Are Church Mailers a Total Waste of Money?

by · September 30, 2010

Are Church Mailers a Waste of Money?

I have yet to read a well thought out, convincing argument for why churches spend money on promotional direct mail pieces.  Usually, the answer is something like:

  • “This is how we’ve always done it.”
  • “Another big local church does it, and they are growing so it must be working.”
  • “We don’t have any data to convince us otherwise.”
  • “Someone told us they found us through a mailer, so it must work.”

Most of the time the above responses are good enough to leave the mailer discussion alone and move forward … until now.

NOTE: This is a fairly in-depth and comprehensive article. Skip to the bottom if you want to read the conclusion.

First, It Took Some Convincing

I’ve been a broken record in the ears of my church’s leadership for the last few years about direct mail.  To them the mailer was such a critical piece in fall kick-off promotion and directly connected to church growth that the risk was simply too high to not do a mailer without some proven alternatives.  Well, I didn’t have proven alternatives, but, what I did have was 1 year’s worth of data collected on everything from the website analytics to various social media accounts, attendance metrics & email marketing usage statistics.

I’m kind of a statistics nerd, and love looking at the impact of trying new communication channels and marketing messages.  Armed with data I met with church leadership and was able to convince them to abandon the traditional fall mailer for this year and give me a shot at other methods.

What Does a Mailer Really Cost You?

If your church is in a growing phase and an average attendance of 1200-5500 then you are likely spending $17,000-$25,000 to blanket your local community (5-7 mile radius) with each direct mail promotion.  For argument’s sake let’s say this covers 80,000 households.  Mailer’s, along with most other forms of junk mail, have a relatively low open rate and an even lower action rate.  Let’s be liberal with our estimate and assume that of those 80,000 households about 5% actually open/read the mailer (4,000 households) and let’s assume that of that 5% about 10% respond to the call-to-action (i.e. come check us out, go to the website, etc.).  So, we are looking at about 400 households responding to the call-to-action. Now, let’s assume that each household represents about 2.5 people (families, singles, etc.).  So, 400 households multiplied by 2.5 gives us 1000 individuals responding to the call-to-action. Not bad, right? If they all become members then you’ve just grown your church by 18%-83%!

Now, let’s use the low-end cost estimate of $17,000 for the direct mail piece and divide it by the 1000 individuals responding to the call-to-action. That comes out to $17/person you spent to get them to respond to your call-to-action.  You might say to yourself, “See, that’s not so bad if we can grow our church by 18%-83% in the fall.” Or, maybe you’re thinking, “Those numbers may be accurate, but, if they stay and start giving after 6 months then the marketing has paid for itself.”  Ok, fair enough, but now let’s look at a real-world case study based on the data I collected from my fall marketing experiment.  For additional comparison I will also reference another local church that pulled out all the stops for its fall promotion.

My Real World Experiment

My church’s fall kick-off series was meant to be a low-barrier-to-entry for people who had never attended church, or, perhaps were burned out by the church.  The series, called “Old Time Religion” was a 13-week examination of the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation with an “O Brother, Where Art Thou” fusion of Bluegrass worship hymns kicked off by an outdoor baptism & BBQ.  Our marketing included:

What is important to point out is that the videos (except for the teaser) were shot with my iPhone with very little production value added to them.  While I do appreciate good video production quality I didn’t want the argument to be about people coming because of the high-production value of our media. I wanted the videos to be raw and reflect the personalities of the two most visible people at the church – the Lead Pastor and Worship Pastor.

By comparison, the other church promoted their sex series multiple ways including a freeway billboard ad, microsite, multiple high-quality promotional videos, a movie theater pre-roll ad, and of course, a direct mailer. They also had the benefit of the local news coming out to do a story on the upcoming series.  I say this not because we are competing with them, but, it is good information to have when comparing relative marketing effectiveness.

