July 2018
Creative Communications

Thinking Strategically About Church Communications - Part 2

Part 2: The Strategic How and Who

What’s the strategic how and who?

Part 1 of this series focused on the why of church communications: moving from sharing information (what you do) to why you do it. For Episcopal communities of faith, our why is: God loves you – no exceptions. At the recent 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Curry introduced “The Way of Love – Practices for Jesus Centered Life,” a road map if you will, for how Episcopalians and Episcopal communities of faith might grow as communities following the loving, liberating, life-giving way of Jesus.

“The Way of Love – Practices for Jesus Centered Life” provides a foundation from which to build church communication. This shared commitment to living a Jesus-Centered life, is our why.

Getting started on the how and who

The definition of how, when used as a noun, is a manner or method of doing something. When thinking strategically, how looks at the approach and considers three foundational elements that shape a successful communications strategy: your target audience(s), your value proposition (the overarching reason for someone to become engaged with your church or ministry), and your overall goal (measure of success).

I recently met with a ministry group facing the question: Is it time to disband? Membership was low, with almost half the members contributing financially but unable to participate on a regular basis. Volunteer leaders were burnt out, and no one was stepping forward to replace them. As we talked, it became clear that this group wanted to continue. Their commitment to their ministry was important to them. They were filling a real need in their wider community, and they wanted their participation to again bring joy, rather than a sense of obligation.

After asking each woman to share what had brought her to this ministry and what she valued most about it, ideas started to flow. Mixed in with the tactics (“let’s invite people to a tea,” “we could hand out flyers”) was the recognition that something was missing. That something was a focus on who were the people they needed to reach. Who, in their wider community, had already shared or expressed an interest in this ministry? Who might be searching for a place to belong? Looking back at their own experience and what had brought them to the group, it became clearer who they were looking for. This led to a more focused conversation on how and what it would take to keep this ministry going.

Our time together explored all three foundational elements: audience, what this ministry had to offer to new members (value proposition), and what success would look like. The following questions and approaches are designed to help congregational leaders move the conversation away from a brainstorming session focused on a wide audience to a more narrowly defined ideal target and marketing tactics that make sense given your audience, message and available resources.

Identifying your target audience

Who, specifically, are you trying to reach and why? For each audience, spend some time thinking, discussing and writing down. Once you’ve defined your audience, refer to it, revise it and fine-tune it. You can also convert the definition into questions to evaluate prospects.

  • Your ideal target audience – document what makes your ideal, ideal
  • The challenges they face, what are they seeking
  • Their characteristics, attitude, mindset
  • Name your ideal target audience so you can picture him/her/them (The ministry group I was working with has a gardening ministry. Their ideal audience was a person who loved gardening or wanted to learn about it; had an interest in the local food movement, food deserts, and/or teaching others how to prepare locally-grown produce; and had time to work with others in the garden.)

Once you’ve defined your audience consider for each:

  • Is your audience definition supported by demographic research? Where is the intersection between what you offer and their interests and needs?
  • What media are these audiences using?
  • Is your content written to speak to this audience?
  • Executing your social marketing plan in light of what you’ve learned about this audience.
  • Evaluating networking groups, events, opportunities through the lens of audience participation and interest.

Articulating your why

With your audience identified, the next step in thinking strategically about communication is asking, “why should anyone care about this?” What is the essence of your ministry or program that would connect with your target audiences’ heart? Looking back to Part 1 of this series, we see that people generally don’t choose based on what you do, but why you do it.

For some, this may be the most difficult step, as talking about our faith or what we believe can be challenging. Resources such as Invite, Welcome, Connect; Sharing Faith Dinners; or the newly introduced The Way of Love – Practices for Jesus Centered Life, each offer Episcopalians opportunities to grow deeper in their faith and practice speaking about what their faith means to them.

Taking the time to write down your why is important. Once you have crafted something you feel is clear, concise and compelling, invite members to read your message. Does your message sound conversational or stilted? If so, make the necessary changes. Invite people from outside your group to listen and give you feedback as to what they heard as your message. Again, consider what you heard and make changes to ensure clarity. And then invite members of your group to practice sharing this message with each other. Become comfortable with extending an invitation to take part.

What does success look like?

This critical part of the strategic planning process may often be overlooked, becoming a missed opportunity to look at what worked and what didn’t, evaluate effectiveness, and use the information to hone future communication strategies.

Part of this process is setting realistic and measurable goals. During initial conversations with the gardening ministry group’s leaders, the goal was “new members are needed for us to continue and we need more people interested in stepping up into leadership positions.” By the end of the meeting with members to explore options and strategies, their goals became more specific and measureable: (1) recruit and retain two active members this first year and two more the following year; (2) over the next two months, review and evaluate all aspects of this ministry in light of available and active members with the goal of making their participation more manageable; (3) review all leadership roles and responsibilities with the goal of eliminating things that no longer support the ministry’s primary mission.

Next step: tactics

Once these foundational elements – your why, how and who are in place, the next step is to select the marketing and communications tactics which best fit your audience, message and goals.

For the gardening ministry group, tactics center on personal invitation and strengthening relationships with neighborhood groups and businesses. They are reworking their existing ministry brochure so that it focuses on the why, who and how and identifying organizations and businesses where they might distribute these brochures in addition to sharing them with friends and neighbors. At the same time, this group has begun a process of evaluating the scope of their ministry as well as their practices with the goal of “right-sizing” their work to reflect the reality of their present situation and bring back the joy that for some has been missing from their service.

Nancy Cox Davidge, a multi-faceted communicator and strategist, is principal of the Davidge Group, offering strategic marketing and communications services to help organizations and businesses tailor messaging and approaches to their target audiences. The founding editor of ECF Vital Practices and editor of the 2015 revision of the Vestry Resource Guide, Nancy is the recipient of over 30 Polly Bond Awards for her work with both Episcopal Divinity School and Episcopal Church Foundation.


This article is part of the July 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Creative Communications