When it came to beefing up attendance, churches used to rely on outreach and advertising. This meant they needed a steady stream of creative ideas to build awareness of their culture and message in the community.
If they were forward thinking, they’d create repeatable programs and ministries that, over time, would build their visibility and reputation. This could include things like regular VBS programs, youth events, and creative adult ministries.
When churches considered advertising opportunities, they’d look for things that would get them in front of the most eyes but were still budget-friendly. They would advertise anywhere, from phone books to direct-mail flyers, to radio spots.
Even though outreach and advertising are still viable ways to create awareness, they come with one huge weakness: an expiration date. Every ad only lasts so long. With most outreaches and advertising opportunities, the impact is immediate and short lived. If you have a lot of great ideas and a bottomless budget, that’s not a problem. But a couple of expensive, time-consuming duds in a row can do a number on morale, productivity, and your church’s piggy bank.
It’s time to start looking toward inbound marketing as an integral part of your growth strategy. Because ultimately, it’s best if you can throw yourself into a marketing engine that’s going to get stronger and more efficient as you pour your energies into it.
What Is Inbound Marketing?
The term “inbound marketing” was initially coined by Brian Halligan, CEO of the marketing-software company Hubspot. Ultimately, it’s about attracting people to your organization or business, rather than constantly attempting to persuade them that it’s in their best interest to pay attention to you. This is done by appealing to them with relevant, helpful content instead of constantly interrupting them with a barrage of ads and requests.
When you focus on creating online content that meets the needs of your target demographic, you’re creating a machine that is always at work drawing people to you.
For businesses, this means increasing the focus on creating interest and building long-term relationship and loyalty with potential customers. This is much different than the outbound marketing model that we’re so used to, where companies are constantly pushing products and services on you and constantly trying to convince you that you need them.
Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing
Traditional outbound marketing includes all the ads that we’ve all gotten used to seeing, stuff like postcards, billboards, magazines, newspapers, telemarketing, event sponsorships, and press releases. But these outbound marketing methods also exist in the online world. You see them in banner ads, pay-per-click advertising, email blasts, and more.
Outbound marketing is basically a guy with a sign that you see in your peripheral vision all day long as he jumps up and down screaming and waving his arms trying to get your attention.
The problem is that our culture has reached a level of exhaustion with this kind of marketing. According to the book Sign Wars by Robert L. Goldman and Stephen Papson, the average person in 1996 was inundated with 3,600 marketing messages a day. This was up from 1,500 in 1984. But between commercials, print ads, branding, and all the things that companies can do to capture our attention, we’re exposed to upwards of 10,000 brand impressions in a single day.
To stand out in an environment like this, companies often rely on untrustworthy promises and truth claims that play fast and loose with facts. And unfortunately, it’s the loudest and most obnoxious voices that seem to get most of the attention.
In response to the ubiquitousness of outbound marketing, people are constantly looking for new methods to block out the noise. Tools like caller ID, Tivo, and ad filters have become important ways for people to cut out all of these intrusive ad impressions.
Inbound marketing has disrupted the status quo by creating a relationship with consumers. It offers them genuinely helpful content that engages them in a two-way conversation. Businesses speak to their audience in the way people want to be talked to, and brand loyalty is created by delighting consumers instead of simply harassing them.
Outbound marketing attempts to get in front of as many people as possible with an invasive and urgent message bent on soliciting an immediate response or sale—in the hopes of converting a few of them. Adversely, inbound marketing focuses on creating an intense appeal with a larger percentage of a smaller, but incredibly dialed-in audience.
Inbound marketing is about being easily found by the people who are looking for what you have to offer.
What Does This Look Like for the Church?
This Hubspot image explains the inbound marketing methodology for businesses:
- Strangers are attracted to a business as they discover useful content. This content is found as they’re doing Google searches to answer questions or stumble across it through social media.
- These visitors are converted into leads as companies capture their information with this content, enabling those companies to invest further in a relationship. It’s not enough to create awesome blog posts; a business needs to secure potential customers’ email addresses or other appropriate information. This isn’t so that they can spam them: it’s so they can establish a consistent relationship around helpful content.
