By Larry Witzel
January 8, 2009
It’s a strange contradiction. People claim to hate junk mail. Yet survey after survey shows that the vast majority of people all across the United States enjoy the act of checking their mailbox every day, looking at every piece of mail—even when it’s nothing but commercial messages.
Why did companies last year spend over $166 billion sending commercial mail to homes in the United States? Because it works. Despite the claims of many that “junk mail” is a waste of resources, the fact is that advertisers have increased their use of direct mail since 2000. They do this because it’s one of the best ways to get noticed.
In a message to business customers, the U.S. Postal Service puts it this way: “Almost every day, every customer you have and want goes to the mailbox. They look for bills that have to be paid, letters from kids at school, and news and information. Additionally, people want products, services and ideas that can make their lives better. The mail can actually help them decide to get those products, services and ideas from you.”
We’re in the midst of a series on church marketing. Our goal is to find effective practices from the secular marketing world that are based on biblical principles, and redeem those practices for use by local churches.
As a reminder, here’s our definition of church marketing:
Church marketing is intentional, Spirit-led action influencing people toward becoming mature disciples of Christ.
Okay, let’s talk about direct mail in the context of your church. There are many reasons to send a mailing out: to communicate with your members, to invite the unchurched to an event, to share your perspective on an issue within your community. Direct mail is the only way that you can guarantee that someone in every household in your community receives your message. Newspapers, radio, television, and website only reach a small portion of your community, but a mailing can go to every home.
That’s why so many churches regularly use postcards and other mailings as a core piece in their outreach plan. Because it works.
Now, just because you send a message doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be read. You only have a few seconds to get the reader’s attention. And frankly, the vast majority are not in a place to hear what you have to say, and will just throw it away (see Mark 4). But there are some who do want to know about you and what you’re offering, and those are the people to focus on.
With that in mind (and with apologies to Moses), here are the 10 Commandments of Church Mailings:
1. Thou shalt know thy audience. Before you ever send a mailing, make sure you understand who you’re speaking to. Take a look at a demographic report of your community and create an experience that meets the felt needs of a specific segment of your neighborhood. Then design your mailer in a way that speaks directly to that audience.
For more, you can read this previous SermonView article on targeting your message.
2. Thou shalt be focused in thy message. If you don’t do mailings very often, it’s tempting to try to be all things to all people. But your mail piece should have just one or two goals, and focus on those alone. If you’re inviting people to your Easter event, focus on it. Don’t water it down with information irrelevant to that specific goal.
3. Thou shalt sell the benefits. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes and ask, “How is this event or activity going to benefit me?” Talk about those benefits of participation, and don’t hesitate to include more intangible benefits: hope for the future, inner peace, true security, better family relationships, and finding meaning in life. These are all genuine fruits of a Spirit-filled life—which is the ultimate goal of your activity, isn’t it?
4. Thou shalt decide how the recipient should respond, and ask them to. It’s important to clearly define what you want the receiver to do, and ask them to do it. Your mailing shouldn’t be just informational; you’re sending it out because you want the person to do something. So tell them exactly what you want them to do: “Pre-register today,” “Come to our Easter program,” “Bring your family to church.”
Even better, ask for an immediate response. Pre-registration is especially important for higher commitment activities, like a multi-week Bible study group or a series of evangelistic meetings. Setup a website to handle these pre-registrations, and also offer a way to call. Give someone a way to respond immediately to your offer, and they’re more likely to follow through when the time comes.
5. Thou shalt be provocative. Hear me on this one. We are bombarded with hundreds of messages every day making astonishing claims, nearly all of them lies. No, joy does not come from a new car, or a cleaner floor, or new clothes, or any of a thousand other products we don’t really need. In the midst of this, it’s a strong temptation to be timid and soften the message, because so many strong claims are outright lies.
But don’t be timid. Your mailer will be most effective with bold, even provocative statements. It’s okay to say something that gets a strong reaction. If someone responds, “There’s no way that’s true,” you’ve engaged with them on an emotional level, increasing the opportunity for the Spirit to bring them to experience that truth firsthand through your church. Obviously, you don’t want to lie, or overstate the truth. But many of the words of Jesus were exceptionally provocative in first century Palestine, and you shouldn’t hesitate to make bold claims, too.
6. Thou shalt dominate the mailbox. If you want your piece to get noticed, it needs to be big. A 4×6 postcard gets lost among envelopes, but a 5? x 8? postcard sticks out on one side, and an 11×17 trifold brochure dominates even among magazines. Since the actual mailing costs are such a large portion of the total cost, doubling or tripling the size of your piece often increases the overall cost by only 10-15%. The increased effectiveness more than compensates for the increased cost.
7. Thou shalt use bold imagery. Dominating the mailbox with size gets you only so far. Using bold colors and powerful imagery will also help the piece stand out. In design lingo, your piece needs to pop.
8. Thou shalt use designs from this decade. To be effective, your mailer needs to be current and up to date. You don’t have to be trendy (unless that speaks to your audience), but you do need to use good, contemporary design. And please, if you use photos, the people should be wearing clothes from this decade. Remember, many people think of church as old and stale, so avoid anything that reinforces that message.
9. Thou shalt test ideas and track results. One of the great things about direct mail is that you can test ideas and track response rates. By splitting your mailing list in two, and sending the same piece with just one change to each list, you can actually determine which one is more effective. By using a unique web address and phone number on each unique piece, you’ll be able to track your results. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds, and over time you’ll develop a deep knowledge of what works in your community.
10. Thou shalt keep thy expectations realistic. A direct mail piece is just one tool in a complete church communication plan. A few years ago, my church got all excited about a new toddler program we were launching, and we sent a single postcard to every family with young children in the area around our location. We did get some response, but it would have been far more effective if we had also run ads in the newspaper and family magazines in our area, and sent a postcard three or four times during the course of a year.
A response rate of 0.2% for a single mailing is pretty typical for a church. That’s 1 response for every 500 pieces mailed. You can improve this number by sending frequent mailings, and by including a variety of other communication tools as part of each campaign. Using a mailing along with outdoor banners, door hangers, personal invitation cards, newspaper announcements, and radio public service announcements, and you have a complete communication package that works.
Like any communication resource, mailings are only effective if you put time into helping them be their best. By obeying these 10 Commandments of Church Mailings, you’ll increase the effectiveness your mailing, resulting in seeing more new faces coming through the doors of your church.