Google or God?

Both

The results of an online proof-of-concept test.
By Jake Dell

W

e all do it. When looking for information, we use Google. It is no wonder, then, that when people have questions about God, many no longer
turn to a priest, but instead search for answers online.
What might this mean for the marketing that drives evangelism, membership
in local churches, and discipleship? Is it possible to fish someone out of that vast
Internet ocean, make a connection, and connect him or her with a local ministry?
Can this be accomplished in a manner that is personal and scalable? Several
staff members at the Episcopal Church Center decided to find out.
We conducted a prospecting test that focused on mothers of young children
in New York City. “With an estimated $2.1 trillion in spending power, moms influence 85% of all purchase decisions, and buy nearly everything for everybody,” Caroline Winnett of Nielsen NeuroFocus wrote for Forbes.com
(is.gd/QP5th8). We wondered if this decision-making power could influence a
family’s choice of a church.

16 THE LIVING CHURCH • June 28, 2015

Children ask questions about God
all the time, but when their mothers
turn to Google for answers they will
likely find answers from Wikipedia, the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, or maybe an online edition of
the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia. They
almost certainly will not find anything
from the Episcopal Church or other
Anglican sources. To put it bluntly, we
do not exist.
To reach these mothers, we simply
needed to create an online presence
that not only answered their questions
but answered them when and where
they asked. Our solution? A marketing
campaign that hinged on Google AdWords. With a Google grant and a small
advertising budget we bought phrases
such as “How do I talk to my child
about God?” or “Should I baptize my
child?” We also sent an email blast to
the 40,000 subscribers of NY Metro
Parents. The goal was to persuade
mothers to download our free guide,
“How to Talk to Your Children About
God” (is.gd/BNJrt7).
The campaign ran from August 15 to
November 15, 2014 — the season of
“back to school, back to church” — and
was limited to Manhattan ZIP codes.
When it was over, just short of 100 people had downloaded the guide, after
first giving us their names and email
addresses. Throughout the campaign
we nurtured this growing prospect list
with periodic updates to our Big God,
Busy Mom weblog (info.episcopalchurch.org/blog). We also prayed for
each lead by name and let them know
by email that we had done so.
Several mothers wrote to thank us,
and one asked for more information
about the Episcopal Church. We sent
her a copy of Episcopal Questions,
Episcopal Answers: Exploring
Christian Faith (is.gd/Efdui3) by Ian
S. Markham and C.K. Robertson. The
mother then asked several important
personal questions about God, sin,
and reconciliation. Clearly it was
time for us to help her find personal
pastoral care.

The first few attempts to connect
her with a local church came to
naught: the nearest church in her ZIP
Code had closed, which we learned
from a Yelp review. I met the rector for
coffee, explained the test campaign,
and then sent the mother her referral
via email.

W

e built this campaign from
scratch; we deployed a marketing software platform, developed content, and bought advertising. The cost
of acquiring these 100 names was high
— about $200 per person. But the
startup costs could be amortized
across several subsequent campaigns,
and it is reasonable to expect the costper-acquisition to be somewhere between $30 and $50.
Yet even paying $30 to $50 for a referral is out of reach for all but the richest of our congregations, and most of
our dioceses. If a handful of parishes or
dioceses built a similar program, they
would incur enormous waste; the
same “evangelism dollar” would be
spent over and over, making the same
investments in software, content, and
advertising, but with narrower effects
and skyrocketing costs.
This, however, is not to say that the
campaign is not scalable. It is scalable,
so long as we build on this initial investment and maintain efficiency with
a clear separation of roles. In fact, it
can be an opportunity for each level of
the church to do exactly what it does

best while bringing more people
to God.
In our test campaign each
player had a role to play, and
only played the required part.
The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, with its churchwide mandate, built the platform
and invested in the content; the Diocese of New York played a vetting role
in recommending a local priest for referral; and a congregation stepped up
by providing pastoral care. DFMS staff
did not vet a local ministry; members
of the diocese did that. The diocese did
not generate leads; the Domestic and
Foreign Missionary Society did that.
And neither the Society nor the Diocese of New York tried to undertake
pastoral care. A local priest did that.
It’s no accident that Jesus chose two
fishermen as his first disciples and
bade them to be “fishers of men.” From
the very beginning, the Church has
been in the fishing business. But our
nets have never been made of willow
or flax or nylon but of people: networks of people joined as one. With a
little creativity, a little coordination,
and, yes, a little investment, it’s not
hard to believe that God will bless our
work, or to imagine that 100 will soon
become 1,000, and then 10,000. By
each playing our part, we can begin to
grow again.
The Rev. Jake Dell is the Episcopal
Church’s manager of digital marketing.

June 28, 2015 • THE LIVING CHURCH 17