When churches across our country closed their front doors earlier this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, we lost what was, for many of us, our primary method of communication with our congregations. Since we were no longer meeting in person, we could no longer distribute the weekly bulletin to our parishioners, leaving a gaping void in our communications strategies.
Many churches, including my own, turned instead to a renewed focus on email marketing as a replacement for that weekly bulletin, and we have found that email marketing can actually be a far more powerful tool for getting our people connected to opportunities for growth and service than the printed bulletin was.
But, like most things, it’s important for us to do it with intentionality – to think about it strategically and plan for sustainability and growth. If we do it half-heartedly, we will only achieve half-hearted results.
In this post, we’re going to look at four different types of emails that we ought to think about when we’re developing our email marketing strategy.
When we talk about email marketing, we usually think of one or two types of emails: either email newsletters (which many churches already send) or more business-y, sales-y promotional emails – the kind we get from Old Navy and immediately delete. But when I’m working with churches, I break email marketing down into four distinct categories:
In defining these categories, I distinguish them from one another by considering three distinctives: our goals for them, the audience to which we send them, and the frequency with which we send them.
Let’s take a look.
Newsletters are probably the most common type of mass email sent by churches, and many churches have been sending email newsletters since long before COVID-19 began. There are a variety of strategies that can be used for newsletters, but I tend to identify them by the following characteristics:
Newsletters usually aren’t flashy, but they are an effective method of communication because the audience knows exactly when to expect it and exactly what kind of format it will follow. Newsletters thrive when they are predictable. To keep them predictable, we need to ensure that we are sending them on a routine schedule, and there are several other things we can do to help readers digest what we’re sending.
Because most newsletters contain a lot of information across a wide range of topics – everything from details about upcoming worship services to the results of last week’s chili cookoff (and maybe the recipe for the winning chili, too, if your church is really generous!) – we have to create them with the understanding that most folks are going to skim them.
There are some ways we can format the text to help readers digest the information, but we also need to make sure we’re keeping the email’s structure consistent every week. This will enable readers to go right to the sections that most interest them. For example, we might structure the email like this:
The actual type and order of content of the newsletter will be particular to each church, of course, but if we keep that structure consistent from week-to-week, our people will learn where to look for the content that they care about. Otherwise, the experience is likely to become frustrating after a few weeks because it’s unpredictable – and our readers are likely to stop opening the email altogether.
Relational emails often feel similar to newsletters in that they are usually longform content broken into paragraphs and/or headings, but they are very different in their goal. Instead of trying to engage people in ministry opportunities, they try to help readers feel a sense of connection with the church’s pastors and leaders. They foster community and connection rather than direct engagement (although they can certainly achieve both).
This type of email is particularly important for larger churches where the senior leaders are unable to develop meaningful, one-on-one relationships with each person in the congregation. This relational email allows the readers to feel like the leader is sending them a personal message, and it gives the readers insight into the leader’s thought processes, passions, concerns, hopes, and dreams.
Stylistically, this email ought to have a conversational, personal tone. Each individual email functions almost like a reflective blog post from the leader, except that it is delivered directly to subscribers (rather than relying on them taking the initiative to visit a website or clicking a link on social media). This increases readership and, therefore, increases the sense of personal connection. As much as possible, these emails ought to include photos and stories of (and from) the leader who’s sending it.
Targeted emails are those emails that are more sales-y or marketing-y. Within church circles, these emails often have a bad reputation, but the reason they are so popular in the business world is that they work. Here’s how I define a targeted email:
The keys to a successful targeted email are to make sure that we carefully select your target audience and keep the email focused on a single call-to-action.
We want to narrow our audience to only the segment of our congregation that would be most interested in the particular opportunity we’re trying to promote. This is important for two reasons: narrowing our audience means that we’re less likely to annoy our congregation with too many emails (especially if we’re also sending them a weekly newsletter and a weekly relational email!), and it allows us to refine our message to speak directly to that audience. For example, if we are promoting a new class for moms, it would be most effective for us to send our targeted email only to women in our congregation who have children in their homes, and we can use words and ideas that those moms will especially relate to. (This approach does, of course, rely on a database that has accurate information for these kinds of data points.)
Once we’ve targeted our email, we need to keep our message focused on a single topic. I’ve been working with churches for a long time, so I know how it works: we always want to include information about other related opportunities, but that desire is actually counterproductive to achieving our goals. Research has shown over and over that when people are presented with more options, they actually make fewer decisions – it’s called the “paradox of choice.” With this kind of email, we don’t want them to be distracted by other options or information. By keeping a single call-to-action in focus for our email, we are asking our readers to simply decide between two options: either tap the link or don’t. As a side benefit, when we’re not concerned with gathering details for various events to include in this email, we can spend that time really refining our message for this single call-to-action.
