Do you want to be more effective as a church? Few things will give you a better return on your investment than improving communications. Communications isn’t about spending a lot of money. Rather it’s about having the right structure to get the results you want.
To effectively connect, you need to serve the two needs of your congregation, broadcast communication and interactive communication.
Broadcast communication is the basic information any organization needs to function. It answers the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of what you do. For instance, “what are your service times?” “How do I get to your location?” “Do you offer children’s ministry during all of your services?” “What date is the church picnic?” “How do I sign up for the new member class?” Broadcast communication is the “nuts and bolts” information people need to participate.
By its nature, broadcast communication is one-way. We say it and the audience listens. We broadcast information to people through mediums such as the church bulletin, website, email newsletter, pre-service screens, lobby brochures, mailings, class catalog, and text blasts.
Making effective use of broadcast communication is straightforward. Simply make sure that every one of your broadcast mediums is up-to-date and answers the “who, what, when, where, why and how” for each of your events and ministry areas.
It used to be that nearly all church communication was broadcast. Very few mediums allowed your congregation to respond to you. That has changed with new media.
Interactive communication takes place in social media … on any social network where your church has a presence. The key things to know about social mediums are that participants expect to have a voice and expect you to respond immediately.
The Most Engaging Use of Social Media
It is possible to have a church Facebook page or blog where you simply make announcements (one-way communication). But that hardly takes advantage of the medium’s power. A good church social media page will be monitored continuously for comments and questions from the congregation. A response should come from the church within fifteen minutes. This fosters online relationships with people. It says you are serious about developing community.
In social media, people expect to respond to what the church says and to have the church make changes based on what they say. For instance, someone may comment that the church picnic falls on the same day as the big local street fair. The church could acknowledge the scheduling oversight and move the date forward two weeks. This is a social media feedback loop, and it is particularly important to young adults. You put out information, people respond and you reply, taking their input into account. This is how many young adults run their personal lives. They expect organizations to behave accordingly. Social media feedback loops both allow for the church to make better decisions and for people to know that their voices are heard.
There are a few things to consider about social media. If you can’t take the time to do social media well, you may not want to use it at all. No social media is better than bad social media. Also, social media can expose a church to additional liability. Any event posted in social media under the church’s name could cause exposure. For instance, our church had a member who personally organized a roofing project to help someone in the community. He solicited volunteers on a Facebook fan page that uses the church’s name in its title. We had nothing to do with this Facebook page or the request. Still, had someone been injured on the roofing project, it is possible they could have sued the church for promoting the event (even though, in fact, the project had nothing to do with the church).
Our Electronic Communications Toolbox
Today we are blessed to have a great many electronic tools we may use to communicate. There has never been a time in history when so many affordable communications options have been available. Here are several to consider:
Social media: Social networks are free and allow you to reach people where they are already interacting with their friends and family.
Texting: Text blasting services allow you to communicate instantly with your entire congregation. People pay more attention to texts than they do email or even phone calls.
HTML email: Interest in email is declining, but it remains the standard for general purpose broadcast communication. HTML newsletters provide a good looking, well-branded medium through which you can share church stories or programming information. Services like Constant Contact make sending HTML newsletters easy.
Robocalls: Politicians and sleazy marketers have tarnished this medium. However, school districts use automated calls well to announce snow closings and other major news. A church member who opts-in to your church robocalls will welcome the information.
Websites: Websites are the number one way people find your church. People read your general information, watch a sermon and check for service times and a map prior to visiting your church. Using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques can help people find your church in search engines.
Online advertising: Online advertising is the natural tool to help people find your website (and thus find your church). It has a reasonable price tag and speaks to only those people looking for a church. Our church has shifted all of its print advertising dollars (phone books, newspapers) to Google AdWords.
Podcasts: Audio podcasts can be produced with simply a microphone and a computer. They can be posted on your church website and listed on iTunes for free. They are an excellent way to train people or to discuss a topic in depth. Sermons can also be recorded and shared as podcasts.
YouTube videos: You can produce sermons, training videos, event highlights and special messages to share on YouTube.
Blog: A blog is best written by the senior pastor. It explores current “behind the scenes” issues affecting the church. Encouraging comments and interacting with readers is important.
Streaming services: The audio (and video if you have it) from your church services can be streamed live at a relatively low cost. This is a great way to reach vacationing members, mission partners and people who are thinking about visiting your church.
Mobile apps: The future of computing is mobile. For relatively little money, churches can have their own applications that stream media, provide program information and encourage social media interaction with members.
Texts and Twitter on the big screens: There are several services that allow you to display Twitter hash tags or texts on the big screens in your auditorium. Audience members with smartphones can interact with the presentation in real time.
Interactive church management software: Church management software is becoming cloud-based. Many providers (such as Church Community Builder and The City) offer online communities so members can interact with your church and with each other.
Communications on any Budget
We are fortunate to live in a time when quality church communications really can happen with any size budget. The key is to take on only those mediums you have the resources to do well (and forgo the others). Remember, it’s not having a tool that makes it great, it is how well we use the tool. Select your electronic tools sparingly, in a way that best supports your church mission. Use this hierarchy of communication priorities to help you decide where to put your resources:
- Up-to-date website
- Reliable and up-to-date weekly bulletin
- Quarterly class catalog/listing of church events
- Church social media account, monitored with responses provided continuously
- Text blasts
- Regular email newsletter
- Sermon audio/video on website (podcasts)
- Live streaming of services
- Online church database
- Mobile church app
- Church blog
- Online pastor position
On a limited budget you may only do the first three things. You do them with a simple, clean design and you keep them updated. Because you do them well, your congregation knows where to turn for up-to-date information and will seek out only those places. Your communications strategy isn’t muddied with other half-baked efforts that are beyond your capabilities to do well.
