Step One in Online Parishioner Engagement: Email

Want to engage your parishioners online?  Should you setup a Facebook Page for your Church?  Start tweeting?  What about pinning on Pinterest?  Or checking in at your Church on Foursquare?

Yes, you can and should, use at least some of these tools to help engage your parishioners online.  These tools are not, however, the place to start.  There’s one simple, pervasive tool that’s often overlooked and that’s, email.  I know its not as cool as these social media services, but think about it.  We may all be in awe at the number of users on Facebook.  Over 800 million people are indeed on Facebook, but I think its fair to say that virtually everyone who is on the Internet is on email.  You can literally count on everyone who is connected to the Internet in your parish to have an email account, and more importantly they use it and use it regularly.  For the average parishioner, the number of times they update their Facebook status or tweet, pale in comparison to the number of times they check their email inbox or send an email.  This may eventually change as the texting generation grows up, but for now, email is the gold standard in online communication.

Because of this pervasiveness and general acceptance email is the place you to start your church’s online communication program.  It’s also key for you to start making connections with your parishioners online.  You can’t invite your parishioners to an upcoming event, your new Facebook page, or your Online Donation system unless you have their email addresses.  Unfortunately, relying on the data in your Church Management System is typically not enough.  It’s hard to get parishioners to keep their email and other personal information updated.  Its not that they don’t want to, we just don’t make it easy for them and incent them to do so.  Good use of email as a communication tool with content that interests your parishioners is a great way to incent your parishioners to provide and keep their contact information updated.

So how can you effectively use email as a communication tool for your parish?  I recommend that you start small and build each step along the way.  The goal here is provide frequent, relevant content that interests your parishioners.  This typically manifests itself as an e-Newsletter, e-Bulletin, or the email distribution of a parish blog.

If those suggestions sound daunting, start small.  Start by just building a distribution mechanism for your current church bulletin in .pdf format.  The church bulletin remains the staple communication mechanism for many churches and there is a surprising demand to have the bulletin published online.  My company, Liturgical Publications, prints church bulletins for over 4000 catholic parishes around the country.  We currently publish these bulletins electronically on our website, http://www.seekandfind.com.  Over 250,000 Catholics go to our website monthly to look for their bulletin or signup to receive their bulletin via email.

Figure 1 - St. Clement Parish e-Newsletter in Chicago, IL

Offering your church bulletin via email is a simple way to start building your email list.  As your list builds and you get comfortable in managing the email distribution process then you can look at adding content to your email communication, branding the content to your church, and using that content to inform the parishioners and drive them to your church website, Facebook Page, or wherever you want to send them online.  Figure 1, is a nice example of what a church e-Newsletter should look like.  That may be your ultimate goal with email, but starting with a simple weekly email that says ‘Click here to read your weekly church bulletin’, is a great way to begin building your email list and getting familiar with the email distribution process.

Why Every Church Should Be Using an Email Marketing Program

You really shouldn’t start an email communication initiative with just your church’s email system.   While you can try, tools like Constant Contact, VerticalResponse, and my personal favorite, MailChimp make it so much easier and offer some important benefits as you scale your email communication program.  I like MailChimp because its free to get started and will remain free for most moderately sized churches.  Any of these products though will work quite nicely.  Here’s a few of top reasons why you need an email marketing program:

  • Email List Size – Ever try sending an email to a few hundred people?  MS Outlook and other personal mail tools really don’t do this well.
  • Email List Management– Group email lists generate a few headaches. If you send out an email to 25 parishioners lets say on your Adult Faith Formation list, chances are you’ll get a couple of responses like, “please remove me from your list” or “you forgot to include so and so”.  Email Marketing Programs handle all the Opt out, Opt in, and Refer a Friend functions for you.

    Figure 2 - Signup Widget on the Church Website

  • I’m Not Sending Spam! – Of course your not, but at some point one of your email recipients will press the spam button.  Email Marketing programs go to great lengths to make sure you have a clean, valid list of subscribers and encourage you to use the double-opt in process so your recipients know they’re getting emails from you.
  • Share the Work – Email enables you to spread your message and email marketing programs enable you to share the work.  Now, you can have any church leader who’s sending email communication within your church accessing the same email list.
  • Parishioner Opt-In – One of the key mechanisms to grow your list is make it easy for parishioners to provide their information.  All commercial email marketing programs have a signup widget that’s simple to deploy to most church websites.  This lets parishioners signup to receive emails right from your website (see figure 2).   If you provide them content they’re interested in, they’ll readily join your mailing list and the double opt-in process ensures they really want your emails and you have their accurate email address.  Adding this signup box to your church website is simple for most web administrators to do in a few minutes.
  • Professional Looking Emails – Make your emails look like they’re professionally done and branded by your church.  With these tools you can easily add in headers and footers to all your emails, brand your emails with your logo, or if you’re willing to spend a few hours of time, you can create a cool email template that makes all your emails look rather professional and clearly from your church.

At Liturgical Publications, our corporate tagline has been for years, Connecting Your Community.  We changed this to, Connecting Your Community in Print and Online.  Each church’s goal should be to reach out to their parishioners where they’re spending an increasingly larger amount of time, online.  An email communication programs should be your first step to begin to engage your parishioners online.

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Author:Joe Luedtke

Joe Luedtke is the Chief Operating Officer for Liturgical Publications (LPi). Joe specializes in Social Media and Web 2.0 and is currently leading LPi’s efforts to move into the on-line world. Joe works for the world's largest and oldest social network, religion, and believes that this social network could benefit tremendously from the the proper use of Internet technologies.
  • Brad

    Couldn’t agree more. We get so caught up in the other services that it’s easy to forget how powerful email is and a great way to get info out.

  • Beth Nicol

    Our small parish uses a “listserv” style email list for communication — it has been very effective in helping to “get news out” for mid-week occurrences such as funerals or other unscheduled events. And, most parishioners use email. We’ve found it to be a very effective tool for keeping in touch.

  • Dave Gambino

    Joe, great topics by the way. We’ve tried solving this problem for our parishes as easily as we can by providing a feature that AUTOMATICALLY sends out professional looking emails weekly to the members. This weekly digest email includes any new announcements on the website and events for the upcoming week. Here is an example: http://www.catholicchurchwebsites.com There is also no additional work for the staff other than just updating the site as they normally do. Rather than just updating the site and hope people visit, now you can update the site and have a clean, organized email go out to your parish in one easy step. Imagine the time you can save?

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