Friday, November 29, 2013

Using SMS to Acquire Visitor Data

Recently we've been trying to figure out how to do a better job of acquiring visitor data.  The old "Friendship pads" are difficult to replenish and collect (we have a very large sanctuary) and it takes a long time to pass the pad down a pew and have everyone sign in - and most people don't bother.

At Christmas we have a number of special events where we have large numbers of visitors who will probably escape our existing visitor data collection efforts.  So we are implementing a SMS (text message) collection system in time for Christmas.

It works like this: using a vendor ( that we selected on the basis of price, we are using keywords on a shared short code.  An SMS short code is a 5- or 6-digit number that receives text messages.  The keywords we purchased are "FPCE" (for First Presbyterian Church of Englewood) and "FPCFAMILY" (for our Family Ministries).

A visitor texts "FPCE" to the designated short code and the exchange looks like this (a screen capture from my phone):

Sending the text produces an auto-response that welcomes the person and includes a link to a form on our Web site asking the person to enter their name, email, street address, etc.

The Web form looks like this on the left.

Using a commercial vendor ensures that we will comply with FTC/FCC requirements for controlling SMS spam.

Using SMS rather than relying solely on paper-based data collection will also allow us to collect data more easily at events that don't take place in our sanctuary.

A one-year subscription to TXT180 cost us $105 for up to 500 outbound text messages per month and includes one keyword.  We also paid $27/year for the second keyword.

We don't know how effective this will be, but for $132 it seemed like a good bet.
This fits with our continuing strategy of being "smartphone/tablet-friendly" in church.  We're putting up sermon notes as a YouVersion (Bible app) live event.  We provide Wi-Fi access in our worship spaces.  Devices are increasingly such an integrated part of our lives, we need to help people integrate them into their worship life.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Your Church on Facebook: It’s Not About You (It’s About Your Friends)

We’ve all felt the pressure.  We don’t want to be left behind.  We want to show we’re involved with social media.  So we put up a Facebook page for the church, we invite everyone we know to ‘like’ the page – and then what?

The vast majority of churches (and small businesses) haven’t come close to harnessing the power of Facebook because they don’t understand the fundamental principle of Facebook: it’s not about you, it’s about your friends.  Knowing how to harness the power of Facebook may transform it from being just one more thing you feel obligated to do into being one of the most cost-effective evangelism tools at your disposal.

So here are four steps to an effective Facebook presence:

1.         Understand How Facebook Works

Beyond being a forum for pictures of kittens, the reason Facebook is free for users is that companies want to push messages to your friends.  Why are your friends important?  Your friends have at least something in common with you – or they wouldn’t be your friends.  You work in the same industry, or live in the same town, or went to the same school.  Whenever you have an interest in something, there is a greater than random chance that one of your friends will share that interest.

Here is how a social media-savvy business uses Facebook:  A restaurant gets you to ‘like’ their page in exchange for a discount coupon on your next meal.  Perhaps you get entered into a sweepstakes by liking a page.  That company can now pay Facebook to push their posts onto your friends’ newsfeeds. 

You’ve seen these posts and perhaps not even recognized them.  It is a post in your newsfeed that has a heading such as “Jane Doe likes Target.”  This means that your Facebook friend Jane Doe liked Target’s page, and Target then paid Facebook to push their post onto your feed.  If your friend Jane shops at Target, there’s a good chance you might want to shop there also.

2.         Reach Your Followers’ Friends

Let’s say you have started your church’s Facebook page and gotten many of your members to like it.  Great!  But if all you do is post things on Facebook for your members to read, this is no different (and probably less effective) than sending them an email.  Being on Facebook has done nothing for you to this point.

When you post something as the page administrator, in the lower right corner is a little pull-down tab that says “Boost post.”  It presents you with some dollar figures and other choices.  You can generally “boost” your post (push it through to the friends of people who have liked your page) for a cost somewhere around $5 per 1,000 people.  And each time it shows up in someone’s newsfeed, it is preceded by the notice that one of their friends has liked your church.  So it doesn’t just show up “cold” – it shows up “endorsed” by someone they know.

