“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 engage with 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.
IT STARTS WITH 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.
And if you’re smart, you tell them to follow you on social media.
You reinforce that pathway 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?
If your assimilation plan starts with a person’s first visit to church, you’re overlooking a few very important things:
- New people learn about your church on social media;
- The people already in your congregation are advocates for your church through social media;
- While new people almost always check out your website before they visit, more and more people are checking you out on social before they visit [insert “what’s on our Instagram?” panic moment here].
Here’s the key thing to remember: a lot happens before a new person’s first visit. Social media controls the narrative around your brand; it validates you, and help visitors feel better about their first Sunday they come in person. It helps 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?
THE SOCIAL FLYWHEEL
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.
It starts with impressions. Simply put, 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, whether 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 social personas in mind. Personas aren’t actual people, they’re types of people that you keep in mind when you’re creating content. Think “non-churched millennial,” “skeptical but curious,” or “parent of elementary age kids.” Specific types of personas should influence your creative process as you craft content, whether it’s a blog post or an Instagram pic. Be as unambiguous as possible.
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. People don’t unfollow brands because they don’t post often enough.
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. And if we don’t have something that’s distinct, we don’t post.
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.