For the past year a group of Chicago-area congregations have been working with a marketing consultant, Mike Murschel. Mike Murschel has worked as a marketing consultant. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mike. My conversation was particularly helpful to me because it helped me think through the next steps for congregations that have been working on welcome of guests.
Ian: What is it that you find are the questions the most frequently lead congregations into considering the subject of marketing?
Mike: Congregations often start by asking one of two questions: The first is whether they should advertise in the newspaper and the second is how to write a press release or article and then how to get it placed. (for a good resource on writing a press release, see Mike Murschel’s resource list at the bottom of the interview).
While these are important questions, I generally encourage them to back up a step or two from these questions.
Ian: What are the questions that congregations need to be asking about marketing?
Mike: First challenge for a congregation is the one of mission. I like to start by saying, “Let’s define your image and from that your message, after which we can make that message part of everything.” This needs to be the starting point and the focus. That is why I organize my own materials around identity.
Good marketing starts by weaving a tapestry in which people can find themselves and developing an image or persona that everyone can feel good about.
Ian: What’s next?
Mike: I say, “Let’s establish you as an authority.” What is it around which your ministry revolves? Social justice? Diversity? Sustainable living? The local media need to know who you are when they contact you, and they will contact you more often if they know you are an authority on a specific topic. This must be seamless and relatively easy to do—natural and not forced.
Ian: Who needs to be involved?
Mike: The short answer is -— everyone. When people in the congregation hear this articulated they should feel it is speaking for them and when they speak about the congregation what they say should resonate with this. Everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.
In those congregations with a minister the minister need not lead the effort but she or he must know about it and be pulling in the same direction also.
Ian: But what is next? Success with this at most gets people in the door.
Mike: Yes, but here is where the work on message is important. Once people come in the door what they experience must resonate with the reasons that brought them there in the first place.
Ian: This may be good advice, yet people groan when someone says “you have got to work on mission. They remember the two years spent writing a mission statement that no one can now remember.
Mike: I would ask “What was the result you hoped would be forthcoming and did you get that?” It is important that this not be the self-study du jour. What discourages people is to work on mission and then have nothing done with the result. In large part the missing link is that people don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to put the wheels on the process. I am very careful to provide not only self-study, but application of principles and methods, as well.
Ian: I find that there is a bit of a trap in thinking that there can be a division in which a study team or a small group can work on some like mission and then—at the end of their process—begin involving the congregation. That might have worked twenty years ago, but doesn’t seem to now.
Mike: Yes, membership must be involved throughout. Good marketing efforts must be orchestrated well. The core of the message must reflect the congregation’s felt sense of mission and the congregation must be brought through the learning and attitude adjustment necessary to carry through.
Congregations communicate vastly differently from other organizations. As a result, congregations often don't know how to make this as effective as it needs to be. They need to be sensitive to non-members who don't know the glossary of the congregation. They need to take care to put everything into language and perspective that people outside the fold, so to speak, can understand and to which they can relate in their own world experience.
A major launch of the plan might be in order to get everyone on-board and excited. As things progress, though, it is better to bring up a plan piece-by-piece than to focus only on the big roll-out. It’s like getting a hundred-car train rolling: Sound the horn. Ring the bell. Flash the lights. But you don’t get all the wheels going at once. Pick it up one car at a time till you get up to speed. And any plan will need tweaking.
Ian: Tell me a bit about what you have found most interesting about your experience of working UU congregations in the Chicago area.
Mike: I have been struck by the diversity from congregation to congregation. There is a different worship experience in each. The congregations focus their energy on very different things. Because of the clear diversity they don’t always realize how they are connected in other ways. This is why it is important and interesting to see similarities, whether this might be in values, programs, or in architecture.
Ian: The task of marketing a congregation can feel very large. What do you suggest as the starting place?
Mike: Start where you are comfortable. Try something. Then ask whether it worked and how well it worked. Work on developing more of a system. Be careful about scheduling—and about double-scheduling. Create a system of reminders or ticklers for what can be planned—it need not be a surprise that Christmas is going to come around again. Develop tag lines and common ways of speaking about things that are not insider jargon, that really communicate.
Good marketing is a matter of starting where you are comfortable and building from there.
If you would like more information, Mike Murschel has created a great listing of free marketing resource for the Chicagoland Marketing Initiative for the Chicago Area Unitarian Universalist Council: http://www.cauuc.org/CMI%20resources.html