Stuff Christian Marketers Like: An Interview With Jon Acuff

April 1, 2010 by

2010_03_03_sclbook.jpegRecently, we had the chance to chat with Jonathan Acuff about his life and church marketing. You might have heard of a little book he’s got called, you guessed it, Stuff Christians Like. In celebration of the April Fool’s Day release, he was kind enough to share some wisdom with us. Here’s our conversation:

Why don’t you start by telling us a little more about how you’re involved in church and church marketing?

Jon: Well, for the last dozen years or so, I’ve been a copywriter. I’ve had the chance to write advertising for folks like The Home Depot, Staples, Bose, Chick-fil-A and the Sports Authority. Along the way, as I had a bit of a prodigal son moment, I started to get curious about the ways the gospel intersected with the communication field. Since then, I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of churches, including North Point Community Church, which is where my family and I attend.

So on this crazy ride that is Stuff Christians Like, what have you learned about church marketing and people’s attitudes towards it?

Jon: I think that sometimes people confuse “bad church marketing” with “church marketing.” Or they confuse “profiting from the gospel” with “proclaiming the gospel.” I think that church marketing, when skillfully done, can be a beautiful expression of art and honesty. I think when executed poorly it comes off as cheesy and insincere and insulting. But right now, at least in our culture, advertising is one of the most important ways to understand what people care about.

To ignore advertising as the church is to ignore the billions of dollars in research companies spend in understanding people, the same people we’re trying to reach. I think like anything else it can be abused, but when it’s not, I think it can be really vital.

So we shouldn’t ignore marketing and advertising. And church marketing can often be misunderstood. But what do you think effective church marketing really looks like?

Jon: Here’s something I need to write about on Stuff Christians Like at some point. If you are a pastor and you want free access to billions of dollars in research, study advertising. Because that ad in the magazine you see came at the end of a possible year long study, with focus groups and target audiences and a dozen case studies. That ad is quietly saying to you, “Here’s what people in your community care about, here’s what matters to young mothers, here’s what people are talking about.”

So for me, church advertising looks like it understands where the world is and then it takes a radical left turn and tells the truth. Domino’s made some waves by being honest about their pizza recently. I would love to see the local church be that honest and transparent about the ways they’ve succeeded and also failed. I think that the undercurrent of all church advertising should be honesty.

Take for instance Dos Equis beer. Their character, the most interesting man in the world, says “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.” People love that because it’s kind of honest. In contrast to the typical beer ad, “I love this beer, this beer changed my life,” he says, “I don’t always drink it.” The church needs to be honest like that and contrast the world, but to do so means that you have to understand the world. You don’t get contrast without understanding.

That’s the good, but there’s a bad half, too. You covered giant, inflatable gorillas way back in post #107 with Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! Are there any other things you’ve seen churches doing in their marketing lately that have you logging into SCL to poke with your proverbial stick?

Jon: It depends, the one I mentioned in that post is the one that really stuck with me, because the church in question was giving away a car. And the challenge with an idea like that is that you have to help people move from concept to core idea. That is, you have to bridge the gap from the splashy/fun hook to the real message. In that particular case, the concept was “free car” and the core message was “undying love and grace of Jesus Grace.” The gap between those two ideas is massive. It’s so hard to naturally flow from “come enter to win a free car” and “give your life to the blood of Christ.”

Although I fail at this often, I try to never make fun of churches. My dad is a pastor, and churches have a nearly impossible job with barely any budget. But the ones I do try to challenge are the ones who create huge gaps between their marketing and their message.

Seeing the state of church marketing, is there any advice you’d give to the church at large with regard to church marketing to moving towards a successful future?

Jon: Go slow and don’t overpay. I don’t think every church needs the same level of marketing. What worked for a church down the street from you might not be good for your church. Take your time. Don’t let some punk copywriter like me up sell you into a Twitter account and a social campaign and a million other things you might not need.

Focus on your church first and your advertising second. Think of it this way: if you were a store with empty shelves, you wouldn’t run an expensive ad to get people to your store. Your shelves are empty. You would focus on those first and eventually advertise them. So go slow.

And when in doubt, copy Nooma. The Nooma series is probably the best thing I’ve ever seen the church produce and market.

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Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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2 Responses to “Stuff Christian Marketers Like: An Interview With Jon Acuff”

  • Heath
    April 1, 2010

    Great analysis on the balance between marketing as “gimmick” and marketing as “understanding your market”. If you know what makes your people tick you’ll know how to reach them. Sometimes this takes research and focus groups, not a bad thing.

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  • bondChristian
    April 2, 2010

    Thanks for sharing, Jon, and thanks CMS guys for getting him here. I learned a lot I didn’t know… and I read Jon’s blog almost every day (I didn’t even know he’s a copywriter – how did I miss that?).
    I love your point about the secular world spending billions of dollars to understand people, and then we just ignore it. Sure, we’re called to be led by the Bible, and we certainly have an advantage because of that resource, but to ignore the rest? Ridiculousness!
    …Also, it makes me wonder if we as the church are putting in as much effort to understand those we’re ministering to, even if it’s not spent on traditional, “marketing” budget.
    -Marshall Jones Jr.

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