Trying to steer your congregation? Try a stunt kite!

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

Welcome back Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide, especially about communication. Please, click on a blue-”f” Facebook button to suggest that friends read this column along with you. Want Martin to help you? See the note at the end of this column. Here’s Martin …

Of Kites and Communication

By MARTIN DAVIS

Yes, that's me—trying to master the stunt kite. Yes, as a father, my pride seemed to hang in the balance. And, no, it wasn't easy!

Yes, that’s me—trying to master the stunt kite. Yes, as a father, my pride seemed to hang in the balance. And, no, it wasn’t easy!

Our week at the beach in North Carolina was a family vacation—but I came home with more than a tan and fond memories. I came home with a fresh insight—and it all began with a promise I made like so many fathers:

“Kids, while we’re on the beach, we should fly a kite!”

With the exception of Charlie Brown, there are few people who don’t enjoy kite flying. I learned the activity in the Boy Scouts—we won’t discuss what year; just know it was before the ’80s—where I learned to make and fly these wingless birds. A simple, relaxing activity. Place it on a string, get it airborne, and watch it soar.

To the local kite store we went. The kites of my youth—one string, one tail, and some plastic wrapped around two crossed sticks—were nowhere to be found. Instead, we were greeted with an array of shapes, colors and sizes.

We picked one out, carried it to the beach house, unwrapped it …

… and spent the next hour figuring out how to get it together.

Then it took another 20 minutes to unlock the mystery of connecting two separate lines to the kite—standard on today’s “stunt kites.”

It was a humbling experience. My youngest used to believe I was all-knowing, invincible. Alas, no more! At least, I consoled myself: It happens to all parents sooner or later. After all, my colleague Benjamin Pratt just admitted to the whole world: “I’m only a father!

In those first hours with this new kite—I repeated that line! Putting the kite together was easy, as it turned out, compared with learning to fly it. Initially, the kite spent more time knotted and doing nose dives in the sand dunes than sailing gracefully beside the ocean.

FROM NOSE DIVES TO SOARING WITH THE BIRDS

But by mid-week, our experience was quite different! I began to get the hang of controlling two sets of strings instead of one. Of learning to read wind directions and currents based on the feel of the lines, and compensating by pulling the appropriate string.

Before any of us thought possible, we were not only flying the kite, but we were making it dip and dive, weave side-to-side, and complete 360-degree turns. We learned to read wind currents, and to marvel at how we could watch the birds’ paths and learn from them by mimicking their flight paths with our kite.

How similar kite flying is to how many congregations must feel about communications today.

Before electronic media (email, e-newsletters and the like) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, among many others), congregational communications were like an old-school, one-line kite. Attach your information to the end of a string—the traditional print newsletter—and wait for the wind to take it where it would. Sometimes it would catch an updraft, sometimes not. Either way, there was little you could do to control it. All you could do was build it, let go, hold onto the string for dear life, and hope the kite flew.

Today, the range and variety of electronic communications are more akin to the world of multi-line stunt kites. Each electronic platform has not one, but two strings that allow you not only to send information out, but to read how well that information floats on the currents of your congregation and adjust your message accordingly.

It takes a little time. Generally speaking, we’re good at pushing information out, but we’re must less equipped to read how well that information is playing with our audience and to adjust to that information.

Once you learn it, however, you’ll never go back. After all, better to learn to dodge the kite-eating tree with the new communication tools than to continue crashing into such barriers over, and over, and over again.

Want Martin to help you?

That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. As this column is published, an online class is starting soon—and an in-person conference is scheduled in Virginia. Visit the Sacred Language Communications Events & Registration page to learn more.

You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter. Please, share his columns with friends by clicking on the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

Congregational consultant Martin Davis: Your newsletter may shock you—and these possibilites will excite you

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

617 Church newsletters making these newsletters more effectiveRead the Spirit is proud to introduce columnist Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide. One of his specialties is helping congregations rethink the way they communicate. Please, click on a blue-“f” Facebook button (top or bottom today) to suggest that friends read this column along with you. And, keep in touch with Read the Spirit for more stories like this one by clicking the green “Subscribe” button in the upper-right and signing up for our free weekly newsletter. Here’s Martin …

READER SHOCK:
Successful Newsletters
Are More than
Artful Designs

By MARTIN DAVIS

When Chancellor Baptist Church decided to launch an e-newsletter, the staff’s excitement was palpable. Everyone would want this, they reasoned, so it would go a long way toward ending communication problems in the church. If events and information are in the e-newsletter and in the printed newsletter, no one will miss them. After all, everyone reads the printed newsletter—and surely everyone would read the e-newsletter. Right?

The reality was shocking to all involved. Over the first three weeks, only about 50 of the congregation’s 250 regular attendees signed up for the e-newsletter. And over the first month, no more than 15 percent of readers actually clicked a link in the newsletter.

Such is the reality of online newsletters. Whether you are pondering launching your first e-newsletter, or looking to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success.

