My wife and I closed on our first home at the beginning of the summer in 2022, and we have what I now know to be a “side-load” garage. Evidently this is a desirable feature, as it is often the first compliment we get from friends and family visiting the house. A side-load garage is situated so that you travel up the driveway, and make a 90 degree turn at the top to enter the garage.
Functionally this makes the backdoor (in through the garage) the fastest way into the house. Over the past few months it has been a fun experiment to see who wants to enter through the garage, and who makes the journey to our front door.
Close friends, and family feel comfortable entering through the garage, while visitors and neighbors walk around to the front.
This got me thinking.
In relation to churches in the digital space (i.e. the internet, and social media) we are often attempting to reach the people in our communities that don’t know us. Those who wouldn’t feel comfortable entering through the garage, but make the proverbial walk up to the front porch.
Imagine if my front porch was a scary place. Dimly lit, with spiders and cobwebs and rusted out furniture. It wouldn’t matter how nice we are as a family or how welcoming our interior spaces are. If that first impression isn’t inviting, we’ve already lost. The exterior needs to match what’s inside. In the marketing world we call this “phygital cohesion”– meaning that our physical and digital experiences must be aligned.
When it comes to outreach and evangelism, our churches’ web presence and digital strategy is our front door. It is no longer the case that people will drive past your building and feel inspired to stop in. Barna research indicates most church visitors will tune into multiple online services before ever pulling into your parking lot, particularly among the Millenial and Gen-Z demographics.
Thankfully, you don’t need extensive marketing training or an enormous budget to build an effective and engaging digital strategy. Based on my experience working with nonprofits, churches, and Christian ministries, I have identified five key areas of focus everyone can work on to increase effective digital capacity.
Understand Digital Reality
From a marketing perspective, there are now only two eras: pre-covid and post-covid. While those 2+ covid years seemingly changed everything for churches, I find it interesting that there are a few metrics that were the same- both pre and post. Research from Josh Blankenship via Abide Connect indicates 80% of new visitors will check out your church website before coming for a visit. This was a trend long before Covid and tells us that your visitor’s first touchpoint with your church is your website. Your website is your front door. Keep it inviting.
Keep your homepage simple, clear, and inviting. Include a clear next step.
Practice Phygital Cohesion
“Phygital” is simply physical + digital. The key takeaway here is that your online presence should match closely with your on-site attendee experience. A common mistake I see in the church world is creating websites designed to look like the “big churches” with the most modern look. The sentiment I hear often is: “‘fill-in-the-blank Church’ has 5,000 weekly attendees, so if we just copy their website thousands will show up.” This is problematic in that you are likely not accurately representing your Church, and the downside is that when visitors show up they might feel deceived and leave disappointed. Odds are, they won’t come back.
Use the same imagery and vocabulary in digital spaces as you do in your building.
Bonus tip: take a deeper dive into phygital cohesion. Check out this Exponential webinar with Patrick Holden (Lead Pastor at Nuvo Church) and Jeff Reed, Exponential’s resident digital expert.
Embrace Function over Fashion
Ever been to an outdoor event in cold, harsh weather? You want to look good, but the practical thing to do would be to put on a heavy coat, hat and gloves. The hard part for us creatives is always wanting to create attractive, modern designs that showcase our talent, but as my good friend and Creative Director for the Exponential Conferences Don Smith would say, “Always ask yourself, Why?” Your creative elements should never detract from effective communication. Function over fashion.
Clearly show your locations, service times, and a short sentence or two what people can expect on your homepage.
Get to Know Your Audience
When it comes to outreach and evangelism, most churches have a “target market”- an ideal audience for their services and ministry programs. Frequently, that tends to be young families, and the key decision maker for church attendance is often the mom/wife. Understanding how women communicate and make decisions regarding church visits can help you create a website designed to appeal to them. If you know women in their 30s are your target audience, don’t design a website that appeals to men in their 50s. This sounds intuitive but the reverse happens all the time. If you need help, reach out to church members with experience in marketing or customer experience, or connect with a local marketing agency or creative partner.
Identify your ideal target market and spend some time curating a comprehensive strategy that includes outreach events, relevant sermon series, and design features that appeal to this audience.
Develop the Right Vocabulary
In marketing we often use “tone” as the basis for our creative elements. This functions as a customer-centric set of words and phrases that remind us our goals are about our audiences, not ourselves. The collection becomes a vocabulary that allows us to digitally communicate the gospel and the offerings of our churches in a vocabulary that others can understand.
If this is a new process for you, sit down with your leadership team and come up with 3-5 key words or phrases that represent your church. This is another way to ensure phygital cohesion. For example your tones could be “outreach, empathy, joy and serving.” Spend some time coming up with visuals, colors and fonts that match those tones, and then develop your homepage to represent them. Use these tones across all your communications channels, including digital platforms like social media and email marketing.
Implement “tones” that resonate with your target audience to communicate effectively.
Outreach and evangelism are just as important today as they have ever been, but as we collectively follow Jesus into in a post-covid world, remember that your website is the real front door to your church and the first place you start to communicate the gospel to new audiences.
Matt Wish is the Marketing Director for Exponential and the Founder of Sonder Marketing & Design. For the last 15 years he has worked with churches and non-profits to develop effective digital strategies, content and creative design.