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.