Over the past couple of years, we’ve been telling church leaders that getting into the mass media advertising game is, by and large, a colossal waste of money – unless your church can afford to spend upwards of $25,000 per campaign (per event you are advertising).  Some of the reasons for this are pretty obvious, but some are not. Let’s start with your target audience. Most of the time, when a church advertises, they are trying to reach the likes of “Saddleback Sam.” If you’ve read Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church (and if you haven’t, you should stop reading now and go get a copy), then you know I’m talking about the unchurched guy or gal whom your church is likely and able to effectively reach. For most churches today, that target is often a poorly defined “unchurched young family with kids” kind of target.

If that’s who you’re trying to reach, then before you invest so much as a dollar in advertising you need to get someone to walk you through the demographics and psychographics process and match that with the level of targeted guest hospitality in your congregation.

Why? Because if you get your “Saddleback Sam and young family” to walk into the door of your church and they are “exposed” to a worship service with pipe organ, ancient hymns, cryptic language, an understaffed or inadequate nursery or children’s program, they may not stay, and they are pretty unlikely to ever return. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you know exactly who your Saddleback Sam is. The thirty-something nuclear family, married with children, double income, watches The Big Bang Theory and The Office, prefers alternative music, has some discretionary income, has significant debt, and is buying a home. How are you going to market to them? Before you answer, remember that the average American sees well over 3000 ads per day.

The rule of thumb is that someone has to see or hear your ad at least five times before they are able to recall the ad (before it’s made the slightest impression on them), and between seven to nine times before they are familiar enough with the ad that they consider making an inquiry. With the exception of rural towns, newspaper readership by our aforementioned Saddleback Sam is at an all-time low. According to the Nielsen Rating folks, television viewing continues to expand – and there are a number of mid-sized churches who are interested in getting into the cable television market, since the cost seems pretty reasonable.

But let’s take a look at what the Nielsen Company is saying. The average United States household receives 118+ channels. Of these, the average person watches only 16 of them as much as 10 minutes per channel per week. With bulk television ads running as low as $4-$5 a spot, it seems like a great deal – and admittedly, that is a great price. However, let’s do the math. Five hundred ads spread out over a month (which is typically what congregations are willing to invest in) works out to about seventeen ads per day. If you advertise on a 24-hour television channel, your ads will be run at all hours of the day and night. You can count on your ad running once during the morning peak and once during the evening peak. You might get lucky and get two in each, but you shouldn’t count on it because there are fewer opportunities for local stations to run their ads during peak periods (typically only 2 minutes of local advertising per half hour segment during peak viewing periods). Many of these television marketing packages will place your ads on multiple channels – if you want to specify the channel, you may well be asked to pay more per ad. With 118 channels to choose from and the bulk of your ads running from 9 AM to 4 PM and 10 PM to 5 AM, what are the odds that your ad will be seen five times this month by an adult member of the household who may only tune into your “channel” ten minutes per week?

In the words of television advertisers though, “Wait… there’s more!” Advertising a Florida vacation to Disney World or a hot new Camaro is one thing. Advertising anything that has to do with church is yet another.

Let’s remember that the church doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation in the West these days, and successful advertising depends on at worst a neutral audience and at best a receptive one. And before you start running the “our church is [better, more authentic, more conservative, more liberal, more open, yada yada] than theirs” kind of ads, consider that each time an unchurched person hears this kind of advertising, they get the message that the church is divisive, judgmental, and dis-integrated. And in any event, negative advertising generally only works on those who are interested in your “product” in the first place.

Let me be clear here: I’m not opposed to a great advertising campaign for a church. At this point in time, a well-run campaign still has a good bit of draw. However, to get your church’s message before the right people enough times and in enough ways for them to even notice, let alone make a conscious decision, takes a war chest, not just a bank account.

In today’s church world, it really isn’t unusual for a church to go through $25,000 or more per campaign – and by a campaign, I’m talking about spending that kind of money in less than 90 days, and in reality, often less than 60 days. For churches that can’t afford to compete in the mass media pond, there are ways the smaller church can still make a splash in their community – and sometimes a really big splash (if you’re creative, you don’t need to pay for local and national attention). I’ve covered a number of these in a number of formats before, but here’s a reminder.

  • WOMM. Word of Mouth Marketing is still the most effective marketing on the planet. The problem is, it turns out the Western church is suffering from low self esteem, and there are proportionately only a very few church members who feel good enough about their church to actually invite their friends and co-workers. Here’s a reality axiom: if your members won’t invite guests, you will not grow your church.
  • Website. The numbers keep rising. Over 85 percent of those who look for a church start with the Internet. The heartbreaking thing is that most churches put more money into their Yellow Pages ads than they do into their website. Instead, they get a volunteer who has little time and often less commitment to build the church’s website and once it’s done, it rarely gets updated. I’m constantly amazed at how many churches’ sites don’t have their location and times of worship services on the home page. And I won’t even go there about those who have pictures of their building on their banner … (think smiling, happy, people!).
  • The church sign. Cute and pithy is a colossal waste of time and money. “Ch_rch: The Only Thing Missing is U” will not bring one person through your door (ever notice that McDonald’s never puts “Hamb_rgers: The Only Thing Missing is U” on their sign? Hmm…). On the other hand, “Bullet Proof Your Marriage: Sundays in September at 10” just might bring in a guest or two. Your sign is a marketing tool, not a poetry or proverbs page. Use it accordingly.
  • Your Newsletter: Most church newsletters get sent both to members and to former visitors, but have virtually nothing of interest for the visitors. Guest readers really don’t care whose birthday or anniversary it is, how much money your deficit budget is (go ahead, scare them away permanently), who won the 4-H cooking contest, or how pretty the flowers were on Sunday. Oh, and they especially are not impressed when they read a pastor’s column that addresses some conflict or another in the church (thanks for letting us know just how bad things are there!). If you want to impress both your visitors and your members, fill your newsletter with articles on how to develop their spirituality, how to make godly decisions when times get tough, and news of upcoming events and sermon series that are both relevant and specifically helpful.
  • The public service announcement and the news release: Here is where creativity can beat a $25,000 advertising budget. Do something positive that no one else is doing, do it consistently, do it well, and then let the media know. Our church made it to Good Morning America with Charlie Gibson back in the day by setting up a card table on Monday mornings, giving out free cups of coffee, and waving cheerfully at early morning commuters as they drove from the ‘burbs to Atlanta. Of course, we waved every Monday from 5 AM to 7 AM in rain, snow, and thunderstorms, but it got a lot of attention locally and nationally. And yes, we did see guests from the event. In Seattle, we made International Public Radio’s Marketplace, plus the front page of local papers, mentions on television, and a number of articles in magazines when we “paid” people to come to worship in order to evaluate our worship services. And that time we didn’t just grow – we started our church from the crowd. No one cares much about your church’s yard sale or cookie drive. That’s only news in rather small communities. But do something totally out of the box (again, keep it positive) and once you’ve got it going, let the media know. You’ll fall on your face eight out of ten times – we certainly have tried a lot of things that didn’t make a splash over the years – but when you nail it those other two times, you’ll be set up to capitalize on the attention.

You don’t have to have a war chest to get the word out. But if you’re going to consider mass advertising, you’d better have a stupendous budget. The rule of thumb for most churches is… don’t.

Question: How do you advertise your church now? How might you change your advertising methods? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.