A Word on the Promo Videos

I need to talk about the iPhone promo videos a bit more for a moment. When the Lead Pastor, Worship Pastor and I met to discuss the videos my idea was to create 3 different videos with tweaked messages for 3 different demographics that we wanted to target.  The plan was then to use Facebook’s ad system to create 3 different ad campaigns which linked directly to those videos. But, after looking through the footage I realized 2 things: 1) The message was so broad there really wasn’t a reason to create 3 videos; 2) These guys’ interactions made for some really funny blooper outtakes!

So, I made an executive decision – we would have one serious promo video and one blooper reel.  None of us started out thinking a blooper reel was part of the plan, which in hindsight is why it might have worked out so well.  I’ll discuss how well a little later.

Facebook Ads – Our Big Budget Item

While a combination of factors above contributed to the overall fall marketing strategy we spent the majority of our budget on Facebook ads.  This was my biggest response to “what do we do instead of a mailer.”  Here are my reasons:

  • Because of the housing crisis nearly 94% of homeowners in our surrounding community are underwater on their houses. This also brought home prices down significantly which means that many young marrieds, young families and college students were now able to afford to move into or rent homes in our community. Thus, our community demographic makes up nearly 70% of our Facebook users (see chart below).
  • Facebook ads allow us to target very specifically for the different campaigns we want to run
  • Facebook is web-based and our call-to-action (watch the video) is web-based. We assume that people will decide more often to simply click vs. opening a mailer, reading it, turning on the computer, typing in the site and then clicking.
  • We can get far more impressions (views) of our ads targeting the right people on Facebook for a significantly lower cost than a direct mailer – this leads to making efficient use of our budget.
Facebook User Demographics

Facebook User Demographics

Facebook Ads By the Numbers

Here are the complete results from the 3 Facebook ads:

Facebook Ad Results for Old Time Religion

Facebook Ad Results for Old Time Religion

Here are the 3 Facebook ads we ran:

OTR Promo #1

OTR Promo #1

OTR Promo #2

OTR Promo #2

OTR Promo #3

OTR Promo #3

From the data above you can see that our most effective ad was #2 – Pastors Make Mistakes.  It was no coincidence that I tweaked the spending on this particular ad throughout the 2-week Facebook ad campaign as I recognized it had the highest CTR (click-thru rate) percentage.

So, you can see that we received over 8.2 million impressions during a 2-week period. Of that we received over 7,000 clicks (our call-to-action) and spent just under $3,000 for the total campaign. This campaign cost us about $0.42/person responding to our call to action.

Remember when we calculated $17/person for a mailer? Just wait, it gets better.

Ongoing Value of Facebook “Likes”

Facebook Interactions During Ad Run

Facebook Interactions During Ad Run

In the 2-week span that we ran our Facebook ads we increased our Facebook fanbase by 10% (or appx. 200 people). By comparison, the other church, who ran a much larger traditional media campaign increased their fanbase by 0.5% (or appx. 12 people). Why is this significant? Well, because we now have the ongoing opportunity to communicate with (and have more details about) 200 additional people who have opted-in (i.e. Liked) our Facebook fan page without ever stepping into our church!  These people represent a very high potential for ongoing attendance as well as making our church Facebook page visible on their Facebook profile (i.e. social media word-of-mouth)!

The Blooper Video

I noticed something pretty interesting and significant when it came to our video statistics.  People were far more interested in our after-thought blooper video than they were in the real video promo.  In fact the blooper video almost instantly became viral – being shared and viewed at a ratio of nearly 6:1 when compared to the promo video!  People loved it, were talking about it, and even more importantly, sharing it on their social networks.  In a 2-week span we received nearly 5,000 views of our blooper reel.

E-mail Promo

E-mail Promo

The E-mail Promo

We sent out a custom e-mail promo using MailChimp. I’m a big fan of MailChimp because it is very designer-friendly, provides excellent stats AND allows for a simple send-to-a-friend process. Click on the image to the right to view a full-size version of the email along with click statistics.