- Leads become customers as companies successfully close the relational loop with empathetic and thoughtful marketing. Once an organization has a lead’s information, they can nurture that relationship further down the funnel toward becoming a customer.
- The greatest part about inbound marketing is that customers become a business’s greatest promoters as the offerings continue to exceed their expectations and delight them. This is where inbound marketing trumps most outbound advertising: closing the deal isn’t the end of the relationship. It’s just the beginning. Businesses get to work on turning customers into advocates.
At Pushpay we’ve taken these principles, applied them to the church, and created a Community Member Journey that describes how this process works in a church environment.
- Strangers start out in the Awareness stage, where they know nothing about your church and care little about your mission in the community. Your first task is to build trust among those in this group by getting to know your community and developing effective personas that faithfully describe them. Those strangers in this stage often connect with your church first through your website and social media. Your content at this stage needs to apply to people regardless of where they are in their spiritual journey. It should relate to perceived needs that everyone shares, such as to find meaning, to be loved, to build and develop relationships, etc. Through strategic offers (like ebooks, music downloads, etc.), you’ll begin to gather some of the contact information from these strangers so you can begin an email conversation with them.
- As people build trust in your church and begin to see it as a potentially valuable part of their life journey, they begin to consider taking a step toward Attendance. For many this will start by viewing a livestream of your worship service. Eventually, you’ll lead them toward visiting your church in person for the first time.
- As new people attend your church, you’ll want to encourage them to download your mobile app so they can move toward more complete Participation in the life of your church. Using a text-to-download feature you’ll provide a simple keyword that new participants can text into a predetermined number to get a link to download your app. Your mobile app then will become the primary way you’ll communicate with people within the Participation stage and the remaining stages of the Community Member Journey. You can also use mobile notifications to encourage people in this stage to join a small group and begin a discipleship process through your church.
- Once participants become regular and active in the life of your church, you’ll use your mobile app to drive them toward further engagement. In the Service stage of the Community Member Journey, you’ll provide opportunities on your app (and your website) for people to explore new ministries and give to the ministry efforts of the church. Again, your mobile app will be a key part of this process. For more about how your mobile app can be particularly important in the giving process, check out the free ebook The Definitive Guide to Mobile Giving.
- You’ll then want to turn those who are active in serving and giving in your church into full-fledged advocates for your church. By providing those in this stage opportunities to share content from your site and mobile app to those in their circles of influence, you’ll mobilize the most effective Advocacy possible for your church. Your church’s social media strategy will become a critical part of this process as you provide content that your advocates can share with others.
- Finally, you’ll want to provide opportunities for your church’s lay Leadership to lead and teach through leadership training, Bible reading plans, and sermon notes on your mobile app.
Should Churches Even Be Talking about Marketing?
Before we go any further, we should probably address the elephant in the room. You can’t really talk about churches and marketing without someone feeling frustrated. The question that inevitably comes up is whether marketing has any place in the church.
I find that when people think of marketing, they’re generally thinking about outbound marketing and all of the negative, mercenary-like behaviors that come with it. The progression associated with inbound marketing is actually a more holistic approach for informing people about who you are and inviting them to become part of your church community.
The only thing that makes it marketing is that you’re creating an intentional, repeatable system for attracting people. What we’re talking about here is simply a different form of outreach where you compel people to come to you instead of constantly chasing them down.
But in case you’re not yet convinced, here are nine reasons your church should be doing inbound marketing.
1. Inbound marketing offers perpetual results
While it’s true that you will have some maintenance and fine-tuning, inbound marketing doesn’t require you to constantly reinvent the wheel. It’s different than being constantly propelled to come up with new ideas in order to attract more people. Once you get your plan in place, you can almost set it and forget it.
This isn’t about creating a one-time plea, ad, or outreach. You’re creating an evergreen machine that will continue to give you results.
2. Inbound marketing helps you understand your demographic
While the church is for everyone, there is usually a particular audience that you’re primed to talk to, and identifying them is an important part of creating a powerful inbound marketing strategy. Maybe you’re set up to best speak to parents, teens, singles, or young professionals. Whatever this demographic is, simply pinpointing them can be an incredible benefit for your church in making ministry and messaging decisions.
