Personalize Your Church Communication

April 30, 2019 Rev. Bill Johnson

blog-High Tech and High Touch

We’ve all gotten them . . . the well-meaning envelope trying to notify us about an important upcoming event or to make sure we’re aware of the can’t-miss deal of the century. And you open the envelope (maybe) and pull out the letter and begin reading the message meant uniquely for you. “Dear Sir or Madam . . .”

And with that tiny bit of anonymity, the entire message is lost. The truth is that we all have too much communication coming in at any given time to really hear or read it all. With email, texts, social media, and mass media such as television and radio, we’re inundated with messaging, and it can be difficult as a communication professional to make sure that your message gets through the noise.

One approach many in the corporate world are starting to use is to leverage new technologies to create scalable, customized products and user messaging. One of the first to do this was Nike’s shoe customizer, offering the chance for customers to detail every aspect of their Nikes through their website. We don’t, of course, all have Nike’s budget or communication department, but many of the tools have become available to even smaller congregations. With that in mind, here’s a handful of ideas for keeping your messaging high tech and high touch.

Personalize the Audience

No one likes to wade through a bunch of noise to find the information they’re looking for. Unfortunately, so many of our church communication methods present them with precisely that problem. Sunday morning announcements, weekly email blasts, even websites can very quickly become crowded with multiple messages for multiple audiences trying to be heard. One way we as church communicators can help everyone’s message get heard is to establish communication channels where audiences can opt-in to the messages they need to hear. This might look like multiple email lists, better newsletter organization (Youth activities are always on page 5, right?), or even making smaller announcements to specific groups. Targeting your communication means that even though less people might hear or see your message, the right people get what they need.

Some advanced marketing tools will even give you the ability to automate some of your responses, and to react to audience behavior. For example, we might send a welcome email to our new visitors, with a follow up email that goes to those who open the first within two days and a different message that goes to those who do not, or separate paths for those with children and those without. There’s some fun possibilities here, but the tools can be cost prohibitive.

Personalize the Occasion

Another way to personalize your church communication is to ensure that you’re taking the time to make small outreaches around specific occasions. How does your congregation, for example, celebrate birthdays, baptism anniversaries, wedding anniversaries and other special celebrations for your members? Do you have a system in place to follow up with family members on significant anniversaries following a death? Small cards, notes and reminders at the one, three, six and twelve month marks can help remind family members of our hope in Christ at key times in the mourning process. (Special follow ups around holidays and birthdays can also be helpful.) This sounds like a lot to keep track of, but that’s where high touch meets high tech. Good church management software can help manage the reminders and even automate some of the contacts to help keep these important days front and center for pastors and other staff.

Personalize the Message

It’s sort of obvious at this point, but take the time to customize your messages. Before we go too far down this path, let’s own that we’re not fooling anyone when we do a mass mailing with merge fields in it. Everyone knows the tools exist, and we’ve all gotten the letters before, and even seen those wonderful mess ups where someone forgot to fill in the merge and greeted millions with “Dear $FirstName”. Mail merges aren’t exactly news here.

But they’re a good first step. While no one’s actually fooled, of course, we still all respond better to information that’s customized to us. What if we took it a step further, though? What if we used a little from our audience observations to customize the content of our messages, particularly those ones that hit a larger audience. We might, for example, be planning to update our worship times and need to send out a letter to the congregation to ensure everyone’s on the same page. What if we only included the paragraph on nursery arrangements for those families with nursery age children? What if the new rehearsal times only went to those in the music ministries? If we take the time to customize the information and ensure that our members don’t have to wade through a ton of irrelevant information, even mass mailings with wide audiences can be effective communicators.

Keep It Interactive

I thought about going with “Personalize the Response” here to keep with the theme, but it’s more than that. As church communicators we often are presented with a message to deliver and our job is to try to make sure that message gets heard. It’s fun work, and when a campaign or message works well it’s rewarding, but the temptation is to segment things too far. Our job is to talk, our audience’s (or congregation’s) job is to listen, right?

Not so much. The other half of touch based communication is leaving room to listen and hear a response from our audiences. If we provide clear calls to action for our audiences to respond we’ll enable them to engage more personally with our communications as well as providing valuable feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Social media is a great medium for receiving responses, but smaller touches like RSVPs for events, and even things as simple as inviting replies, questions or phone calls can help keep the lines of communication flowing in both directions. It’s our job to hear as much as it is to be heard.

Putting it All Together

There’s a lot here to think through, and a great deal of technical infrastructure to put in place. Making the transition from a broadcast culture to one of greater customization and targeting can be difficult, particularly for people who are used to their messages having center stage. Be sure to have data-driven analytics (website hits, email open rates, etc.) that can be used to help key stakeholders understand that their message is not being minimized, but rather given the space to be able to effectively be heard. By using the tools available to target our communication more and more effectively, we can not only eliminate the noise for our audiences, but we can make sure that the right message gets to the right people at the right time.

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