Harness the Power of Consistency with a Church Style Guide
As your communications strategy becomes more advanced. you will have presence on more mediums. It is relatively easy to have a consistency of look and message in one medium. However, once you are working in several mediums, consistency becomes difficult. Consistency is important to your congregation. Look no further than Starbucks. We can go into any Starbucks location in any city and have a similar experience. We know that each Starbucks store is part of the whole. In the same way, fans of your church need to know each ministry, event and communications piece is clearly part of the whole church.
This is where a style guide comes in. Your team should agree in advance how the church logo and slogan will be used. It should decide on use of colors, backgrounds and typefaces. The team should set a standard look for each medium that is consistent with the look of all other mediums. Some examples: The bulletin should be consistent with the website. The sermon graphics should have a similar look/feel to the building signage.
Create a binder with examples of how everything should look. Make sure everyone in the communications process has a copy. Everyone on staff needs to understand the importance of having a consistent organizational format. Some creative people simply don’t see the value and will want to ignore the guidelines. Let them know that we are trading some creative freedom in order to benefit from the power of consistency. Police all of your communications to ensure there is consistency across the board. This is the hallmark of a great communications strategy.
Investing in Communications
One of the great misconceptions about communications today is that it doesn’t cost much. Sure a Facebook page is free. Video equipment doesn’t cost what it once did. Anyone can make a website and get it hosted for $10 a month.
Just because you can get low cost access to a medium doesn’t mean you will get the results you want. Good church communication takes planning, coordination, up-to-date skills and consistent hard work. This means hiring a trained and gifted person to oversee these efforts. At the very least it means having a committed and empowered volunteer. While individual ministry leaders can contribute information, a communications director is necessary. Without a communications person, everyone is responsible for communications (which means nobody is).
Church communications should be viewed as the primary way we reach our local mission fields. In our culture, unsaved people live on the internet, social media and mobile phones. Quality outreach in these mediums is needed if we are serious about reaching people.
Because churches have so many ministries and programs, having a communications team can help ensure the right things get communicated (and that things don’t fall through the cracks).
A communications team meeting should involve all the leaders who make use of the church communications system. For example, the team may include the senior pastor/worship pastor (information on weekend services), events planner/scheduler (information on church events), executive pastor (perspective on ministry events/prioritize competing interests), media director (synergies with media department), webmaster, and, of course, the communications director.
Each meeting should identify the top priorities to broadcast to the congregation. Which mediums will be used to promote which events? There should also be a discussion of interactive communication opportunities (surveys, questions to ask via social media, tie-ins with sermons, giveaways, contests, etc.) Creativity is important. Time should be spent exploring new and different ways to communicate. How can we communicate about upcoming events in a way that we haven’t before? Finally, the communications meeting is a natural forum for reviewing and approving graphics and major communications campaigns.
Working with Pastors and Staff
Ministry leaders can have big ideas when it comes to communicating about their ministry. Sometimes their expectations are unrealistic. The communications team should first educate the entire staff on communications basics and the church’s communication strategies/systems/priorities. This will help bring understanding in an area where there is sometimes little.
Secondly, the communications team needs to create deadlines and stick to them. Sometimes ministry leaders don’t understand this because of their lack of media experience or because of how their personalities are wired. Quality communications demand time for planning and production. Ministry leaders cannot be allowed to make major requests with inadequate notice.
Working with Volunteers
It’s not unusual to find people in your congregation with a communications background. They may even volunteer their talents to help the church. While I appreciate their hearts to serve, it’s important that they understand the nature of the work they are getting into.
In many respects, church media is blue-collar work. Scheduling announcements and ensuring an event is publicized across several platforms is not the creative or high profile work some would-be volunteers imagine.
Because communications require meaningful training on church equipment and procedures, a volunteer should be willing to commit for a minimum period of time—say one year. This way you aren’t spending more time training than you would spend doing the work yourself. Communications volunteers should receive commitment and support more along the lines of unpaid staff than that of causal volunteers.
In this spirit, the work of a communications volunteer should be on par with that of your paid staff. Whatever photography or production standards you set for the church, they should be met by both paid and unpaid team members.
In-Sourcing and Outsourcing Communications
There are plenty of vendors that will offer to outsource your church communications. Some aspects can reasonably be outsourced; others really shouldn’t be.
Website templates and hosting: If you are willing to live within the confines of a website template and content management system, there are many good outsourcing options. There is no need to design a website in-house or host it on the church’s servers.
Graphic design: Depending on your needs, using a freelance graphic designer may be a cost effective option. If you have standardized graphic needs (specified in your style guide) you simply need to order a graphic designed and made to fit certain standardized parameters.
Printing: It’s wise to work with long enough lead times to enable use of web printers (like VistaPrint.com). They can save a lot of money and eliminate the tedium of in-house production.
Communications director: The person in this position needs up-to-the-minute information about what is happening at the church. They need to quickly be able to draw on all mediums and resources to support changing program needs. As such, it is very difficult to outsource such a position.
Social media director: Like the communications director, this person needs to be intimately connected to all happenings and the church. They should be capable of being the “voice” of the church on interactive media. As such, this should be an in-house position.
Church communications can be demanding. But remember that there is no better return on investment when it comes to reaching people and growing our churches. If you think good communications are expensive, imagine what poor communications cost.