Transactional emails are a really simple concept – they’re the ones that get sent automatically whenever a congregant takes some kind of action. So, for example, when they sign up for an event using a registration form, they get an automatic email confirming their registration. Or when they donate to the church, they get a thank you email with a receipt.
We don’t often think about these types of emails as marketing, but I think we should. They provide an additional opportunity for our church to connect with the people in our congregation and, even though it’s a small touchpoint, we can make it meaningful. Transactional emails often have the highest open rate of any type of email – after all, when a congregant submits a registration form and immediately receive a new email, they realize that it’s a direct response to their action – so it’s a huge miss if we don’t capitalize on them.
If the transactional email is in response to an event signup, we ought to make sure the email contains all the information they need to participate: dates, times, locations, any advance preparation that’s required, and anything that might help them participate in the event itself. Should they bring pen and paper? Should they dress in warm clothes because part of it will be outside? Should they bring a snack? Communicate all those details clearly so your participants have a convenient reference for the event. This helps foster a positive relationship between them and the church.
While the transactional email ought to be clear and concise, we can still give them a personal touch. Keep the tone friendly, make sure to thank them for their participation, and always make sure to list a real person’s contact information for if they have any questions.
By doing this, we can take advantage of the often-overlooked transactional email and turn it into a small but meaningful opportunity to connect with the people in our congregation.
Writing for the web is completely different than writing for printed materials like brochures, books, or even essays. Because folks are reading on a computer of some kind, the context in which they encounter your writing sets different expectations for them.
When a person picks up a book or magazine article, they are devoting their attention to what they’re reading, but when they open your website, they most likely were in the middle of scrolling through Facebook or some other kind of feed. Their attention is already divided, and they’re not likely to be concentrating their full attention on your content.
This is true whether they are browsing shortform content on your website, such as a designed home page, or longform content, such as an article or blog post. Shortform content is naturally broken up with images, headings, and whitespace, and there are ways you can optimize those layouts for folks who read on the web, but we will consider that in a different blog post.
In this post, we are going to focus on longform content and look at four things you can do to help readers digest what you’ve written.
As a writer, I have an intrinsic desire to make each word carry immense meaning. I want to refine what I’ve written until they’re art and every phrase is loaded with intentionality and nuance. But people who read online don’t read that deeply. They don’t pore over every word.
The three most common ways people found your article are these:
In all of these scenarios, the task of reading your content is not a side-task – it’s not their primary focus. Because of this, we have to present our content differently when we’re writing for the web than we do when we’re writing for other formats.
The people who encounter our content are usually skimming, rather than reading, what we’ve written. They have come to our website expecting (or hoping) to find something particular – an answer to a question, or an insight, or a reinforcement of their preconceptions – and scan through our content looking for that particular information.
The reality that our readers are skimming leads us to some tangible ways we can communicate effectively through longform content.
Good headings can take be the difference between a bland, unengaging post, and a post that captures attention. They do this in two ways:
On the web, headings are typically styled differently than standard text. They are usually bigger, bolder, a different font, or capture special attention in some other way.
When a reader is skimming your post, their eyes are naturally attracted to headings because they want it to give them a preview of what the following paragraphs will discuss. The best headings, then, aren’t just creative or attention-grabbing phrases, but actually communicate important information. When someone is skimming and sees a heading relevant to them, they can stop skimming and read the text to learn more.
You can use headings in just about any word processor, from Microsoft Word to WordPress, and usually there are several different types of headings available to use, numbered from “Heading 1” to “Heading 5” or “Heading 6.”
If you look at the different levels of headings, you’ll notice that usually Heading 1 is the largest and boldest, and they get gradually smaller as you count up. There is more to these labels than font size, though – they actually provide structure to your content in the same way that a traditional outline would, where Heading 1 is your primary point, Heading 2 is a sub-point underneath it, Heading 3 is a sub-point under that, and so on. If we were to diagram headings into an outline format, it would look like this:
Many casual readers don’t know this connection between headings and structure – at least not overtly – but they tend to understand it intuitively when they’re reading, and it helps them recognize when sections of your post are related to one another. This understanding helps readers feel a sense of orientation, and it helps skimmers find the information that is relevant to them.