Therefore you need a small budget for these “boosts”.  $10 can reach about 2,000 of your followers’ friends.  A budget of merely $100/year could boost one post every month of the program year.  This is extraordinarily cost-effective. 

Facebook only shows your post to people who are online.  So you are only paying for people who actually see the post.  While your post is being boosted, Facebook will show you how many people have seen the post and how much of your budget remains.  After a few tries you’ll get a feel for how long it takes a thousand people to see your post.

3.         Boost the Right Posts

Now you’re ready to start using the power of friends.  But which posts are the best ones to boost?  Posts advertising a specific event are often less effective because many church events are social events and a newcomer is reluctant to attend.  The best events to publicize are those that are less social in nature, such as a concert or a lecture. 

The most effective posts are effective in the long run.  Boost posts that build up a favorable impression of your church over time.  Publicize what you would like the world to know about your ministry, such as a description – with a great picture – of your church engaged in service in the community.

People generally don’t decide to go to church because they saw an ad.  An ad rarely triggers a person’s desire to go to church.  More common is that the day comes when someone feels a need to take a step on a spiritual path, and then visits the church that comes to mind.  If you have been successfully cultivating a positive image, yours will be the church they check out.

4.         Get the Right Friends

One mistake churches make is to create their page and then you, the pastor (usually), asks everyone you know to ‘like’ it.  The reason this is actually counter-productive is that your old seminary friends probably do not have Facebook friends who would be interested in your church.  You probably don’t want to boost your church’s posts to the members of your colleagues’ churches – and you especially don’t want to be paying to do that.  Only ask people who have a real connection to your church to be the ones to like your page, because their friends will be far more likely to be the people you want to reach.

So don’t just collect ‘likes.’  Collect them with a purpose, and put them to use to reach out to others with the Gospel.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Different vs. Better

I was in a discussion recently where it became clear to me that the denomination of which I am still a member, the Presbyterian Church USA, and probably other traditional, mainline denominations, has forgotten the simple distinction between "different" and "better."

The context for my saying this is that my congregation offers both a very traditional worship service and a contemporary worship service.  The congregation is growing.  Both services are growing.  And a part of the growth is due to us offering things that are "different", while a part of the growth is due to us becoming "better."

In recent years, the tenor of what has emanated from the denomination has singularly focused on "different."  They bellow that we need to do things differently - that the "old ways" won't do any more.  And while this is true to a large extent, a lot of their definition of "different" is symbolized by what strikes our old-timers as radically different forms of church - whether that means meeting in coffee houses or having rock music.

But what that ignores is that a lot of the change that is needed is just improvement.  A lot of the "old ways" that need to be upgraded are simply things that need to become better in execution, not always different in kind.  A lot of our older churches need things like paint and carpet and to get that pile of junk out of the corner.  The warbling choir (sorry Aunt Clarissa or whoever) needs voices that can sing the music (whatever music you choose) and above all, a warm smile at the door that makes a visitor feel welcome, not like an alien intruder.  In other words, it doesn't matter what style of worship you offer if you do it poorly.

Yes, our churches need different also.  But the goal of different is to reach a new audience.  Whether it is our contemporary worship or our social media outreach - the things we are doing differently are helping us reach people who otherwise wouldn't come to our church.

I love watching Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares on TV.  Ramsey is a celebrity chef who goes into failing restaurants and screams obscenities at them until they change.  But the first thing that he always changes is this: the food.  They invariably serve lousy food using canned or frozen ingredients.  He ends that.  Good food.  Simple food.  Fresh ingredients.  This is the foundation of his turnaround every time.  We can learn from that.  Different is about deciding whether to offer French cuisine or Asian; it's about choosing a target audience.  Better is about whether your food will taste good.

