Looking for God? Google just might be able to point you in the right direction, and not just using their new local search listings. While the growth of small to mid-sized businesses advertising via paid search advertising is no longer news to anyone, the gradual adoption of paid search and other online marketing techniques by churches comes as a bit of a surprise to many within the industry. It shouldn't.

While most churches are notoriously slow to adopt technology due to budget and staff constraints, many are starting to embrace proven online marketing techniques in order to expand their reach for both new members and to individuals that could benefit from the church's outreach programs. Sites like Church Marketing Sucks, Heal Your Church Web Site and the Knowledge Lab at the Center for Church Communication are devoted to helping churches navigate the sometimes choppy waters of online marketing.

The attention now being paid to pay-per-click marketing as a form of outreach marks an important shift in the attitude of the modern church. "More and more people use search engines to find the things they are looking for each and every day. This includes churches and ministries" says David Wallace, founder of Search Rank, a search engine marketing firm.

Wallace goes on to explain that despite the consumer shift toward using the web as a research medium, many churches have still failed to grasp the full potential of search engine marketing. "Many church web sites lie in obscurity simply because their webmasters neglect to promote them. With some good ol' SEO targeting both the geographical location of the church as well as the type of ministry or beliefs, a church web site could attract many new visitors. It is a form of marketing that some churches are starting to wake up to but unfortunately, many are still asleep."

That said, there are plenty of churches out there that are focused on outreach via engines like Google and the Yahoo! Search Marketing program. Church Marketing Sucks featured a post earlier this week outlining the success that a church in Colorado is having using paid search ads on Google to reach out to people looking for a church. The Rock at Church Ranch told the blog site that they've increased visits to their web site from 5 a day to 45 a day paying only about 10 cents a click. They've also averaged 28 visitors per month, or about two families a week; not a bad expansion for a church of less than 150 people.

The use of paid search to market churches isn't yet sweeping the nation; I searched a dozen or so major cities and could only find a handful (San Francisco, Albany, NY, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami) that had any ads for churches. However, many within the industry acknowledge that it's simply a matter of time before we see more interest from churches in online advertising.

Jason Dowdell, who comments on the search industry in his Marketing Shift blog explained why we can expect to see a growth in interest from churches. "There are millions of people using search engines to improve their quality of life every day and the internet may in fact be the world's largest mission field. So it's no wonder churches and religions are opening their eyes to technology and especially search. Whether it's a paid search program or natural search engine optimization, churches are wising up."

It isn't just churches that are seeking to use Google Ads for outreach. Last summer I covered a story about Google's refusal to run an ad from the Christian apologetic ministry called Stand to Reason. Stand to Reason was making use of AdWords to try and drive traffic to a series of articles that they'd placed on their Web site. The site's desire to advertise their articles by targeting controversial keywords demonstrated an increased level of understanding of just what can be done using paid search. The move reflected the use of AdWords ads to drive traffic to political sites like MoveOn.org during the 2004 elections. This type of targeted online marketing continues to grow. Running a search today for many hotly debated religious and spiritual topics brings up AdWords links to a variety of Christian Web sites mixed in with more secular sites.

Many ministries are finding that they can reach their target audience (or even potential donors) at a much more reasonable cost using paid search than they can using more traditional media outlets.

An example of the way that paid search marketing can effectively stretch a ministry's advertising dollars is the work being done via Google AdWords and Yahoo! Search Marketing by Care Net, which runs a national crisis pregnancy hotline. Kurt Entsminger, the president of Care Net, shares that since the mid-90's Care Net had relied primarily upon billboards, television and Yellow Pages as the primary means of promoting its hotline. The cost per call from their marketing efforts ranged from $15 to $80. Care Net considered any campaign with a cost per call of less than $25 to be successful. Since the company adopted paid search marketing last year, they have seen their ppc-related cost per call drop to just $5.

Entsminger explains that the benefits of paid search advertising go beyond lowering marketing costs. "Not only is Internet advertising producing calls at much less expense, it is also proving most successful in reaching our target audience of women in crisis pregnancies."

That makes pay-per-click advertising a tempting use of funds, as it helps stretch the limited financial resources of many ministries and churches into a form of marketing that can deliver more impression that they could have otherwise afforded.

"Since there is an ever growing number of searches for Christian-related keyphrases, it only makes sense that ministries need to position themselves to be found by those who are seeking help" explains Karon Thackston, author of The Step by Step Copywriting Course.

However, those within the industry realize that attention to paid search will mean little if the web sites that searchers are directed to are not built in a user-friendly manner. Thackston goes on to explain that all the PPC ads in the world won't help if the ministry isn't also focusing on the quality of their site. "If a visitor clicks from a search listing to a website that is homemade-looking, is un-maintained or is not functional, the reaction will be much the same as with someone clicking to an ecommerce site. They'll leave! Not only does the information need to up clear and up-to-date, but the technology has to be functional in order to safely and securely receive prayer requests, correspondence or online donations."

Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of the movement toward online marketing is the realization that there is no good way to market if you don't have a clear-cut message to bring to the people. "The biggest problem with church marketing is a lack of anything to say" says Matt Bailey, the web marketing director of The Karcher Group.

"The most effective strategy, for any organization, is to establish a primary goal for the campaign" says Bailey. "Is this for outreach? Is this for members? Is this the praise team schedule? If you use the outreach blog to announce the time for the covered dish dinner, you’ve lost the searcher. The message is the focus. The message is what makes churches different. Churches happen to have the most powerful message at their disposal, yet it typically gets lost in the other 'stuff'."

There's a lot of talk in the industry about Google being the god of search. That may or not be true in the eyes of many within the search industry. What is true, however, is that God, and His people, are finding ways to use Google for their own purposes.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
July 13, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > The God of Search (and I Don't Mean Google)