One important, technical note about headings on the web: Heading 1 is typically reserved for the title of your page. In the case of a blog post, the Heading 1 is the name of your blog post at the top of the page. So the highest level of heading used in the body of your blog post should be a Heading 2.
Most readers of online content do not read lengthy paragraphs. In fact, if they open your post and the first thing they see is a wall of text, they tend to think the post will be tedious to read, and will often close your site to return to what they were doing before.
We can reduce this tendency by making sure our writing has ample whitespace and by varying the types of formatting we use.
A simple example of this is to mix up the lengths of the paragraphs we write. When you’re writing for the web, most paragraphs should be 3-5 sentences long, and each sentence should be as straightforward as possible. Usually you want a paragraph to be no longer than 5 lines as the reader sees it on their screen (that rule of thumb will obviously be different for folks reading it on a mobile device).
Sometimes you may need a longer paragraph, and that’s fine – but make sure you follow it up with a short paragraph or two, so that when the reader finishes the long, tedious one, they immediately see that the next paragraph will be an easy one. This keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by the formatting of your content.
If you have a really important sentence or idea, it’s okay to make that its own paragraph.
Such a short paragraph encourages readers to pause on it for a moment, particularly if it comes between larger paragraphs.
Using in-paragraph formatting can be another way to help readers focus on important details, but ought to be used in moderation. I often see posts that seem to have bolds or italics in every sentence, and this frequency actually dilutes the impact. By asking readers to focus in so many places, you’re actually discouraging them from focusing anywhere.
When you make text bold, you indicate that it’s a strong, noteworthy idea. It can be used to draw attention to important details, such as the date of an event or the name of a speaker, or it can be used to help people identify the key related concepts in a list.
Italics provide a more subtle form of emphasis, in addition to its traditional use to designate things like book titles. When used in a sentence, readers typically read italicized text similar to the way they would hear a vocal inflection to give a little additional weight to individual words.
On the internet, underlined text is usually used as an indication that the text is a link, so we should avoid using it in other ways. It can be disorienting for readers to see underlined text on the web that is not a link – they often pause to question whether the text is a link or not.
Another way to provide variety in your content is to break up your paragraphs with other types of content. You can draw the attention of your readers by using bulleted or numbered lists, and you can break up a visually heavy section of text by adding pictures or pull quotes. If you use these visual breaks strategically, you can give your readers a moment to pause and process what they’re reading.
If you are reading this article closely, you may have noticed that my opening paragraphs say almost the same thing as my first key point, but using different words and formatting. I did this intentionally – because I know that some folks are likely to read the opening, and other folks are likely to skip it and go straight to skimming the headings. I repeated that information because I think it’s really important for you to know that readers engage content differently on the web than they do in printed pieces.Of course, the goal is not to just copy and paste information, but to present it in different ways to reinforce the the point – we don’t want folks who actually are reading the entire post to check out. But if you can tell it again with a story, or with a distinct application, or in some other way that connects with the reader, this repetition can be a helpful way to make sure your most important point gets made.
Most of us want to have a really great domain name for our church’s main website and, if we have any, our microsites.
But these days it’s becoming really difficult to find good domain names that aren’t already registered by someone else. It’s nearly impossible to find a simple yourchurch.com domain, and the yourchurch.org domains seem to be disappearing, too. None of us want to resort to an absurdly long domain name like yourchurchyourtownSTATEdenomination.net, because no one is going to type that into a browser – at least not without at least one typo!
Thankfully, ICANN (the group that oversees the availability of domain names) has recently opened up a lot of new options by adding new top-level domains (TLDs) for us to use.
A TLD is the last part of a domain name – the “.com” or “.org” part of yourchurch.com. And they’ve released a slew of options, many of which work really well for churches. If you can’t find one of the standard domain names using your church’s name, there are a number of great options for you to choose from. I’ve compiled a list of options below that I think could work really well for some churches.
To find an available domain name for your church, just go to your domain registrar and search for your church name (or whatever domain you desire) with the TLDs from below. If you don't have a current registrar, I recommend Namecheap (affiliate link) – that's who I use for all of my domains, and I've always had an excellent experience with them. The registrar will guide you through the registration process.
Note: A few of these domains may be considered “premium” by some registrars, which means that they could be expensive to register. Sometimes that extra expense is just a one time fee – for example, it may cost $600 to register for the first year, but subsequent years renew at $13/month. At other times, the premium domains may be quite expensive every year. The details will depend on the registrar you choose and the way they designate premium domains.