So we are also growing because some of the things we've always done are simply being done better than before (and our goal is to keep getting better). There is still an audience for churches that are somewhat as they have always been - except that many of our churches aren't executing well enough.  Traditional music and preaching doesn't have to be boring.  Liturgy doesn't have to be read s..l..o..w..l..y. 

So before you get too fixated on starting something different, invest some energy into making sure that what you already do is being done as well as it can be done.  The problem may not be what's on the menu, the problem may be what's going on the plate.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Okay, I admit I was skeptical about the need to use a "professional" email product.  After all, our church database was quite capable of sending email blasts to the congregation and we used them regularly.  But Kellie (the Rev. Kellie Anderson-Picallo, now on staff and bringing great ideas) insisted that I take a look, so I tried it out.  I wasn't sure that it would make all that much difference if our emails went from plain text to something that looks like this:

Yet after the first time I used it, I was impressed by two simple things: 1) the fact that it tells me the open rate (and I can also see who opened it, and who clicked on links within the email) and 2) I could see when the emails were opened.

What do you think the open rate is on your email?  The industry average for churches is about 27-28%.  Our first mailing did better: about 35%, though I suspect this varies greatly with how "tight" your list is.

We sent the email during business hours, and the largest group of opens happened right after we sent the email.  But I also noticed that there was a "bump" in emails being opened at 7 pm.  This makes sense; supper is over, you can finally start settling in for personal business.  And we know that emails that descend below the top of the inbox rarely get opened.  So I thought: what if we send the email at 7 pm?  MailChimp allows you to schedule sends.  So we scheduled the next one for 7 pm and our open rate jumped to 44% - which is approximately where ours have been ever since.

Is it valuable to you to have an extra 10-15% of your congregation open your emails?  Switch to a professional service.  Send in the early evening.  The scheduled send feature means you can set it up during business hours for arrival even when the office is closed.

Why did we use MailChimp over Constant Contact?  At our size (list under 500 names, fewer than 12,000 emails per month), MailChimp is absolutely free.  Their template-based email designs are easy to use.  Amazing, isn't it?  An idea, initiative, simple data analysis = more congregants reading email from the church.  It's that simple.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Diary of a Simple Ministry

Last year, a woman who attends our church is in a meeting of church school teachers.  In casual conversation, she mentions that her husband - who does not attend church - loves basketball and had once mused about renting our gym once in a while for a casual basketball game.

We took what she said very seriously.  And we told her, "please tell your husband that no, he may not rent the gym.  He may, however, use it at no charge if we can announce it as a church-sponsored pickup game."  He jumped on it.  We settled on Thursday nights, as long as we don't have something else scheduled for the gym.  We announced it.

The first night, there were three people.  The organizer and two of his friends.  It was several weeks before there were enough people for a game.  But word spread.  It's Thursday night.  I just took a walk down there, and they had so many people that they are playing two simultaneous 5-on-5 half-court games, so 20 people can be on the court at once.

Is it helpful to the church?  Well, only six of the twenty-three people playing tonight are members.  The rest are friends of theirs.  Will they come to church?  Who knows - but now they know we're here, and they're probably telling friends about the good time they have at our facility.  And having a regular basketball game on the church calendar has to be positive for our image

What are the lessons here?  One: listen carefully for expressed needs and respond to them.  That instigating comment was not a formal request; it was a casual mention that could have been dropped.  Two: think about how any unused space might be used to host an activity that just needs space to get going.  Three: stick with it for longer than a week or two.  Four: don't think in terms of an income opportunity, think in terms of an outreach opportunity.  The ideal way to use your space is using it to start the process of turning strangers into worshipers.  (And you can remind your bean counter that this also produces revenue!)  In this case, it's turning strangers into friends.  We'll trust the Spirit to take it from there.

Do you have room - especially gyms, which are in short supply - that's just waiting to be connected to people who need the space?  Keep your ears open for the connection.