Defining digital marketing
Churches have typically used digital platforms to post a templated message. It goes something like this: We have this event, it’s happening at this location, on this date. We hope you will join us.
In this way, our use of technologies like Facebook, Instagram, and email promotes the experience of a church. As our churches become more involved in tech-shaped culture, our leaders should continue to promote these experiences through digital marketing.
But to use digital marketing as it is commonly understood outside of the church would be to miss a missional opportunity. The church of this technological age must learn to do digital marketing in a way that moves from prioritizing clicks, the global currency of the digital age, to facilitating care and compassion.
Our culture broadly defines digital marketing as the use of any digital “channel” to reach a “consumer.” Digital marketing encompasses a vast spectrum of promotional activities from search engine optimization, to social media, to email newsletters and video production, all the way to paid online advertising. When those outside of the church talk about digital marketing, they are talking about using a digital message to promote an idea, product, or service.
This definition has its place in church leadership. As church leaders, we are called to tell God’s story in a way that resonates in our context and culture. We are called to tell this story to everyone, not just those who consider themselves to be members or insiders. And so we seek to do digital marketing, and to do it effectively, because to do so is to promote God’s story in a way that connects to a culture that lives online.
Redefining digital marketing in the church
Still, the definition of marketing as promoting something to a consumer doesn’t quite fit what we’re seeking to do as part of the church, because digital marketing as it is conventionally understood tends to segment and divide. Most digital marketing tactics involve a sender and a receiver, a speaker and a listener, a messenger and an audience. When digital marketers outside of the church use social media, newsletters, and digital content to promote their ideas, they establish an in-group/out-group dynamic.
Church leaders need a slightly different understanding of digital marketing, one that gives us the tools to tell our story in a way that will be heard and to ensure that we never relegate our communities to clicks on a post, eyeballs on a page, or electronic dollar signs tracking across cyberspace. What we in the church should be after is a way of doing digital marketing that demonstrates pastoral care. We should seek a way of doing digital marketing that is inclusive, empathetic, and humble. Digital marketing in the church, then, isn’t a process of reaching or promoting to consumers. It isn’t even a process of informing or inviting. Instead, digital marketing in a church context is a vocation of listening, reflecting, and strengthening communities through the telling of a shared story.
A journey of digital transformation
Digital marketing in the church is thus intrinsically different from all other digital marketing. But for now, most church digital marketing is indistinguishable from that of a for-profit business. Differentiating church marketing from other formats will require leaders who are committed to experimenting, who are comfortable with failure, and who are patient and resilient.
With that lofty aspiration in mind, here are three tactics you can immediately use to give your church digital marketing a boost in a different direction.
First, continue to inform and invite. But resolve to tell more stories. Your community needs to know when and where they can access their church. But more than that, they need to know how God is at work through your congregation.
Second, diversify the voices included in your marketing and communications. If we want these efforts to provide an irresistible invitation to God’s ongoing work throughout our community, we need to tell stories and share perspectives from the entire community. For every post or newsletter article written by a pastor or a staff member, include one written by someone in your congregation or the surrounding neighborhood.
Finally, use more question marks. On your website, social pages, and newsletters, commit to making fewer statements, and resolve instead to asking more questions that resonate across your context.
As church leaders, we are called not just to be pastors, but to be savvy digital marketers. It’s time we embraced this identity so that we can learn together what it means to move from clicks to caring.
Read More by Ryan Panzer on the Intersection of Technology and Ministry
- Digital ministry: More about culture than computers
- Simultaneously Online and Offline: Church as Hybrid Experience
- Three Commitments for the Digital Age Church
- Your church website was once a billboard. It is now your sanctuary.\
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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio