marketing and messaging purposes. Much like Facebook or Instagram, the more people that like or interact with your tweet, the better.

Agencies and social media managers have long used tools like Buffer or HubSpot or HootSuite to manage multiple accounts and cross-pollinate those tweets with likes and retweets to increase velocity.

The beauty of that approach is that it’s fairly cheap to achieve what looks like a successful series of tweets if you’re using stats or variables like “views” or “favorites” as your main metric. The trick is, you shouldn’t. In the marketing world, it’s common to brag to your clients about the number of page views or “engagements” but in reality, those metrics never measure up to much more than ego inflation. What Twitter is doing here is a healthy thing for its platform as it encourages more meaningful interactions and activity on tweets, even in a marketing context.

Unfortunately, I know of so many nonprofits and churches and small businesses that rely on “a kid down the street” or an intern or a “young person who knows computers” to manage their social media accounts. There are numerous scary and telling cautionary tells on the web of companies or churches or nonprofits causing themselves major headaches by relying on inexperienced users of social media to manage accounts because of their age or hipness or perceived credibility. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc) have really become your front door on the web. It’s often how you can best get people back to your site. So treat it with care and make sure the manager knows the best practices. Tools like Buffer or HootSuite allow for groups or companies on shoestring budgets to really make a powerful use of Twitter as a marketing platform. But moves like this show us that the market is changing and users are wising up.

Here are the highlights from Twitter’s changes that have begun rolling out:

Do not (and do not allow your users to) simultaneously post identical or substantially similar content to multiple accounts. For example, your service should not permit a user to select several accounts they control from which to publish a given Tweet.

Do not (and do not allow your users to) simultaneously perform actions such as Likes, Retweets, or follows from multiple accounts.

The use of any form of automation (including scheduling) to post identical or substantially similar content, or to perform actions such as Likes or Retweets, across many accounts that have authorized your app (whether or not you created or directly control those accounts) is not permitted.

Users of TweetDeck will no longer be able to select multiple accounts through which to perform an action such as Tweeting, Retweeting, liking, or following.

Source: Automation and the use of multiple accounts

As always, get in touch if you need help.

Churches and nonprofits should realize that Facebook privacy issues are just the tip of the iceberg

Way back in 2012, I was featured in a New York Times article titled “How To Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet” and offered up this bit as part of my interview (I was teaching Middle School Science at the time):

“The topic of privacy policies and what lies ahead for our digital footprints is especially fascinating and pertinent for me, since I work with 13- and 14-year-olds who are just beginning to dabble with services such as Gmail and all of Google’s apps, as well as Facebook, Instagram, social gaming,” he said. “I have nothing to hide, but I’m uncomfortable with what we give away.”

It feels like we were so naive then, doesn’t it? Perhaps.

Here’s a segment from a great post by Doc Searls:

Let’s start with Facebook’s Surveillance Machine, by Zeynep Tufekci in last Monday’s New York Times. Among other things (all correct), Zeynep explains that “Facebook makes money, in other words, by profiling us and then selling our attention to advertisers, political actors and others. These are Facebook’s true customers, whom it works hard to please.” Irony Alert: the same is true for the Times, along with every other publication that lives off adtech: tracking-based advertising. These pubs don’t just open the kimonos of their readers. They bring people’s bare digital necks bared to vampires ravenous for the blood of personal data, all for the purpose of “interest-based” advertising.

Source: Doc Searls Weblog · Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing

I have no problem admitting that I’m a fanboy of Doc Searls. Search through the 12 years of archives here and you’ll find me quoting or sourcing him many times in posts regarding advertising throughout the years.

This is one of those seminal posts that I feel like I’ll come back to later and want to reflect upon giving newfound insight or knowledge. That often happens with posts from Searls.

What I’m particularly intrigued about here is the 1) action and 2) reaction notion of “NOW WHAT?”. It’s been no surprise to us that work in the marketing and advertising world what’s happened with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica over the last couple of weeks.

In fact, it’s incredibly easy and almost encouraged to use Facebook data to target people to an alarmingly intimate degree. It’s part of the game. I’ve always felt icky about the situation and I’ve more than once steered clients away from targeting users using FB Ad Manager for campaigns that would otherwise have been fine without that element.

It’s been an uneasy compromise for many of us, knowing what we give away in exchange for the enjoyment of friends and family pictures on Facebook. But this isn’t new. We just waited too long to do anything about it.

So where do we go now? I like Searls’ argument for a reader-first method of distinguishing rights and responsibilities for data on the web. Having worked in AdTech circles for 20 or so years now, I’m dubious about the execution or transformation that it will take to bring about such a revolution though.