Our e-mail promo looked very similar to the default tab that everyone who clicked 1 of the 3 Facebook ads landed on.  So, every user had an opportunity to watch videos, learn about the series and post to their Facebook page. The flow felt very natural.

Attendance Results

Fall Kick-off Attendance for 2010

Fall Kick-off Attendance 2010

So, after all is said and done what did the attendance look like for the Fall Kick-off, and how did it compare to last year?  Well, recorded attendance for the kick-off was 3,219 which is about a 22% increase over the week prior and about a 30% increase over the year prior.

You’ll notice there is a small bump in attendance prior to our kick-off which is (likely) caused by people who saw the marketing/videos and were interested in checking out the church prior to the kick-off.

Conclusion

For our intents and purposes our fall kick-off marketing experiment sans-mailer was as effective if not more effective than a traditional direct-mail piece. It was by far more cost-effective and efficient. Our total campaign with creative & marketing was just under $4,000 compared to the $17,000-$25,000 of a direct mail piece.

For consistency let’s compare apples-to-apples as best we can:

  • Distribution
    • Mailer: 80,000 households
    • Facebook ads: 8.2 million impressions
  • Opens
    • Mailer: 4,000 reads
    • Facebook ads: 7,000 clicks
  • Call-to-Action
    • Mailer: 1,000 (400*2.5 household multiplier) “actions”
    • Facebook ads: 5,000 video views
  • Cost
    • Mailer: $17,000
    • Facebook Ads: $3,000
  • Cost/response to action
    • Mailer: $17
    • Facebook ads (based on video views): $0.60

So, are church mailers a total waste of money? That’s for you to decide based on what you know about your audience I guess.  For me (and our church budget dollars) this ad campaign was a success!  Not only did we save an estimated $13,000 but we effectively grew in both our attendance and social media presences.  We now have the option to invest that savings in some significant upgrades to our website (our digital front door) as well as … heck … we could just save.

I hope this was informative and helpful for you and your team. I realize this is just 1 church’s example but I think it represents well the opportunities to take advantage of other communication and marketing channels with some confidence.  Maybe now you’ll have a case study you can use as you make budget decisions moving forward!  Oh, and I’m always available for hire should you need a consultant (shameless plug)!

  • Amaris Kress

    this is pretty amazing, Brian. loved reading this.

  • http://www.UptheMiddle.com Matt Keller

    Brian,

    Okay, I do a lot of work training pastors & church planters & I’ve been teaching these same type of theories for the past couple of years! You are STRAIGHT UP ON IT, my friend!!! I’m going to do everything I can to get as many Church Planters and Pastors to read this post. It is SOOOO necessary in the Body of Christ!

    Well done, man, thanks for taking the time to put it all together!

    By the way, I would love to set up a time in the next few weeks to connect and learn more about what you are doing.

    Let me know how I can make that happen…

    Thanks,

    Matt Keller @matthewkeller
    http://www.UptheMiddle.com

  • http://twitter.com/DanNavarra Dan Navarra

    what if our church community is not 70% facebook users? We are probably closer to 30%.

  • http://twitter.com/carlthomas carl thomas

    I understand the comparison church’s call to action was driven toward the website but I wish you had added how their attendance reacted. In the end, that’s the goal. So if you get half the world to your website, but they all live in Canada that doesn’t make an effective campaign (unless you are in canada I guess). The real proof in what you posted was the attendance spike.

    And not for nothing but there is more to be learned from your post. Not only were you guys able to bring a whole bunch of new folks through the door, the spike continued three weeks out. You were able to deliver on what you were selling. There was not some shock value campaign followed through with some other worship experience.

    Overall really impressive. I know this must have taken a while to write. Thanks for doing it.

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Good question Dan. Our goal was to connect with people on Facebook that had never heard about the church and/or did not attend another church. Facebook has so many users that I’m willing to bet if you jumped onto facebook.com/advertising and created a mock ad you’d probably get a fairly large user base to advertise to. Just for giggles, what is your church’s website? I’ll share a report with you just using that data.