As you fine-tune your inbound marketing, you’ll only get to know this audience better. This clarity will positively impact every facet of your church.
3. Inbound marketing allows you to woo people
We live in an increasingly unchurched culture. The Barna Group tells us that one in every seven unchurched adults had never experienced a church service in the 90s. By 2014, that number had climbed to one in four. They go on to say that 20 years ago, 65 percent of Americans were open to a friend inviting them to church. Today, fewer than 47 percent of adults are open to a church invite.
The church has its work cut out if it wants to make an impact on our culture—and inbound marketing is perfect for this kind of climate. It’s not about the hard sell or chasing people down and twisting their arm to get them to attend a service. It’s about communicating things that are meaningful to them in a way that surprises, delights, and engages them.
4. Inbound marketing expands your perspective
Churches tend to have a fairly myopic view of their ministry. They tend to see people as attendees and non-attendees. It’s hard to fashion powerful invitations when people fall into one or two categories.
As we discussed earlier, inbound marketing helps you engage people throughout the following Community Member Journey stages:
This helps to define how you communicate to people who are in a variety of different places on the Community Member Journey.
5. Inbound marketing encourages you to be relevant
Relevance is another one of those words that people hate to see associated with church. There’s an idea that being relevant to your culture is some form of compromise with the gospel. But the truth is that there are a lot of churches that don’t realize that they’re not answering the questions people are really asking.
Creating an inbound marketing strategy will keep you on your toes and help you discern what people’s true concerns are.
6. Inbound marketing grows your ministry
As you create helpful content that draws people to your ministry, you are growing your audience—and ultimately your ministry. Even if these people never step foot in your sanctuary, it doesn’t mean that the content you’re creating doesn’t have a legitimate impact on their life.
As your ministry expands through your social media presence, your blog, your podcast, or the subscribers on your email list, you’re touching lives beyond your four walls.
7. Inbound marketing makes it easier to build partnerships
Creating an online platform for inbound marketing can have a greater impact in your community. Even if local people are exposed to your message, but don’t end up going to your church, they can become huge advocates for you. If they find someone that they feel will resonate with your culture and content, they’re more than happy to suggest your church. This is a huge benefit of building a content marketing platform, it helps you establish trust in your community.
This trust can help you build relationships with business owners and important leaders in your community. I can’t speak strongly enough about the significance of people in your community becoming advocates of your ministry just because they’re more aware of your presence and priorities.
8. Inbound marketing helps you build relationships with ministry leaders
Your inbound marketing platform can help break down walls with other churches in your community. As people are exposed to your content and see where your interests intersect, they’ll often reach out to you in order to accomplish more. This is also true of any organization or denomination you may belong to. Oftentimes, churches aren’t working together because we’re all operating in silos with no awareness of what anyone else is doing or how our mission aligns. Inbound marketing gives the issues you’re passionate about more visibility.
As your reach grows, you’ll find that you’re creating relationships with and learning from influential leaders from all over. These relationships will strengthen your messaging—and your reach.
9. Inbound marketing gives you a worldwide influence
We’ve already looked at ways that inbound marketing will allow you to minister beyond your church walls, but it’s important to touch on the fact that the impact isn’t just local or national—it’s worldwide. People all over the globe will be able to find your messages, videos, podcasts, or blogs.
It’s powerful enough to be an encouragement to Christians all over the world, and you get to influence other pastors and ministry leaders, too. Your church and ministry can have an impact on the other side of the world, and that can create all kinds of opportunities for life-changing relationships all over the globe.
Creating a New Normal
If you’re not familiar with inbound marketing, it might be difficult to wrap your head around it. It’s easy to rely on the strategies that you’re comfortable with, but there are many good reasons to seriously consider inbound marketing.
Quite honestly, inbound marketing is going to be an integral part of outreach for many (if not most) churches in the future. It’s important to realize that the longer you wait, the more churches you will be competing with when you do decide to jump in.
If you’re interested in learning more, but you don’t know where to start, take a look at 10 Content Marketing Ideas for Churches. It’ll give you some tips and suggestions for using the content you’re already creating to build an inbound marketing platform.