Church Advertising Observations Part 1: Why It Doesn’t Work

Church Advertising Observations Part 1: Why It Doesn’t Work

October 1, 2012 by

Church advertising observations from someone who doesn’t like church advertising. Part one in a two part series.

While driving home from a family vacation today, we passed a billboard for a church. It read:

“The church for people who don’t like church.”

As I continued to drive, I started thinking about it.  I’ve seen many variations on this campaign across the country.  So why does it always bother me when I see ads like these? Today I finally had enough time in the car to figure it out.

First, a disclaimer. I’m a marketing guy. I am not really a church marketing guy. But as a believer who happens to do advertising and marketing for a living, I often pay attention to church marketing.

Does your church advertising work?

Perhaps you think there’s room to improve it, or you are on the verge of giving up on church advertising completely.  Before you do anything drastic, consider these three reasons why I think most church advertising (like the campaign I saw on vacation) simply doesn’t work.

1. It doesn’t resonate with as many people as you might think.
When churches run ads like this one, I think they assume it appeals to most of the people in their community.  After all, the majority of the local community is not in church.  Therefore, the majority of the community doesn’t like church. But this logic is flawed. It takes energy and effort to experience something and then decide you dislike it.  Most people don’t dislike church.  It’s worse than that.  They couldn’t care less about church.  Most people are completely indifferent, and as a result, this advertising doesn’t speak to them at all.

2. It beats up on an already-damaged brand—the church.
If you think of the Church (with a capital C) as a brand, we can all agree that the brand is in bad shape.  But the answer is not to run an ad campaign that distances your church from other churches.  In fact, I believe this approach probably hurts your local church more than it helps. Remember, the majority of your community is indifferent. As a result, they don’t care enough to take time to understand the nuances between your church and the church down the street. So any time we speak of the church—with or without a capital C—we should seek to build it up.  Yes, that includes your billboard campaigns.

There isn’t a megachurch on the planet with an advertising budget large enough to completely separate themselves from the larger brand of the Church in the eyes of a public that doesn’t care.

3. It doesn’t speak to many people at an emotional level.
All effective advertising speaks to people at an emotional level.  As a marketing professional, this can sometimes be difficult to do, especially when my client is selling something boring, like a technical mechanical thing-a-ma-jig to a purchasing manager.  But we always try to find a way to make an emotional connection.

When I think about the church… the great commission… the power of the gospel… the stories of changed lives…  that is a story that is just teeming with energy.  It has the power to connect with people at an emotional level.  So why on earth do we throw away advertising dollars with ads that compare our church to most other churches, when most people don’t care about church?

Don’t feel bad.  It’s understandable why this approach is so often used.  When pastors and church leaders see billboard concepts like my example above, it speaks to them at an emotional level.  You love your church.  You are passionate about what you want to accomplish in your community, and are understandably excited to share how different you are.  But remember, the majority of the people who drive past your billboard aren’t looking for a better church. They don’t think they need church.

Here’s a good rule of thumb.  If you’re selling something that everybody buys (like toothpaste, cell phones or automobiles) then do marketing that focuses on differences between you and your competition.  But if you’re selling something that most people don’t think they need (like church), then focus your marketing on why they need it!

Fantastic. I just wrote an article about how ineffective the church is in advertising. It would be a little ironic if I ended here, wouldn’t it? But there’s more to share.  In my next post I’ll share eight practical steps you can use to design a church marketing campaign that will speak to the majority of your local community… the people who couldn’t care less about church.

Read part 2: 8 Church Advertising Tips.

Post By:

Jeremy Harrison

Jeremy Harrison is a veteran marketing guy who owns Spire Advertising, an Ohio marketing & web design agency that serves more than 350 small business & nonprofit clients. He is involved at 5 Stones Community Church in Ashland, Ohio.
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20 Responses to “Church Advertising Observations Part 1: Why It Doesn’t Work”

  • Justin
    October 1, 2012

    Great thoughts!!! We are currently working through some ideas based around how the church helps people. Something along the lines of how to navigate lifes land mines or about the community we long to experience. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the next article.

    • Jeremy Harrison
      October 1, 2012

      Thanks Justin! I hope you like part two. It is unapologetically an article about marketing, but written for churches who want to connect with people in a practical way. Sounds like you’re already thinking in that direction.