Aside from the ethical dimension, there’s also the notion of democratization. Love it or hate it, AdTech and Facebook Ads and Twitter ads and affiliate marketing have leveled the playing field for many small businesses and nonprofits who could never have afforded agency rates as we knew them.

Perhaps that’s the lesson here for us all to learn. There needs to not only be profit involved in algorithmic marketing based on user profiles of demographic data, but also ethics.

We all need to do better with our marketing campaigns. However, the genie is out of the bottle to use another saying. There’s no going back to the quaint world of multi-million dollar Mad Men style creative brand advertisements dominating the industry.

I’d posit that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, online news and publishing and business and church and nonprofit sites should do better about monitoring the type of data they collect and pass on to 3rd parties either knowingly or unknowingly.

Churches and nonprofits especially need to heed this warning. Tracking is built into so many website builders and content management systems and email newsletter systems that they use. However, churches and nonprofits turn a blind eye to the reality that now faces them in an era where people are increasingly already turning away from their outreach.

It’s time to take the web (and those you’re looking to reach) seriously.

Google Rolls Out “Mobile First” Indexing Today

Facebook is undergoing serious challenges to its place as a web hub between the public PR crisis involving its role in the mis/use of data related to Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election as well as its ongoing tweaks to algorithms which now demote business and group pages in preference to users seeing more content from friends and family.

In the midst of that, there’s been a real uptick in the amount of attention that Google search results receive and topics such as SEO and page loading speed as more and more companies begin to reconsider their social media ad spends on Facebook and Twitter. Companies of all sizes are either pulling their Facebook ad buys altogether or crunching numbers to determine the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Suddenly, Google search results and SEO are becoming the new darlings of the marketing and advertising world again. So, it’s important that starting today, Google is rolling out its “mobile first” indexing scheme.

Whether you’re a big company or a small church or a medium-sized nonprofit, it’s important that you take into consideration elements such as how quickly and how well your website loads on mobile devices (if you want to rank well, at least):

To recap, our crawling, indexing, and ranking systems have typically used the desktop version of a page’s content, which may cause issues for mobile searchers when that version is vastly different from the mobile version. Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for.

We continue to have one single index that we use for serving search results. We do not have a “mobile-first index” that’s separate from our main index. Historically, the desktop version was indexed, but increasingly, we will be using the mobile versions of content.

Source: Official Google Webmaster Central Blog: Rolling out mobile-first indexing

What Facebook knows about you and me and what I can do about it


Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from a huge swath of the electorate to develop techniques that were later used in the Trump campaign.

Source: How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions – The New York Times


I often have consultations with clients involving data sources. Marketing has always been closely tied to the acquisition and analysis of data related to potential target audiences or desired demographics. A large part of what I do every day is staring at spreadsheets and trying to derive direction or wisdom out of data that Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snap or Google has gathered from their (often overlapping) groups of products users for our clients’ campaigns.

I loathe using the term “campaign” to refer to anything marketing related… it’s not a battle and we’re not at war. Even worse is the dehumanization that often occurs in marketing conversations we all have about the data generated by real people on the web. Both are related in that our gathering and use of this data combined with our resulting conclusions and “targeting” (again with the militaristic violent language) makes actual people into abstract data points.

It’s little talked about in our industry, but data ethics are something we really need to take more seriously in all aspects of our marketing efforts, whether you’re working with a Fortune 500 company or a small country church.

I know that I personally feel a twitch of regret mixed with reservation when I click on a radio buttons to specify that I’d like to target women above the age of 40 who have relationship issues but live in this affluent ZIP code and enjoy looking at pictures of wine and spirits on Instagram. It’s terrifying. But, it’s relatively cheap and incredibly effective. Our church and nonprofit clients on shoestring budgets can’t get enough of the reach and response from this kind of data marketing (“like shooting fish in a barrel” is a common saying for a reason).

I did a good deal of work on ethics in Divinity School. I’m taking a course in the coming weeks on Data Science Ethics. Now, I need to do a better job of thinking through these types of marketing efforts and explaining the ethical implications of using this data given that most people have NO IDEA how much is known about them (yes, because of Facebook and social media but also because of the relative ease of connecting someone’s phone number or address or email with their browsing history, activity on location tracking services, voter records etc). I need to do a better job of helping clients think through the humanization and dehumanization involved with marketing and advertising and their own goals (especially for churches and nonprofits). I need to do a better job of providing real alternatives to the types of data usage that resulted in situations like our current political climate. I need to provide shoestring budget options for marketing that emphasizes humanity and relatedness rather than victory.

Otherwise, I’m just hanging out in Omelas.

Is there space for “ethical marketing” in a crowded environment of agencies driving the cost of “targeting” and “campaigning” and “development” to the lowest common denominator in terms of price and friction? I’m not sure. But I’m just crazy enough to start giving it a try.