I often get asked about how to use digital tools to support churches in their efforts to plan worship, mange events and even raise funds. Over the next couple of blog posts, I’ll try to get savagely practical in how churches can use digital tools to help them be more effective.
Outreach events can be some of the most complicated efforts a church can manage. I think of outreach events very broadly, from the annual Vacation Bible School to Family Financial Conference being held at the church. It tends to involve lots of people, lots of different activities and a need to reach a broad community.
The declining church event…
In the past, churches assumed if they built it, people would come. A Vacation Bible School only required that the church change the sign to reflect the dates and viola! Everyone would show up. Many churches have seen significant declines in their overall attendance in the event and number of “new people” who show up. A church spends thousands of dollars to hold and event, but many times they do not see the same return as before.
Why? In many communities, churches have shifted from the center to the periphery of influence. Many churches took the community for granted and assumed people would keep showing up. Unfortunately, the competition for people’s time and attention has skyrocketed. Children have just as busy schedules as their parents. There are more options.
Churches cannot take attendance for granted. We need to become more focused on delivering a high quality event, marketing it and create connections afterward.
We no longer live in the “field of dreams” world where we build it and they will come.
Plan, Invite, Promote, Execute, Connect…
I was inspired by a very nice article on Mashable that provided a “how-to” plan and promote events using social media. It provided some thoughts on how your team could leverage technology already available (and most of the time free) to coordinate, advertise and host the event. Over a year later, many of the technologies have changed, but the concept remains the same. Let me throw in some ideas and add my two cents.
Step #1: Plan with social media tools.
Planning goes beyond simple logistics - it is about locations, agendas and finding volunteers. While it is wonderful to be able pull everyone into a room once a week and discuss it for two hours, most people do not have the time to do so. We need to keep everyone in the loop and determine a way to keep everyone on the same page.
Set up a GroupMe account and team. GroupMe is a new online tool that will allow you send set up a group of 25 people and allow group text messaging and conference calls. It also allows for photo sharing too. Four to ten people is the best group size and you can create several groups to make it manageable. As an example, for your VBS, you can set up groups for worship, teachers, crafts and food as well as a leadership team so everyone can stay in the loop.
Use Google Docs and Google Calendar to stay in sync. Google Docs provides an MS Office-type of capability without everyone needing expensive licenses. Working documents, presentations or spreadsheets are pretty easy and you can create forms for people to fill out. Going back to the VBS example, you could include meeting notes, a spreadsheet containing volunteer information or an overview presentation of the event. Google Calendar provides a basic calendar service that can be shared across the team.
Use Dropbox to share files. Many times we try to share large files via e-mail. People can’t download them or it is blocked by their internet provider. Dropbox allows you to share folders across a number of people and computers and keep them in sync. You can share any type of file as long as everyone has the right application to open and view it. For VBS, you could share PDFs of the lessons or craft instructions, music or video files or pictures while still keeping them private.
Skype can help provide face time digitally. Need to work with an individual but can’t find time to get together in person? Use Skype to hold a face-to-face video call. This can be very helpful, especially if you are trying to work with someone who travels a lot or is a speaker coming into the event. 70% to 80% of communication is non-verbal and Skype helps you “see” what is going on.
Step #2: Organizing and Inviting people.
Once you have the basic plan in place, you need to start inviting people. This is different than promotion – you’re making sure key guests, speakers, church members, family, volunteers and whoever else is important shows up. You need to invite key people into the conversation, keep them up-to-date and ensure they are ready for the event.
Set up an event blog or micro-site. Set up a separate blog or micro-site for the event will allow you to provide focused communication on the event. Make the URL short by creating a new domain or sub-domain or creating a short memorable link like mychurch.org/VBS to help people remember it. You can use WordPress or Drupal blog, a Google Site or even Tumblr to create a “home” for your event.
Create a Facebook Event. Facebook is a simple way to create a way to invite people to an event. The ever expanding popularity of Facebook makes it easy for people to find the event and share it with others. You can create a Facebook event for your VBS, invite everyone at your church that is on Facebook and then ask them to invite their friends. Digital evangelism with just a little work!
Provide an “engraved” invitation. You can also take your invitations one step further by using tools like Anyvite and Eventbrite. They are two solid solutions for inviting guests that include RSVPing and customization features. Think about taking your membership directory and past VBS registrations to create a customized invitation for people you want to reach out to.
Step #3: Promote, Promote, Promote…and when you think you are done, promote some more.
As stated in the Mashable article, “Promotion is the key to any successful gathering.” There are tons of social tools available to spread the word on your event. The important thing to do is pick the tools that you want to leverage (and that are relevant to the community you serve) and do it well.
Publish meaningful content on YouTube and Flickr. Your church needs to have a YouTube (for videos) and Flickr (for photo) accounts. Create an event video that you can post on Facebook and Twitter and allow people to share it. Provide a link to last year’s photos on Flickr and make sure to show the highlights of why people should come this year. It helps take the fear out of the event and allows people to know what to expect.
