The Social Flywheel

“What’s your social strategy?” 

I get asked this question all the time, either by other church marketing people, staff members at my organization, or marketing-minded folks in our congregation. You probably get that question a lot, too, and have a solid answer ready at your fingertips:

“We want to engage people where they are.”

“To create meaningful conversations online.”

“To build digital community.”

Sometimes the answer is more pragmatic, more functional: to reach more people with our great teaching content, etc. Or maybe your strategy is really a social calendar.

All good and worthy goals, except for one thing: your church probably has a building. And if it’s like a lot of other churches out there, that building isn’t quite as full on Sunday mornings as it used to be. Attendance is flat, or in decline.

So you respond by committing to get more active on social media, to reaching people where they are. You’ll build digital community, and it will translate into more community on Sundays.

Maybe. But probably not.

Social media can be a catalyst for growth, but isn’t just about follows, likes, and engagement. It’s not just about getting people to engage with your brand. It’s about getting them to participate in your mission.

People who are more engaged with your mission attend church more often; attendance is a byproduct of engagement. Engagement is and always has been the primary driver of attendance at church. We can’t forget that.

Connecting with people in digital spaces is a great start. It’s how connections start, more often than not these days (think online dating). It’s critically important these days, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

A Word About Assimilation

All churches have some sort of assimilation plan, and it usually looks something like this: come to church, stop by the welcome center (or attend an event for new people), connect to a small group, start serving, etc.

You reinforce that pathway all the time through announcements, printed materials, preaching, and your culture. You use your church-specific language like “get plugged in,” “get connected,” or just “belong,” which I’ve always thought sounded a little strange.

You tell people you hope they’re coming to Sunday services (or watching online when they can’t get there in person), growing in faith, building friendships, serving, being involved in their community, and welcoming new people themselves. Because there’s just no substitute to the authentic, personal connection that happens when we’re in the same place, together.

But did you notice where the first step in that next steps plan started? “Come to church.”

So how are people getting there?

Starting your assimilation plan at church overlooks a few very important things:

  1. New people learn about your church on social media;
  2. The people already in your congregation are advocates for your church through social media;
  3. New people almost always check out your website before they visit, and more and more young people are checking you out on social before they visit [insert “what’s on our Instagram?” panic moment here].

All of those things add momentum to a new person’s pre-visit. Done well, they validate your brand, help visitors feel better about their first Sunday, they help them overcome their barriers to attending: Is this going to be weird? How do I get there? When does it start, and how long will I be there? What am I signing onto when I visit?

I like to think of social media and your website as part of a flywheel, where momentum starts with social, and the mechanism is greased by your website. Other things play a key part in getting that flywheel going: in-service announcements, the design of your website, your church brand… but we can’t underestimate the extent to which social media is the primary driver behind that momentum.

Flywheels are often used to provide continuous power output in systems where the energy source is not continuous.

 

THE SOCIAL FLYWHEEL

 

 

 

It starts with impressions. If people don’t see your presence on social, they can’t act on it. While it’s easy to target specific demographic groups through social advertising, social media platforms use an algorithm to determine what you see in your news feed organically. If the content looks like a good fit with you, based on things like whether your friends interacted with it, you interacted with other things like it, or it’s relevant to your interests, they’ll show it to you.

We try to design content with specific people in mind. Not individuals, but types of people called social personas. Personas aren’t actual people, they’re types of people that you keep in mind when you’re posting on social. Think “non-churched millennial who’s open to exploring new experiences” or “mom with elementary age kids.” How those types of people will respond to your content should influence your creative process as you craft it, whether it’s a blog post or an Instagram pic.

Design matters. The average user will see about 200 updates in their typical newsfeed per day. Assuming your content makes it through the algorithm into someone’s feed, you’re competing for their attention with hundreds of other posts every day. As someone scrolls through their social feed, your best chance of getting their attention with your content is visually. Posts with a visual are 80% more likely to be read compared to posts without. Getting someone’s attention starts with design.

But it’s one thing to get someone’s attention, to get them to stop scrolling and check out what you’ve posted. Getting them to engage with it requires more than just the design; people like, comment, and share things that are like-, comment-, or share-worthy. Which means you need to craft your content carefully.

Quality content gets interactions. Are you guilty of copy-pasting your bulletin or announcement wording into a Facebook post? I am. I admit it: in a pinch, better to have something than nothing, right?

Wrong. Brands lose engagement all the time because they post content that’s just. Not. Helping. We follow a weekly plan that prompts us to keep our content distinct from what’s in our informational channels like our bulletin, app, and announcements.

We’ve recently scaled back our pace of content posting, because we’re seeing much higher engagement when we posting 4-5 times/week, not 7-10.

Keep your “psych’d factor” high. A good website will help increase the likelihood that someone visits your church in person. Before they visit, people need to know what you’re all about as much as they need to know what time your services start. And the fact that they’re checking you out online first isn’t just a given, it’s great. Because you’ve got their attention, they’re ready to start getting excited about what you’re doing as a church, and being part of it.

