Reading Time: 8 minutes
A Marketing Communications Leader Weighs in on How the Whole Conversation Needs to Change to First Steps and Next Steps

We were used to our methods. We didn’t really even evaluate whether or not they were working most of the time. We let everything boil down to attendance on Sundays and at events, and giving.  But you’re online now, and that means everything is different. Pre-coronavirus, it was easy to count in these simplistic ways. People were in the room or they were not. Most people wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of walking out after a few minutes if they were bored or offended. None of that is true right now.

People “attending” the first 3 minutes of a video sermon you posted on Facebook is not a win. (Did you even get through your first point in the first 3 minutes of your broadcast? Had you even started the message?)

So how do we figure out what to measure when we’re doing ministry online? What is real engagement, and how do we know if we’re facilitating it?

To answer that you have to first have clarity about the why for the methods you’re using to do ministry online—your digital engagement strategy.

Big caveat before you read on: This article is probably not for every church. Most neighborhood churches don’t need an online engagement strategy. They are already known in their neighborhood. If they aren’t, their tactics have to be more face-to-face. Online engagement is not going to serve them well.

On the other hand… 

Community and regional churches need a real online engagement strategy. And that means they need to borrow from marketing communication and sales approaches.

That may make you uncomfortable. I get why. But the skillsets people in those fields have (the skills to be given an end goal and build paths online to help people get there) are the ones most churches don’t have—and need right now.

Community and regional churches need a real online engagement strategy. And that means they need to borrow from marketing communication and sales approaches. Click To Tweet

I talked with Tony Morgan and Amy Anderson about Why Church Communication Is Stuck in 2004 in Episode 61 of The Unstuck Church Podcast. The things I described there are still true, and that’s why so many churches are scrambling to find ways to measure the same things they measured before now.

If you don’t change how you think about your strategies, and then how you evaluate your strategies, you’re very likely to find yourself celebrating wins that simply are not real, and all the while seeing decline in your church’s real influence.

I’m being direct, yes. But that’s because the stakes are high.

If you don’t change how you think about + evaluate your strategies, you’re likely to find yourself celebrating wins that simply aren't real, and all the while seeing decline in your church’s real influence. Click To Tweet

There are literally thousands of metrics you could track, and I’ve been hearing a lot of them floating around. I started getting concerned. You can get way down in the weeds measuring data points and watching positive “trends” that ultimately don’t tell you anything about how well you’re making disciples or inform shifts you need to make.

In fact, Facebook and Google want you to monitor metrics like “views” and “likes” because they know how addicting they can be—especially to those of us who are humans and crave attention and affirmation. (That’s all of us.) That helps grow their platforms and entices businesses to purchase advertising to increase the number of “views” and “likes” while also helping Facebook and Google grow their bottom lines.

My take on metrics is that everything you measure should help you make better decisions and refine your strategies for reaching people and helping them take next steps in their faith journey. 

So, let me suggest you start with some bigger picture questions before you try to build a new dashboard that inadvertently measures social media engagement and video watch times like those are end goals.

1. Who are we trying to reach?

No marketer would build a webpage, create a video, publish a podcast or blog post, or send an email without having a really clear sense of who they are speaking to. But churches do this all the time.

The problem is, we THINK we’re speaking to everyone, but we’re not. We’re usually talking to people just like us in big, vague terms. The problem is, in the rest of our lives we’re used to tailored messages.

No marketer would build a webpage, create a video, publish a podcast or blog post, or send an email without having a really clear sense of who they are speaking to. But churches do this all the time. Click To Tweet

I like organic produce, cooking, and gardening. Guess what kinds of Instagram ads I get? Not Burger King. They don’t bother with me.

Marketers and salespeople get really detailed here. They’ll both identify the primary person they are trying to reach, and the some secondary audiences they can also serve well. Then they’ll build nuanced strategies to help Person A, B, C and D take steps towards the end goal.

For example, I had a conversation with a church planting team last week who was clear their mission field was agnostic millennials in the city where they are planting. Think of the subtle shifts in how you’d frame your message if you’re trying to connect with agnostics vs. Jesus-following millennials? You may aim to serve both, but the way you speak to each group would be vastly different.

For marketers, the end goal is a purchase; for you, it’s movement on a discipleship journey following Jesus. It’s engagement in the life of the church. That leads me to big picture question #2.  

2. What is our discipleship path?

Ultimately, people are responsible for their own spiritual development, but as church leaders, we want to serve and shepherd well. We can be intentional about trying to help people connect with the resources and moments that will catalyze spiritual growth.

What are the things your church does that best help people grow in faith? How do you know? 

What are the specific things your church does that best help people grow in faith? Click To Tweet

Tony Morgan has been writing about this for years. Churches have over-relied on programs and events. We’re still doing it now, just virtually. But we could take this moment to simplify—to reorient our ministries around the strategies that produce the most fruit.

