Whether or not a Church is willing to admit it, every Church has a marketing strategy.  They may deny it, use religious language to disguise it, or neglect to define it.  Laissez Faire marketing is a strategy even if it is not articulated in a formal manner.  Marketing is about how you communicate what you are about as a Church.  A great web site with a saucy title tackles this issue head-on: www.churchmarketingsucks.com.  I recommend it.

What I would like to focus on in this post, though is not whether a Church should embrace marketing.  See the above website for that discussion.  Instead I want to focus on a significant shift taking place in the marketing world, the move to customer centric marketing.

I first became aware of it while taking the Wharton School’s free Introduction to Marketing class on Coursera.  One of the professors who taught the class, Peter Fader, is an expert on customer centricity.  He has written a short introductory text on the subject which I encourage you to read:  Customer Centricity:  Focus on the Right Customers For Strategic  Advantage, By Peter Fader, Wharton Executive Essentials, Second Edition, Wharton Digital Press.

What is Customer Centric Marketing?

Fader defines Customer Centricity in the following manner:

…it is a strategy that aligns a company’s development and delivery of its products and services with the current and future needs of a select set of customers.

Customer centric firms seek to identify their best customers and then taylor their efforts to deliver the services and products to these customers.  Among the big firms practicing customer centricity are Netflix, Amazon and the British retailer Tresco.

A customer centric company seeks to identify each “customer’s life time value” (CLV), or what each person is likely to mean to the company over the length of their relationship.  There are different ways to do this depending on the type of company.  A contract or subscription based company like a cell phone provider would study “retention rates” and “churn rates” of different groups of customers to identify their CLV.  A non-subscription firm would look at the relationship between three pieces of information recency, frequency, and the value of each transaction.  Once identified, the best customers are segmented, or grouped into cohorts.  These cohorts are then studied by the firms with two goals in mind;  1. They want to understand each cohort so they might identify other potential customers just like them.  2. They want to use their knowledge of their best customers to design and market products and services that will meet their needs and desires.  Those who are not the best customers are invited to go along for the ride, but the company will focus their efforts on their best customers not everyone else.

The customer centric strategy is in contrast to the product centered strategy which has dominated the market for most of the twentieth century.  In a product centered strategy the firm focus on developing products and product lines.  It is based upon the principle the more products you sell, the cheaper it becomes to manufacture those products. Volume is key.  Over time a product centered firm develops a portfolio of products the sale of which is the basis of its profits.  Success depends on developing new products, marketing them, selling them, and repeating the process over and over again on ever increasing scale.

Churches are not in the business of maximizing profits, though I will grant that some may be.  They are, or should be,  in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Whether you agree with it or not the Church in the west is influenced by the product centered world we live in.  A typical Church’s product portfolio includes its worship experiences, children’s ministries, youth ministries, small group program, pastoral care, and even it mission projects.  As a pastor I felt pressure to produce a superior product and expand the product portfolio, though usually we hid the reality of product centricity behind a facade of religious language.

You may bemoan this as consumerism gone wrong in the American Church, and swear you do not want any part of it.  I can’t disagree with you.  However, for better or worse we find ourselves living in one of the greatest cultures of consumerism in the history of the world.  As a people we think and act from the mindset of consumers.  It is the environment we find ourselves living in, and working in.  The people we are called to reach will look at us through the eyeglasses of consumers.  Marketing is the language of our culture.  If we want to reach people we will need to speak in their language and to their language.  With regard to the latter, Revelation 18 is one place where we can start, but that is a topic for another time.

From my point of view customer centricity is potentially a positive development for the Church in the west.  I don’t think Jesus was big on products.  And I increasingly think worship as a product misses what real worship is about.  Focusing on people instead of on products is a step in the right direction.  Instead of best customers I might suggest Churches think what the best disciples of Jesus look like.  Thinking in terms of Jesus’ parable of the soils and the farmer who scatters seeds on all the different types of them, might it be possible to identify the good soil so that we give it extra attention while not neglecting the other types of soil?  A Church focusing on people’s needs sounds much better to me than one focusing on programs.

These are only initial thoughts.  I am sure there is much more to consider and debate.  I am fully aware I do not have all the answers.  But of one thing I am certain, with thirty years of experience as a pastor, the product centered strategy is not working for the majority of average sized churches in America.

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