Encourage sharing and invitations via Facebook. Facebook’s focus is on your friends, colleagues and personal connections. It is who you want to have a relationship with. Make it easy for your congregation to spread the word to their friends. Create an Facebook page to keep everyone in the loop and also create an event linked to it. Invite everyone in your congregation to “like” the page and then encourage them to share it.
Spread the word using Twitter. Twitter focuses on distributing and consuming information. Make sure your church has a Twitter account and following people in your community. Spend time publicizing your event as well as linking to blog articles talking about it. Encourage others in your church to re-tweet your tweets to let more people know. Create an event hashtag and promote it to help you follow the conversation.
Link to community calendars and event websites. Most local newspapers, radio stations and TV stations have community calendars on-line. Find the ones in your area and register your event (and direct them to your event site.) Also use social calendars like Upcoming, Meetup.com or others to make everyone aware of the date.
Tie everything back to your event blog or micro-site. Point all the promotion activities back to your central site and create a way for them to register for the event. Make sure a new visitor can gain a clear understanding of the event, when it is and why it is important. Then make sure to have a strong call to action to register so you can follow-up periodically leading up to the event.
This is not a matter of throwing everything against the wall and see what sticks, but being very intentional to use the tools that your community connects with and creating a drumbeat of communication leading up to your event.
Step #4: Optimize the event for social media sharing (and listening!)
While this may feel a little strange for churches, make it easy for people to talk about the event while at it. Historically, churches are some of the worst connected places in the world (in my experience). People cannot get access to free WiFi to talk about the event. Even when it is provided, slow speeds and failing networks squash any potential buzz you can generate. MASSIVE FAIL!
Several studies show that allowing people to “talk to each other” during the event connecting people who couldn’t make it physically to your event and enabled participants to engage in deeper discussions than the person on the stage. While some people are afraid it pulls people’s attention away from the event, research shows it increases engagement and retention of the material. So, let people engage!
Make high speed wireless available. It you are at your church, try to work with some IT smart folks to have a couple of available wireless routers open for people to use. Either make them open (no password) or provide a password for everyone coming to the event so they can jump on-line.
Create a hashtag. A hashtag is a way to allow people to find the event. You need to make one up, ensure no one else is using it and then publish it everywhere. So, for example, I could create a VBS hashtag called “#ElidaVBS” named so by our community (Elida, OH) and the activity (Vacation Bible School). I can add the year or not. It doesn’t matter. I need to publish the hashtag to everyone at the event and encourage them to tag any blog post, tweet or comment using the hashtag.
Think about streaming the event. This depends on the event, but it may be worth considering, especially for District or Conference events. According to Mashable, “Live video services like Ustream make it possible to stream out key portions of events. You don’t have to stream everything – just the good stuff. If you can’t stream, upload videos to YouTube afterwards.” This does require a lot of bandwidth so test it thoroughly if your want to try it.
Listen and engage to the conversation. Assign one person to track the conversation (using Twitter Search or other monitoring tools) and join the conversation. If there are problems, address them. If there are questions, try to answer them. Also feel free to ask questions of your own to get insights to what people are thinking.
Step #5: Keep the connection going…
The event is not done when the last person speaks and everyone goes home. This is a chance to turn your event into a life long connection. Ask for people’s social media and e-mail contact information to stay connected. Send them a thank you note, provide updates and questions and promote friending or following of your social media accounts.
Send a thank you note. Mom always wanted me to send a thank you note when I received a gift. People attending your church event are a gift of their time and energy. Send a electronic or handwritten thank you note or postcard. Make sure to include a strong call to action to engage with your church by visiting Sunday morning, attending the next event, etc.
Post a video highlight. Turn the pictures you took at the event and turn it into a 2 to 3 minute video highlight reel. Show some of the key moments and make sure to have some good music in the soundtrack. Say thank you and create a strong call to action at the end. Post it on YouTube, include it in your thank you e-mail and post it on Facebook and Twitter.
Share photos and videos. Share photos via your Flickr account and post videos on YouTube related to the event. Make sure to tag them with relevant key words in increase your search engine ranking. Post key videos from the event, but keep them short (2 to 5 minutes with a focused point).
Keep communicating. Add people’s information who reply to your thank you note into your e-mail list and keep communicating. Use Constant Contact, Blue Sky Factory or other e-mail engines to provide a relevant newsletter to the attendees. Use your list for the next event and invite them (step #2).
It’s not the end…it’s just the beginning.
Good communications can turn an OK event into a significant outreach effort. It takes time to plan, invite, promote, execute and connect with others, but isn’t that the goal? Aren’t we trying to connect others to Christ? If so, why are we so unwilling to spend time spreading the good news?
You cannot build it and expect people to come. You need to spread the good news to get people connected to your church and Christ. Are you willing to do so?