According to MailChimp—an e-newsletter service that sends out billions of newsletter emails each month—the average open rate (emails opened in a window), un-open rate (emails never opened), and click rate (emails in which a user clicks at least one link) for e-newsletters within the realm of religious media are as follows: Open rate, 29.6%; un-open rate, 69.0%; click rate, 3.7%.

Shocked now? Think about this: If you have 100 members in your church and everyone signed up for your e-newsletter, you could expect 30 people to open it. (That means that they click to open your newsletter from their email program, or the email appears in their email program’s preview window.) But remember that final statistic, the click rate. About 30 people may “open” and see your newsletter—but that does not mean 30 people will spend time reading it—and only a few will follow those links that you so thoughtfully placed in your e-newsletter.

Keep in mind that these are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate. I estimate about 10%. And, if effectively trained newsletter editors are at the helm, those numbers can push higher—upwards of 30%-35%.

As you start, consider the shock value of the real-world numbers I have shared here. This is the time for you to contact friends in your congregation who care about the way you communicate. Talk about how surprisingly little impact you may be having through your long-trusted newsletters.

In a minute I will share some good news about how to begin breaking through this wall of missed communication. But, first, I’ll start the process of honestly talking about this problem.

Church Newsletters:
How We Tackled the Challenge

Chancellor Baptist Church is my home congregation in Virgina and we were excited about launching an e-newsletter. Then, we were surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletter readership. But the next insight was an even greater surprise. Many of us had assumed that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter.

The truth is: In congregations nationwide, the majority of men and women are not reading print newsletters—and they probably never have. A simple test of your own reading habits suggests why. If you receive snail-mail newsletters and magazines, how often do you read them cover-to-cover? At all?

Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on how Americans use a typical five hours of leisure time per day. Mainly, Americans watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes) and socialize online (37 minutes)—far more time than they spend reading (17 minutes). Now think about all the materials that cross a person’s field of vision in the course of a day: Emails, regular mail, magazines, best-selling mysteries, reports from work—the reading list goes on and on long before someone decides to curl up with a church newsletter.

E-newsletter statistics bring that already existing situation into sharp relief. If only 10% of your members actually engage your e-newsletter by clicking something, it’s safe to assume that probably the same percentage are engaging your printed materials.

Why Your Congregation
Should Develop
E-newsletters

The reality of your readership may be shocking, but e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can—hard data about the people in your congregation and what they look at.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, once the initial shock wore off, people began looking closely at what people were paying attention to within our new e-newsletter—and what they were ignoring. Whatever e-newsletter service you choose, you will find that your newsletter staff can receive easy-to-read reports on what people actually are reading in each issue. We discovered right away that many of our long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored.

On the other hand, write ups about members soared. Think about that for a moment and it makes a lot of sense. If you have a precious few minutes to scan your congregation’s e-newsletter, your eye is likely focused on finding something about your family and friends. A short profile about an active member is likely to catch a lot of eyes.

So, our church began to adjust the balance of newsletter items. Over time, our new mix of stories provided an even more valuable lesson: Member profiles get lots of views the first time they run—and people come back to them again and again! To facilitate this, there’s now a convenient way to access an index of all profiles in every e-newsletter issue.

What else did people enjoy? Videos of baptisms also did very well, as did discussions of new educational materials the church is considering. In short, by paying attention to what people actually accessed in the e-newsletters, the staff learned what members want to read. This began to increase the value of the newsletters, rather than leaving this potentially important communications tool mired in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years.

More important, because of the newsletter, the staff is gaining a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives—the first goal of any growing congregation.

Getting Past the Newsletter Jolt

It’s up to you: You can use this data and follow the examples of many congregations that are honestly facing up to the failures of most older newsletters. This week, gather friends and staff in your congregation. Share this column with them. When you meet, ask the tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter when you receive no feedback about how it’s being used? Could the expense and effort of producing print pieces be put to better use? Is it worth buying Yellow Page ads when studies show people turn to the internet first when looking for a church?

Begin to rethink your existing budget for advertising, printing and mailing—and you may discover you can free up money for new projects. Rethink the hours that staff and volunteers spend on existing media—and think about the new excitement they will feel when you can demonstrate that their “item” or photo or home video was popular in the new e-newsletter.

Finally, think about the excitement your community will feel, when a short story about one of your members winds up shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks—and winds up drawing a friend or relative to walk through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

Don’t let the initial shock deter you from opening a more powerful window into your community.

Want more on growing your congregation
through better communication?

In 2013, Read the Spirit is responding to readers nationwide who love their congregations and are asking us to include more practical columns about growing healthy communities through media. One way we help is through our Bookstore, which offers dozens of books that are great for re-igniting your small group or congregation.

This summer, we also are adding occasional columns by author and media marketing expert Lynne Meredith Golodner. Her first column explains why we need to rediscover the lost art of storytelling as a way to honestly and effectively connect people—and build diverse communities.