In a way, they’re kinda psych’d.

There’s a methodology that app developers use to analyze funnel conversion for new users. It’s called Psych’d. While it’s designed for app marketers, it’s just as valuable for website designers, and especially church website managers like you and me.

It starts with the idea of looking at every screen, every click, every action step someone takes when they are new, and determining whether that increases their psych’d factor – “video preview of the service? Great stuff for my kids? Cool!” – or diminishes it “no pictures of people… wonder if I’ll fit in.” Then you design your new person experience on the website with that in mind.

Most modern churches are way better at the website thing than they used to be. But it’s always a good idea to reevaluate it on occasion just to make sure. And once they interact with your website, you’re on your way to engaging them with your brand.

But your brand may not be all that you think it is. The brand of your church is what sets you apart from other experiences that compete with church, whether it’s another church, a hike in the woods, brunch, or the couch. It’s not your logo or tagline. How you compare to the other experiences people are having on Sundays is the biggest factor in determining if someone visits.

We’ve all heard the term “brand promise.” It’s what you are telling people they’re getting on board with when they get on board with you. Would they wear a t-shirt with your church logo on it? Retweet your mission statement? They’re on board with your brand.

You use volunteers for all sorts of things: children’s ministry, worship services, etc. But as much as 80% of your congregation are already acting as potential outreach volunteers on social media. When someone’s on board with your mission, your culture, and your brand, they advocate for you. They amplify your message, carrying into their own networks of people.

They do that by checking in when they get to church, tagging their friends at church, and sharing your content on their own social media.

That’s why I call this the social flywheel. Your people’s interactions are what power your growth. No matter what you do to target people on social, how great your content and website are, how compelling your brand it, it’s ultimately the actions of your people on social that powers the flywheel.

Growth is up to everyone in your church, not just you.

A Daily Meditation of Humility for Communicators

“Just because you said exactly what you wanted to say, doesn’t mean they heard exactly what you wanted them to hear.”

Anyone in the business of communicating needs to say this to themselves every day. No matter how strong of a communicator you are, how creative or experienced, it’s easy to slip into the mode of “this is good, people will get it.” But there’s always someone out there who doesn’t.

Crafting any message, from an email intro to an annual report, starts with understanding the listener. It’s a you-first way of thinking, a posture of humility. 

Humble is considerate. Humble is non-assuming. Humble leads the listener to this place: tell me more.

Humble connects with people, because it’s clear that we’re putting them first.

Everyone is on a journey. Humble communication starts with recognizing where your listeners are on their journey, not yours. 

 

Overcoming Resistance

The War of Art, by author Steven Pressfield, begins with the idea that all of us have a barrier between the life we live, and the unlived life within us. 

Creatives, whether artists/writers, entrepreneurs, or ad men (and it’s not a stretch to include pastors here), have deep within them a desire to create, to make, to craft. All are equipped with God-given talents, and putting them to good use honors and glorifies the One who gave them to us. That work makes us feel more alive, more connected to our Maker, more in tune with the universe as He created it.

Pressfield depicts the barrier between that fulfilled life and the life we live every day as a “dark antagonism to creativity,” the anti-Muse, the enemy within. It’s called Resistance.

Resistance takes many forms: fear, self-doubt, busyness, distraction. It’s the sum of all the things that keep us from acting on our desire to create, to make, to craft. It’s a malevolent force of nature, but within us, relentlessly pushing against our capacity to create. It usually wins.

In my experience, there’s a form of Resistance that is particularly troublesome for mission-driven organizations, and especially churches (think staff of five to fifty). In these cases, Resistance often sounds something like this:

I’m not a marketer, I’m a pastor.

I’ll leave the promotional stuff to the experts like you.

I’m too busy working on my ministry to spend time on marketing strategy.

I trust you communications folks to write the copy.

It’s the idea that the work of creatively promoting some church activity or ministry is better left to others supposedly more well-equipped for this work. It’s a form of Resistance that’s especially effective in today’s post-christian culture. People aren’t naturally drawn the unique, increasingly-foreign offerings of churches anymore. Leaders and pastors spend countless hours crafting experiences that help people grow closer to God, but spend precious little time thinking about how they’ll get people to choose to participate in those experiences. As podcaster Rich Birch has said through his blog UnSeminary:

“Many leaders need to think as much about how they market and communicate what is happening at their church as they think about what they’re actually doing. In the same way that artisans wish they could just make their art and not have to find people to purchase it, we can fall into the false notion of believing that our quality experiences are enough on their own.”

Overcoming this type of Resistance is what this blog is all about.

I’ll do my best to empower those self-declared “non-marketers” at churches and mission-driven organizations with the wisdom and tools for communicating effectively about their ministry.

It’s my own way of fighting Resistance, and I hope you find it helpful.