    I’m not saying Facebook is THE answer to everyone’s problems. Mailers are likely effective for some churches more than others. TV, radio, web, knocking on doors, e-vites, newspaper, etc. can all be effective. You just have to recognize who you’re talking to, how they receive information, what problem you might help solve and what call-to-action you are giving them.

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Hey Carl, good thought. By using Facebook we were able to isolate who we targeted down to the city and surrounding radius. So, we knew that people clicking on those ads were local and not in Canada!

    You make a great point that could be an entirely new post – delivering on the expectations you create. Our church set the bar low with no shock and awe, no fancy production value, no giveaways. We made it about something we could consistently deliver on and not feel like we had to top each week, each year or each series. The simplicity model is scalable.

    This discussion is right next door to why I think creating series based on ripping off movies, tv shows and other forms of entertainment are a bad idea – you can’t possibly live up to the expectations of what made those things successful in the first place. I’ll get off my soap box now…and get back on it later. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/sumyunguy sumyunguy

    As a guy that works in Direct Mail printing & mailing the cost of $17K seems a bit excessive for a mailing, but that is just my opinion.

    I know that a web strategy is the future, but I would say most church staffs are not skilled in the ways of the web. I would recommend you might write an additional article on how to take all the steps you detailed above. How does a church purchase facebook ads? How do we get email addresses to do an email ad campaign etc.?

    For those that prefer Direct Mail, I would first suggest talking with your printer and mailhouse to find ways to really narrow down the most responsive aspects of your local demographics. If they work with a good mailing list supplier they should be able to break down lists into multiple categories you might be targeting. You can get mailing lists by yearly salary / age / sex / marital status / # of children / children of certain age, etc. Mail some small test segments of the above and figure out where the sweet spot is and purchase a larger list based on the information you find from the small mailings.

    Second, make sure you are maximizing your print and mailing budget! Did you know it costs the same postage to mail anything larger than 4×6 all the way up to a 6×11 postcard? Make sure you talk to your mailhouse (you are using a mailhouse right?) Did you know it is cheaper to mail a 4×6 postcard presorted First-Class than to mail it regular presorted bulk mail (you are having your mailhouse presort and mail your direct mail with an indicia right?). Ask them where they can save you money on postage. We don’t make any money on postage! The more postage we save you the more pieces you can print and the more people you can reach! DON’T PAY FOR STAMPED MAIL. No one except for your grandma cares about whether there is a pretty stamp on their letter or card. You are paying double for a stamp, plus the extra cost for the setup and stamping at the mailhouse.

    I will stop my rant for now.

  • http://www.shrinkthechurch.com SHRINK the church

    This is great info! Thanks for the post. And yes, it would be good to write some additional articles based on the topics you mentioned. We will consider how best to approach them for future content.

  • http://joshinthe818.com/ Josh Roberts

    Great input on FB ads. We’ve just begun experimenting with them at our church and are looking forward to expanding our usage.

  • Rebecca

    I’ll have to check into that pricing again. Right we pay $0.11 to send anything up to 6×11 with our bulk rate in our same zip code. The added cost is the address printing, tabbing of booklets and processing etc. Still a good price, I think. Gearing up to launch our first FB campaign. Working on combining the two to maximize the reach. Thanks for your input. Great blog post too, STC!

  • http://danielmosley.com Daniel Mosley

    Very insightful Brian. Thanks for the info. Our church (http://churchatchapelhill.com) just experimented with our first Facebook ad campaign and experienced good results.

    This encourages me to keep testing and measuring… thanks again.

  • http://www.chrisloach.com Chris Loach

    loved the article!

  • Paul Alexander

    As always great work guys! Thanks for the concrete example & stats, incredibly helpful stuff!