4 ‘Secrets’ to a Successful Website for Your Congregation

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

Young people at a computer event Photo by Franck Schneider via Wikimedia CommonsMARTIN DAVIS is expert at helping congregations grow through connecting with the world in new ways. Some call it evangelism; some call it media consulting—but the simple truth is: The vast majority of communities need this help. Earlier, Davis wrote about rethinking your newsletter. Today, he’s got valuable advice about your website.

4 ‘Secrets’
to a Successful
Website

By Martin Davis

These four tips aren’t a mystery—but, looking at a host of ineffective congregational websites, they seem to be secrets in many communities.

I’m less concerned about aesthetics—the overall “look” of your website—because those concerns can vary widely depending on your religious tradition and culture. I live near Washington D.C. and debating visual design on religious websites begins to sound a lot like debating Washington Nationals vs. Baltimore Orioles in this part of the country. What we all can agree on is this: If we choose to visit a ball park, we all want a comfortable seat, unobstructed view, convenient restroom, clear scoreboard and tasty food.

I hear from church leaders across the nation, asking about communication strategies, and I know how much anxiety and guilt flows through congregations when the discussion turns to “our website.” So, I always begin with this advice:

As with anything requiring skill and knowledge, beginning small improves your chances for success. Lay a solid foundation, then build as you become more skillful. Focus on the basics, and grow from there.

HELPING INSIDE?
OR LOOKING OUTSIDE?

The most basic website question: Should we build a site focused on those inside our community already, or those on the outside?

In general, my advice is: Whether you are just launching a site or looking to invigorate your existing site—there is good reason to place your emphasis on those outside your congregation. Think of it as your front door, now. Increasingly, the web is where people look to find congregations—and just about everything else. Various web consultants and nonprofit groups have been tracking this trend. Surveys vary, but the data clearly show that at least half of people looking for a congregation say that the Internet is important in their decision. That’s sure to grow with the widespread use of location-specific Apps on handheld devices.

The 4 ‘Secrets’ to a Successful Website

When I meet with congregational leaders, everyone has an opinion about what must be on the website’s home page. “For our people, we have to put this on the front page!” Perhaps you’ve heard that from your own pastor, lay leader or webmaster. As I said, I don’t engage in debates that essentially are: Nationals vs. Orioles. The list of home page essentials may vary by region, religious tradition and culture.

But, like my list of ballpark essentials—here are my 4 non-negotiables for congregational home pages:

Give Us a Name! It’s amazing how many congregations don’t put the name of the pastor—or religious leader—on the home page. A lot of churches like to say: “Where everyone is a minister.” Really!?! Once you become an insider, it may feel like that—but newcomers want to know about the clergy setting the tone. A name, a photo and a profile will tell people a lot about you as a congregation. Omit that information, and what are you saying? To an outsider, you’re telling them your staff is inaccessible. Folks quickly pass on to the next site.

What Times Are Your Services? If you want folks to show, they need to know when. No one wants to guess about times—and fewer are willing to go three pages deep in your website to find them. You would be amazed at the number of congregations that don’t post this vital information on the home page—or, forget to update the times for special seasons.

Say Cheese! Pictures really make a difference, and I’m not talking about slick stock photos. In fact, a number of congregations nationwide have been shocked to learn that a well-meaning webmaster forgot to properly purchase or license a stock photo. Oops! You may find that error only when an attorney’s letter arrives, asking for steep royalties. In fact, you don’t need stock photos! Don’t be afraid to show who you really are. Regularly updating photos—and making them easily available right off your home page—is inviting to newcomers. And, your insiders can feel free to spread the word by sharing their favorite photos on Facebook (or other social media). These days, photos are evangelism.

Draw Me a Map! Give your address on the home page—and use the Google map tool to show people where you are. Why? Because proximity consistently emerges as the most important determining factor in people’s attendance.

That’s it. Simple, straight to the point—and effective.

Will you win Webby Awards for your site with these 4 ‘Secrets’? No. But you will have a solid ground from which to grow.

Learn more from Martin Davis …

Sacred_Language_CommunicationsFor more than 20 years, Martin Davis has helped congregations grow through improved communication. He is the founder of Sacred Language Communications, which helps congregational leaders make better use of communication. Davis is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and has written for publications ranging from National Journal to The Washington Post. He also led the Congregational Resource Guide at the Alban Institute through a re-design that made it one of the nation’s leading destinations for church resources and information. In 2013, he began writing occasional columns for Read The Spirit—and is working on a guidebook for congregations.

Visit his new Sacred Language Communications by clicking here (or on the logo above) and look for:

  • More columns about the communication challenges encountered by congregations nationwide. Davis’s columns range from reviews of popular software tools to practical advice from his years of consulting.
  • Online classes, including a Webinar starting August 8 on improving your congregation’s e-newsletter.
  • Options for consultation on topics ranging from website development to writing techniques.

Please, spread the word:

Share this column with friends: Click on a blue-“f” Facebook icon, “Like” this column and get a discussion going in your congregation. Feel free to print this column to discuss in your small group—or click the small envelope-shaped icon and email this to friends.