  • Doug
    October 1, 2012

    Right on! Since the ‘brand’ of church is already defined by those reading the sign whether it’s “dry, stale, rote, irrelevant” or “weird, cultish, relevant-to-their-own-subculture, trendy-to-be-trendy”. In effect, that sign is as effective as reading “The McDonalds for people who don’t like McDonalds.” It raises the question “wonder what that’s like”, but not enough to take any action on it.

  • keaton taylor
    October 1, 2012

    My Father In Law has been writing blogs on worship for a little while and one of them is specifically aimed at this idea of “Church for People Who Don’t Like Church.”( While I like the sentiment, as I am often put off by some church activities*, the eecution often leads to things like “bring your own six pack to church night” and a tendency to reach so desperately for relevance that it kills all ability to be relevant.

    *some of these activities include, but are not limited to:
    The “few minutes” of fellowship where I have to meet and touch hands with people I don’t know that feels like it’s 2 hours long.

    Anything so overly liturgical that any connection with God is overshadowed by a painful urge to burst out laughing.

    Worship music that makes me feel like I just walked into a bar after being surprised with a cover and a band I don’t want to hear.

    • Jeremy Harrison
      October 1, 2012

      Keaton, exactly! Don’t try to replace the role of the bar or the rock club in town — you’ll just look like a cheap imitation. Part two will focus on what we (the church) CAN offer people better than other social alternatives in town… it goes a lot deeper than music and beer — but how we execute it is key.

      • Thomas McMillan
        October 1, 2012

        Interesting…can’t wait to read it. I agree on this but really interested on your take on the emotional side…I think churches struggle with this – especially if they don’t have megachurch advertising budgets. Also find it interesting that you grouped into the social alternatives.

  • Cheryl Clunk
    October 1, 2012

    Great article Jeremy!
    We’re always teaching clients to connect with the heart and emotion of the target audience. Most people create marketing messages that connect with their own personal feelings and priorities. It can be quite difficult to shift folks to seeing things through the perspective of their potential customers – or in this case, new church family members.

  • Rev. Bob Bradbury
    October 1, 2012

    There are many ways to effectively market a church-the best of course is word of mouth. An enthused member will do more to bring in new folks than any given marketing campaign. That being said, we do have a programmable LED sign for our church and we do use it. We also have a website and a Facebook page-both of which serve a purpose. The most attention getting slogan, if you will, that we use is part of the UCC’s worldwide campaign-GOD is Still Speaking. That gets attention and reaches people effectively-this we know from experience. As to the comment about music-we use upbeat current music in our services along with some of the older music at times. We also have high quality sound (stereo), a video system, special effects lighting and more. There is no good reason why a church should not have quality sound and lighting to equal or surpass any bar. Going to church should be a better experience than going to a bar anytime. If that is not your experience, I suspect you need to figure out why and how to correct the situation.

    • Jeremy Harrison
      October 2, 2012

      Rev. Bob, regarding the thoughts about quality music, lighting & sound: I mostly agree. I agree that the church should strive to do these things with excellence, or else they shouldn’t do them at all. But in part two of the article, I talk about how if that’s the focus, you will probably only be the second best music in town. We have something much more impactful to offer people — we need to figure out the deeper emotional reasons why people flock to bars or obsess over their motorcycle, or worship that band — then we need to help them fill that deeper longing in an authentic way. And I think this creates a stronger word-of-mouth effort too.

      “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14

  • Closet Calvinist
    October 2, 2012

    Most church marketing is advertising the wrong thing to the wrong people. Advertising to goats requires offering goats something they want; the Church has one thing to offer, Jesus, goats, being goats, hate Jesus. If people, by their very fallen nature, hate the one thing the Church has to offer, it doesn’t seem that we can offer them what we are supposed to and expect them to come.

    One would have to deny the falleness of man and embrace Pelagianism to believe this would work, at least if we continue to offer salvation in Christ to people.

    There is also a problem of a broken ecclesiology here, the Church is for Christians, the elect, the called out ones, not for the non-believers. If the church service is about worshiping our Savior, hearing His word proclaimed, receiving the sacraments, discipline, and equipping the saints, what part of that would attract or be beneficial to a non-believer? Attending church won’t save them, though it may give some the impression they are saved, should the advertising work, and put them in a worse situation than they were before.