  • http://twitter.com/cksyme Chris Syme

    Can you give some detailed info on how you measured your call to action? If you are using click-through only as a call to action measure, that is not a reliable measure of whether that click through got people in the house. The big controversy with Facebook ads is that there is presently not a good indicator of how the “click through” actually relates to end-process action (getting people in the door). As your Facebook ads were one of nine channels you used, you really have no way of measuring one of the channel’s actual impact without a direct measure (coupon, etc.) I do like the fact, though, that your total campaign was way cheaper than direct mail and totally agree that direct mail is on the way out. My contention, however, is with the lauding of Facebook ads. They are providing very mixed results. I don’t recommend Facebook ads to chuch clients unless they can show me evidence that over 50% of their congregation is on Facebook. They may be cheap, but there is a reason for that. There is some concern expressed in the church community that the deomgraphic of Facebook isn’t as powerful in the church as in the broad culture. Also, Facebook users are becoming increasingly distrustful of “trick” Facebook ads that get you to click on a phony promise–”click here and find out why this pastor just said, “whoops,” and then invite them to an event. Churches would do best to take the $$ they use for mailers and put them into website upgrades–too many lame ones out there. I do think this is one of the most comprehensive articles on social media metrics in the church I’ve read lately–good job.

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Chris, good points. The ultimate measurement comes from the “Backstage” event which happens 1-2 times a month. We push everyone to Backstage as their next step beyond the weekend. During Backstage we collect data on how/where they heard about MISSION. This would be the same metric used for assessing a direct mail piece.Also, we aren’t reaching out to the 50% plus already connected to the church on Facebook with this type of ad – we’re reaching out to everyone within a radius of the church that would consider checking them out.Again, I’m not saying that Facebook is THE answer for everything. But, in our situation it is a much more efficient and cost-effective approach. The demographic of Facebook goes beyond just Facebook users. You can use Facebook effectively for those that will spread the word/invite their friends, family, neighbors and coworkers offline.I agree that Facebook users are leery of being tricked – aren’t we all. That’s why we try not to bait & switch anyone with our ads – we try to make them interesting enough to notice and deliver on expectations.I also agree that churches would do well to take their mailer money and invest in a better web strategy – in fact that is exactly what we are doing at MISSION right now. We just started a complete re-haul of their website!Thanks for your comments!

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Chris, good points. The ultimate measurement comes from the “Backstage” event which happens 1-2 times a month. We push everyone to Backstage as their next step beyond the weekend. During Backstage we collect data on how/where they heard about MISSION. This would be the same metric used for assessing a direct mail piece.Also, we aren’t reaching out to the 50% plus already connected to the church on Facebook with this type of ad – we’re reaching out to everyone within a radius of the church that would consider checking them out.Again, I’m not saying that Facebook is THE answer for everything. But, in our situation it is a much more efficient and cost-effective approach. The demographic of Facebook goes beyond just Facebook users. You can use Facebook effectively for those that will spread the word/invite their friends, family, neighbors and coworkers offline.I agree that Facebook users are leery of being tricked – aren’t we all. That’s why we try not to bait & switch anyone with our ads – we try to make them interesting enough to notice and deliver on expectations.I also agree that churches would do well to take their mailer money and invest in a better web strategy – in fact that is exactly what we are doing at MISSION right now. We just started a complete re-haul of their website!Thanks for your comments!

  • http://sarcasticxtian.com/ Scott Smith

    Very cool. Thanks for the detailed info! Have bookmarked this for later review with the decisionmakers. :)

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Thanks Scott!

  • Philip

    I am looking at doing a mailer for my business. Do you think facebook and social media would be better for me than a mailer?

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Philip – I can’t really speak to your situation without knowing more about your church, goals, community, etc. For us a Facebook campaign made more sense.

  • http://twitter.com/paulwandrew Paul Andrew

    Hey Brian. I’m a church planter in New York City. We’re currently have monthly Gatherings, moving towards a launch of weekly services in January 2011. Direct mail is a tough prospect up here with apartment buildings and an aversion to unsolicited mail. BUT… as a church planter I don’t have the database that you had access to with a church of 2000+ or 1500+ likes on Facebook before launching the digital campaign.

