Last time, I asked for one-word your feedback on this question:
How do you feel when you’re interested in a topic but fail to understand what an expert says about it?
The example I gave referenced going to a conference focused on a topic you’re passionate about…but leaving confused because you couldn’t track with the conference speaker. The same could be said about an author who confuses you or a professor who talked over your head.
Based on your feedback (thanks for that by the way), you said this leaves you feeling:
Here’s the question: What if, without realizing it, we are making our audience feel the same way after visiting our church website (or perusing our marketing material)? None of us set out to do this. Yet many of our websites and marketing material do—they address topics important “to us” using language “particular to us”. And when we do, our audience can feel:
- provoked (“They think they got it all figured out.”)
- anxious (“Why doesn’t this make sense to me?”)
- gipped (“They’re not even talking about real life.”)
- doubtful (“I won’t be able to find any answers to my problems there.”)
- suspicious (“Yip, I figured they were like this.”)
The Trap Causing Message Delivery Failure
Here’s a common trap: our websites, marketing, and communication do NOT empathize with our actual audience. Instead, we ask our audience to empathize with us. In other words, we ask our audience to start with us. This is understandable, though. As church planters, the demands are high, the stakes feel even higher, and the resources to meet them seem scarce. When you set out to create your website or a piece of marketing material, it’s usually under the thumb of ‘I needed this done yesterday!’. And so we begin with “me.”
- I need to get this done.
- I need to get this off my to-do list.
- I need to get us from here to there.
- I need to get this info out there.
Now, I’m NOT suggesting any of this is wrong. In fact, let’s assume Jesus is calling you to get the website up, or the welcome packet created, or the invite card designed. With that settled, we now turn to how to go about it. To avoid the message delivery trap we must stop empathizing with ourselves and instead empathize with our audience.
Here’s a simple question you can ask to jolt you into this mindset. Did my unbelieving friend or neighbor wake up concerned about “X” today? Did they wake up concerned about knocking out the church website or welcome packet or other marketing task consuming me today? No, they didn’t. So the question now becomes, “how can I develop the message and design of our website to serve my neighbor, not check something off my to-do list?”
Ready to see how this played out in 2 real examples?
Church Website (External Marketing)
A while back, I was working with a church on their website as part of my work with Robby Fowler Design. When it came time to work through the messaging of the website, they submitted a first draft. As is common, it included a significant amount of information important to church staff. As a long-time pastor of 20 years, I could easily spot what staff person wrote each section and what was important to him/her at the moment. Written ‘between the lines’ were the questions and answers important to the staff person and his/her role. What was missing were the questions and answers a real person from their community would wrestle with.
For example, no one in their community woke up with the pressing question, “I wonder what the full story is behind church ABC…how they got their start…where past leaders were educated…if they underwent a name change…etc.?” And yet I received several paragraphs of text detailing the church’s history. Would a potential website visitor want some info on the church’s background? Sure. But here’s the crux of the matter: Your audience is far more concerned with how you might be able to help them with their OWN history (failures, shortcomings, and tragedies) than they are about the history of your church. In other words, if you talk at length about your history but never address your audiences’, they’re likely to feel provoked or gipped or anxious or doubtful or suspicious.
Training & Event Promo (Internal Marketing)
Another church I work with needed to internally market an important training initiative to their folks. Here’s the quick backstory before they contacted me—it’ll be oh-so-familiar to you.
Elders and staff evaluated the past year of ministry (2016) and looked ahead to plan for 2017. As a result, Jesus led them to focus on a particular area of growth in 2017. So elders task staff with coming up with a game plan. Staff creates the game plan. Finally, the plan gets delegated to a particular staff person to execute. Staff person reaches out to me to help promote the critical church-wide training event.
As I discussed the promotional needs with the staff person, it went something like this. “We’ve discovered our church family needs to grow in X this year. So we’re going to launch some spiritual formation and personality assessment tools for our people to grow in these spiritual disciplines.” Naturally, he wanted to begin the ‘conversation’ of the promotional material by talking about spiritual formation and an assessment tool. The problem is, few if any of the church members woke up that morning thinking, “man, I’ve got a serious spiritual formation deficit I need to address TODAY!” So for our promotion to deliver and stick to our audience, we had to first ask what do they care about as it relates to spiritual formation and their wiring. After empathizing with our audience, we began the message off by asking, “Ever wondered how your past shapes your personality and your trust or mistrust of God?” Seems simple, I know. But too often our marketing and messaging fails to deliver because we begin and end with us, not them. In this case, it’s “I need to put together a training event and get our people there so they can get trained…and I can get done what I was tasked to get done.”
How To Avoid The Failure Trap
Here’s a simple way to avoid this trap. The next time you need to tackle an external or internal marketing task, create two columns on piece of paper. On the left side, put the heading “Important to Me”. On the right side, put the heading “Important to Them”. Then, starting on the left side, list why this thing you are marketing is important to you. These will come easy. Now take a deep breath, pray for empathy and understanding, and then list some things important to your audience and how they relate. Then when you develop your marketing or promotion, start with them…not you…and move them along.
I hate to think about how many times I’ve approached marketing or promoting from my selfish perspective. I think things like, ‘This is important…don’t you get it…don’t you care…this is a big deal.’ I want my audience to empathize with me. I expect them to know and care more about my to-do list than I do about theirs. And I get peeved when they don’t respond inline with my perceived ‘weight’ I’ve attached to the good thing I’m marketing.
Jesus laid aside starting with himself so he could start with me: my sin, my selfishness, my needs. He didn’t leave me there. He not only provided for the needs I perceived, he provided for the needs I wasn’t even aware of. He empathized. He understood. He came for me, just as I am.
Just as I am – poor, wretched, blind; Sight, riches, healing of the mind, Yea, all I need, in Thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come!
P.S. I’m currently working through some similar, more extensive thoughts about church marketing, messaging and branding in relation to the incarnation. It might turn into a book to help planters and pastors think biblically, missionally and practically about how to market their church. I’ll keep you posted. As always, I’d love your feedback on this or any other topics I might help you with. You’re called to plant. I’m called to help.