    The seeker driven churches stop offering Christ, but instead offer people what they want to hear, tickling their itching ears, and they bring in hoards of people. But, in the end, the fate of those people will be worse for having attended this “church” than if they had stayed home.

    If a church is going to do advertising, a good theology will determine what to advertise, and who to advertise to. It must be to saints who have not found a church, or are stuck in churches that don’t have word and sacrament, sound teaching, and discipline. So, the marketing should highlight exactly those things, “Reverent worship, sound exegetical proclamation of the Scriptures, weekly communion, etc.”

    I posted some of my thoughts regarding this a couple months ago,

    • Ryan
      October 10, 2012

      Your username clearly describes your theological bent. Your third paragraph just makes me sad.

    • Dan
      October 27, 2012

      For a “closet calvinist” your Calvinism is coming through loud and clear. Please note that I said “your Calvinism” and not your Christianity or your humility or your love etc (I think…at least I hope you get the point), but you knew that didn’t you.

      I’ve always wondered if those of your ilk had any clue as to how ineffective and really putrid their sanctimonious, self-righteous babbling is. I think the saddest part is that you are so blind that, like the world Jeremy describes, you couldn’t care less.

  • Joe Wickman
    October 2, 2012

    I couldn’t agree more. The tendency to go negative and tear down the church only gains ground with jaded Christians who have an axe to grind, not the “masses” who could care less about the church. I think slamming the church, however cleverly we do it, will only make an outsider say, “Wow, those people don’t even like themselves. Why should I go?”

    I’ve been thinking about this as I begin the run-up to our new campus launch. I’ve been thinking about what will connect with the community we’re trying to reach. I think it’s got to be more like what you pointed out, an appeal that draws an emotional connection. I can’t help but think that people, whoever they may be, want to succeed at relationships, work, and the basic things that make up the fabric of their lives. I look forward to discovering how to share the hope of the Gospel through all of these means.

    Thanks for the post!

    — Joe

  • Link
    October 2, 2012

    Closet Calvinist, perfect. We’ve forgotten who the church is for. Preach Christ and let the Holy Spirit “advertise”. The Church isn’t a corporate business and I hate when it’s treated as such. Like Derek Webb sang “The truth is never sexy and it’s not an easy sell. You can dress her like the culture but she’ll shock em just as well.” We aren’t called to market God. He’s a pretty good job doing that Himself for all eternity past. Focus on Scripture. Preach the Gospel. Make Christ known in your community.

  • Sam Shultz
    October 4, 2012

    Great insight, Jeremy. I like how your focus here is on unchurched and marketing to them. From what I have seen, much of the church marketing actually geared toward churched or de-churched people. This billboard is a perfect example of this. It’s target is people who are already familiar with church–the churched or de-churched. Like you said in your article, the unchurched wouldn’t relate because they’re indifferent. Which brings me to my thought in response to this: do we really want to market to churched or de-churched people? Do we really want to recruit them to OUR church? Do we really want to add their issues and complaints about their churches to the issues and complaints we already have? Personally, I would rather attract the unchurched and deal with their issues (which are usually a breath of fresh air) than deal with the issues of a grumpy pew-sitter who would rather complain than contribute to the spiritual health of a growing church.

  • Closet Calvinist
    October 4, 2012

    I responded to this post here, I responded to the tips in a post that will be available on tomorrow, and gave my own tips that will be available Saturday morning.

  • Francene
    October 5, 2012

    I totally agree as I don’t think that churches should compare themselves with others. Also, it reflects segregation when the ultimate aim should be to win souls instead of numbers. The church landscape here in the UK is different to that in the US and churches don’t normally utilise billboard ads. However, most are still doing what I call “lazy evangelism” which is leaflet distribution. This simple doesn’t work and is a waste of money and time. The key to reaching communities in the UK is to get involved in all aspect of community affairs. I also find that churches still don’t know how to use social media to connect with their communities which is a real shame..

  • Kelvin
    October 20, 2012

    Brilliant article! An important reminder to be more cautious and thoughtful about “gimmicks”.

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