Announcements at church: who is the competition?

People listen to our announcements with their guards up – it’s their habitual response to being told about something.

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We are advertised to, all the time.  It’s been so for a while, of course: horse-drawn buses carried adverts for tea.  But the frequency, insistence, personalisation, and sense of invasion of personal space, keeps stepping up.  

Which gives pastors a problem.

Because on the one hand, we can know how advertisers work, and learn from them.  We can find out what behavioural scientists have researched about how many time we need to see or hear something before it sticks, how long a message should be to be memorable, how unusual it needs to be to stick.

I am (spoiler alert) an Apple user, and one of the reasons I find the overall experience so pleasing is its cleanness.  I’ve been reading Insanely Simple: The Obsession that Drives Apples Success, by Ken Segall.  Segall was the creative director at the advertising agency which worked with Steve Jobs, and it’s fascinating to read how Jobs refined, pruned back, reduced. “Hit it with the Simple Stick,” he’d say.

It’s made me work harder on some of our church’s publicity.  We are redesigning ur external signage, and I’ve been looking at proofs, asking ‘Can we do without that word?’ “Can we remove that, please?’  I love the simplicity of that advertising philosophy.

Yet on the other hand, we know that acting on many of those behavioural findings would violate some core principles. We are a marketing culture, and so I like church to be a place where people are not customers, where they are not asked to switch attention to this, that or the other, in shiny sequence.  The gospel deals in deep truth, and God works over millennia. There should be a sense of the non-frantic in what we do.

We have rightly become suspicious of what the adverts conceal, as much as they reveal; what they are designed to distract us from, as well as what they take us towards.  And we know that, even though we are that suspicious, we still fall for it, time and again.  Using that razor will make me that handsome.  It will.

So people listen to our announcements with their guards up – it’s their habitual response to being told about something.  ‘What are the terms and conditions? Why do they want my email address?  What’s the hidden cost?’ Think about how you respond when a charity campaigner stops you on the street: those reactions are going on inside the hearts of people in your church every Sunday.  It’s their – our – learned defense mechanism.

So, what to do?

First up, just give up.  Give up trying to do what they do on their budgets.Unless you’re megachurch.org, you won’t have their budget or equipment, and you won’t have enough beautiful people either.

Second, be honest.  Work hard on your words, especially if they’re going to be printed or on a screen.  If there’s an early bird discount for the church weekend, say so, and stick to the cut-off date.  No tricks, no footnotes. If just once you trick people, you’ve lost your credibility for years.

Third, be straightforward.  Give up the clever puns and double meanings: you don’t have a messaging team working all hours for you as a demanding client.  On your own, you’re likely to come up with something cheesy, and you won’t have someone else to edit you.  

Fourth, be you.  GAP runs the same adverts nationally – and who knows, internationally too, maybe.  One reason shopping centres and high streets feel so dis-placed and generic is that they are full of identically branded shops, merely moving their store fronts round the country.

Not so with you.  Yes, our denomination and our diocese has a logo, but that doesn’t shape the way we design our stuff, or write our words.  Walking into a church building should be as unique an experience as walking into someone’s home: yes, we all have the same rooms and the same layout but ‘I love what you’ve done with your kitchen!’ is a happy sound, isn’t it?

Be you.  Be your church family, telling one another what you’re up to your own way. If you want to use Comic Sans, go for it, consistently. If you’re the kind of church that has loads of newsletters about loads of organisations, do it, as long as you think about how to stop it being bewildering. If you’d rather just half a dozen, do that, and do it thoughtfully. 

And, in the spirit of Steve Jobs, one more thing.  I lied about Comic Sans.  Don’t. Ever.

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