Let’s say, for an example, you know joining a small group has consistently been a spiritual catalyst for people connected to your church. They learn more. They serve more. They give more. They engage in the life of the church more. Your most critical discipleship path metrics might be:

  • New people joining groups
  • New groups starting
  • New group leaders trained
  • Engagement in group meetings

Additionally, you’d want to have a mechanism to regularly capture some qualitative data: stories from group leaders who can tell you anecdotally the kinds of life change they are seeing happen in their groups, and surveys to capture positive and negative feedback from group members about their experience in the group. 

Now we’re going to start getting to the meat of just how differently we need to start approaching things.

Churches have over-relied on programs and events. We’re still doing it now, just virtually. But we could take this moment to simplify—to reorient our ministries around the strategies that produce the most fruit. Click To Tweet

3. Do we have a strategic communications leader on our SLT?

If not, now’s the time to make that happen. You need someone with marketing communications skills speaking into the highest levels of ministry strategy going forward.

Pastor, you’re not the one who needs to be monitoring new vs. returning visitors to the church website, podcast downloads trends, Facebook video engagement, email list segment performance, growth and church, and form and funnel conversion analytics, but SOMEONE on your team needs to be. Those things belong on a dashboard, but it’s not yours. 

Pastor, you’re not the one who needs to be monitoring new vs. returning visitors to the church website, podcast downloads trends, Facebook video engagement, but SOMEONE on your team needs to be. Click To Tweet

You need to monitor the discipleship path metrics, the big picture health-of-the-ministry metrics. You need someone else on your team monitoring the wider scope of online metrics that correspond with all of the strategies you’re using, and then providing you with critical analysis that helps you make ministry strategy decisions.

If the size of your church doesn’t justify the full-time hire of a strategic communications leader, consider who from your church family might be able to volunteer as a “consultant” of sorts. I’m betting many churches have people with this kind of experience in their congregation, but they’ve never been asked to contribute their time in this way.

One final note before I move on: Our team has noted that many churches already have a communications director, but that person is often more oriented to graphic design and print. They may have the ability (and desire) to learn what they need to learn to fill this void on your team—or they may not. Start that conversation before assuming they already have the chops and the want-to.

4. What online paths are we creating for people to take first steps and next steps—and are they working?

At a bare minimum, your team needs to be monitoring some of these things so they can help you decide which things are working to help people take their first steps and next steps:

  • Are we reaching new people?

(e.g. new vs. returning visitors to your website, new followers on social media, etc.)

  • How many people are taking their first steps?

(e.g. first time they give you their email address or mobile number, etc.)

  • How did they take that first step?

(e.g. specific content series, form to join a group, new app account created, etc.)

  • How are people finding us when they take a step?

(e.g. organic search, Facebook ad, Instagram link tree, friend passed along a direct link, etc.)

  • Which strategies are converting people from “first steps” to “next steps”?

One of the best things you can borrow from marketers is the idea of having a primary call-to-action and a transitional call-to-action.

Let’s say your ultimate goal is to connect every person in a group, but you recognize that’s a big first step for someone new. You communicate over and over again that you want them to join a group, but you test-drive lots of lower-barrier-to-entry calls-to-action (e.g. sign up for this free email series, subscribe to our podcast, take our poll, etc.) that are easier for people to take. And after they’ve taken the simpler action, you point again to the bigger step of joining a group.

  • Are we actually connecting with our primary customer? Secondary audiences?

This requires that you develop ways to learn more about people. I’m always surprised to find out churches don’t have segmented email lists that allow them to communicate strategically with different subsets of people in their congregation.

One of the simplest ways to do this is with strategic questions in your connection forms. Another way to do it is with hyper-tailored content. For example, let’s say you start an opt-in email video series to encourage young moms during this season when they can barely leave the house. You can be pretty confident most people who opt-into that are young moms, even if you never explicitly asked. That series can be a first step, but it can also give you insight into how to tailor your message to that group of people about their next step.

Which strategies are converting people from “first steps” to “next steps”? Click To Tweet

Once you’re clear…

We’re trying to reach THESE GROUPS of people with THESE CONTENT STRATEGIES and encouraging them to take THIS BIG STEP (or this little step or this little step or this little step first → then THIS BIG STEP).

…you’re in a much better position to measure what’s working and what’s not, and to test drive new things. 

  • Should our weekend message be shorter?
  • Would a podcast help us engage more of the people in our community?
  • Should we start a YouTube series for people struggling financially? 
  • Do we need a Facebook group for working moms and another one for seniors?
  • How could we use webinars to reach specific audiences?

Don’t test-drive anything new until you know you can measure whether it helped someone take a first step or a next step first. And from there, you’re…

  • Testing
  • Measuring 
  • Revising/rethinking
  • Testing again

Don’t test-drive anything new until you know you can measure whether it helped someone take a first step or a next step first. Click To Tweet Clarify your audience. Tailor your strategies to them. Measure first steps and next steps. Collect stories. It’s not as simple as measuring attendance, but then again, it never was.

Dig a little deeper…

An effective digital strategy follows a clear ministry strategy. I encourage you to take this moment to simplify… to reorient your ministries around the strategies that produce the most fruit.

We have another resource to help you go deeper:

Episode 144 of The Unstuck Church Podcast on Clarifying Digital Engagement.

Listen Now for Free. 


Finish out the podcast series by listening to the first 3 episodes in the series:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email