    Any thoughts on how to apply your strategy for a church plant where the database and social media reach is smaller pre the campaign? I’m very keen, and social media has definitely been our most successful tool to date in actually connecting people into our community.

    Thanks
    Paul Andrew, Liberty Church NYC

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Paul, thanks for your comment. Actually, you do have access to the entire Facebook database thru their advertising system. All you have to do is narrow down who you are advertising to through the demographic you are trying to reach!

  • Jmurr

    I attend Mission as well, and use the e-giving feature. I do not like that you click on the button that says give/sign in. Then, you have to click another button to get to the sign in page. Then you can sign in. I hope this is one area that is being considered for an adjustment on the website. Just a suggestion for new people who may want to do e-giving. Obviously, I have bookmarked the page, but my initial account setup took way too long.

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    Thx for the feedback. Noted!

  • Bonnie

    Chris,

    You wrote: “I don’t recommend Facebook ads to chuch clients unless they can show me evidence that over 50% of their congregation is on Facebook.”

    I would agree if they want to pay for ads to reach church members. However, I would interject “Why would you do that?” For my church, ads on Facebook are not for our fanbase. In fact, I exclude them so we aren’t paying for their click.

    I think a better question might be, “How many people in your community are on Facebook?” My city’s population estimate for 2009 is 28,381. There are 13,820 Facebook members who live within 10 miles. 25 miles? 646,040 people. I don’t even have to look at the number of fans for the areas largest churches to know there are a lot of unchurched people on Facebook.

    You also wrote: “There is some concern expressed in the church community that the deomgraphic of Facebook isn’t as powerful in the church as in the broad culture.”

    If so, we aren’t doing a very good job salting the earth. If my church had 0 members/attenders on Facebook, we obviously need a Facebook presence. Because our mission field is on FB.

    And finally, you wrote, “Churches would do best to take the $$ they use for mailers and put them into website upgrades–too many lame ones out there.”

    I agree!

  • Gabriel Alexis

    me gustaria saber que ofrece para el mercado hispano, si tienes alguna estadisticas de resultados sobre este tema.

  • Keith Lowry

    Brian, great stuff! We use FB, twitter, and Constant Contact, though I’ll take a look at MailChimp today for comparison. Really enjoyed this comprehensive comparison. Thanks so much!

    Keith Lowry
    Texas Baptists

  • http://twitter.com/johannaprice Johanna Price

    Hi Brian — Really informative. Thank you. Did all 3 ads click to your church’s FB page? I was clicking around setting up a mock ad to gather data, and it seems like I have to have it link either to our FB page or an event on our FB page. True?

  • http://twitter.com/brianckaufman Brian Kaufman

    All 3 went to our custom-designed Facebook landing tab. You can actually set any URL you’d like when creating the ads. It is not limited to Facebook-only links. Hope that helps!

  • Charles

    Some interesting thoughts and statistics based upon a total of almost two churches. Sounds like you had some good success from you marketing campaign but to completely rule out the effectiveness of direct mail for all churches is quite presumptuous. To compare 8.2 million impressions to 80000 households is basically worthless unless your church is in the middle of Manhattan. Of course that would be to assume that all of those impressions are right around your church. The biggest problem is that most churches are much smaller and would spend less than $3000 to reach 15000 households around their location while not being able to come close in generating the same amount of impressions as a larger one like yours. Anyway, I do think that social media can be an affective tool but doubtful that it will completely replace the tried and true direct mail- based upon real statistics.

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  • guywalker

    Paul, great question! Launching with social media is a lot easier when
    you already have followers in the city. Brian have you used google ads? & who gave you that price for a mailer. I would expect <$12,000 for 80,000 pieces. ($ .068 nonprofit mailing rate + $.07 to print + $800 design = $11,840)

  • church postcard mailings

    I am amazed to know this statistics ..You have really done a very good job Brian. Keep going….!!

  • church postcard mailings

    In my opinion church mails are not at all a waste of money. They help the poor from the money they collect from various marketing strategies. http://www.directmail4churches.com/