Raising the parish profile: effective advertising on a limited budget

August 6, 2007

We knew what we wanted: a higher profile in the community and a chance to issue a direct invitation to possible new members. But how do you make it happen?

In my parish we made a good start when we set aside 5 percent of our budget for advertising. As our treasurer, a woman with her own business, is wont to say, "I wouldn't be in business six months if we didn't advertise." So we set aside the money.

I have had occasion over the years to make media buys on television, radio and in print, and I've done a few direct mail campaigns. I have some idea what things cost. For us the money we set aside is a good chunk of change, but as advertising budgets go, it won't go very far. So how do you go about making the most of what you can spend?

First, we needed to be clear about our objectives. There are just over 100 churches in our community; we want name recognition. We want people to know there are two Episcopal Churches in Midland and we are the one called Holy Family. Even people who recognize the name when asked, sometimes have it so deeply buried in their subconscious that for all intents and purposes they have forgotten it. We aim to make people consciously aware of our congregation.

Beyond name recognition we also need people to be aware of what we have to offer them. If they don't know what you have to offer they won't know what they are missing. Somehow we have to get the word out.

Second, we needed to choose the right tools for the right job. To make sure we got the most for our money, we invited an account representative from a local newspaper to come to a vestry meeting. He helped us see the difference between a simple listing and an advertisement.

Everyone needs the listings. We buy an ad in the yellow pages (in our area there are two -- that means listings in both) so that when someone is looking for an Episcopal Church they can find our name, address and phone number. We also buy a small ad on the Saturday religion page in the paper; that's where people expect to find church listings.

We are listed along with everyone else in the Chamber of Commerce's materials for newcomers. We have a basic website. Type in "Episcopal Church, Midland" in a search engine and up pops Holy Family. People need to find your name, address, and phone number in the places they expect to find it.

But listings aren't very helpful at promoting name recognition or encouraging potential visitors to give you a try. That's where advertising comes in. The rule for effective advertising is to keep putting your name before the public, as often as you can and at every opportunity. Lists won't do that because your name gets lost among all the others and lists require the potential visitor to make an effort to find you. With advertising you are the one putting in the effort and trying to attract the notice of a potential visitor. Typically that means you have to attach something interesting to your name. And sometimes you have to spend money.

Advertising possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Newspapers need news and pictures. So host a blood drive at the church and send an advance notice to the paper with a picture of the parish getting ready. Have a fund raising dinner and present the proceeds to a local charity -- afterwards send a story and a picture. Host a local support group (even if you are not actually sponsoring the group) and put regular notices about it in the paper. In fact, make sure your local paper gets a story and a picture about every activity taking place in or around the church that might be of interest to the general public. Beyond that, take advantage of the free announcement sections (newspaper, radio and cable); making sure every activity sponsored or hosted by the congregation is mentioned.

Don't forget the other media. Conventional advertising might be too expensive, but the nearest television station might well do a feature story about your Easter egg hunt if invited well in advance. Radio stations sometimes do remote broadcast; invite one to your next Blessing of the Animals Service so they can interview the vet who's doing a free clinic at the church and some of the pet owners.

When necessary, buy ads to announce an activity. They don't have to be the usual four-inch two column boxes. One of the most effective ads I ever bought, was just four lines in the personals section of the want ads. It was written like the typical personal ad and ended with an invitation to come to church. It was cheap, ran five days, and got lots of notice. That's what I like.

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