How to Advertise Your Parish Event so that People Turn Up
By Richard McMahon (Director of Parish Services)
Two common complaints around parish events: “It’s always the same people who come!” or “We put in so much effort and hardly anyone showed up!” Here is a checklist which may help ensure the next event has a good turn up and successful outcome.
Give Yourself Time... and God Time
Ensure you plan the big event at least three months ahead. This allows one month to shape the event with others and prepare materials. The second month to advertise and the final month to do follow up and do final preparations. Obviously, bigger events require longer time frames. So many events fail because effort was put into preparation with no time left to promote. Involve prayer from the outset, and ask your prayer groups to include your event in their intentions.
Who are You Inviting?
Is the event for committed parishioners? Is it for those who come to Sunday Mass but not involved in broader parish? Is it an outreach to those not normally at Sunday Mass? Is it for younger Catholics? Is it for retirees?
If the invitation is too broad or tries to capture all, everyone may slip through the net. Who do you really want to come?
What is the Goal of Your Event?
If you cannot answer this question in a short sentence, you are in trouble. A clear focus for your event will help people decide whether to attend. It will also help with your planning. A simple focus activity can be: “At the end of the event I hope people will have…” Then list three main goals (eg socialised; learnt about Christian ethics; felt appreciated in their parish roles; discovered what our parish has to offer).
What is Your Budget?
If the goal of your event is to reanimate your community, then this sounds significant and surely needs to be backed with a reasonable budget – including a realistic advertising budget. Sometimes all the budget goes into speaker and catering and nothing is left to promote! Conversely, a well-established function may require only minimal advertising.
Is it what People Want or Need?
You could have the best keynote speaker on ethics in the world, but is that what people are interested in? A short survey of parishioner interests may help appreciate what they want. Be sure to concentrate your survey on the focus group of who you are seeking to invite.
A different question is what is needed. Parish leadership can recognise the need for formation in liturgy or an event to build a fractured community. You may not get these answers from a survey of the general parish. Such events require a mixture of what people want (to get them to come) and what they need. As Mary Poppins says: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”
Is it at a Good Time?
Does it clash with sports awards, First Communion, the school fete or State of Origin? Has the parish or local region just held a big event; will people be tired out? Is it too close to Christmas or in school holidays? Is a focus on liturgy formation the best thing if a community is feeling fractured? Maybe they need a community building event first?
Is it also at a good time of week? Again, a survey can ask these questions, with some general questions about their demographics. So, if you discover those interested in Christian ethics are all retirees then maybe a weekday morning session may work best.
Is it a Welcoming Venue?
Size of the group is an important determinant to where you hold an event. The big hall is great but if only 15 people are coming, is there a smaller venue that would suit? A significant parish event may require a hire of a local venue. This shows that the event is special and ensures a good environment. A good venue will have adequate temperature control, enough toilets, a good speaker system, and a good stage and screen, and comfortable seating. Sometimes people won’t come because no matter how much they are attracted to your event, they remember how drafty the hall was last time or how hard the seats were or how they couldn’t hear anything. If you are catering, are there adequate kitchen facilities?
Who Will Promote and How?
Parishes sometimes fall over at this point with their event promotion. The main promoter becomes the priest from the pulpit and the bulletin. Modern marketing speaks of the “white noise” your message has to penetrate through to reach the listener. In other words, there are so many competing noises in our consumer world, that hearing an event advertised once may simply not find room in the listener’s mind.
The key is repetition of promotion AND promoting through many different formats: bulletin, pulpit, notice board, website, sandwich board, letter drop, flyers on pews, email, SMS alert, twitter, Facebook, school bulletin, local newspaper.
The most important promoter is personal invitation. If three separate people can invite one parishioner, they are far more likely to attend.
At the same time, we need to ask God to be at the heart of our event. A simple prayer of the faithful or parish prayer for larger events shows how serious this occasion is to the life of the community.
How to Get Others to Promote?
Quite simply, if an event is only the idea of one person, then others may help promote but may not be as enthusiastic. Is this an event which the parish pastoral council has helped put together? Are they passionate about it? What about the finance committee, liturgy committee, stewardship committee, adult faith team?
The more significant the event, the more important to bring the coordinators of all your parish ministries together as early as possible. If youth are involved then are youth representatives at this planning meeting? If it is for non-Mass goers, have you considered speaking to the school P&F or local community leaders to hear what are the broader concerns of the community? Could you combine neighbourhood watch issue with your event – if that is of concern to your area?
Brainstorm your ideas and event with them. Let them shape the event with you, let them share their ideas; let them share in the big decisions. If you can get your key community members excited and committed, then you are halfway there. Better still if they are putting up their hands to help with catering, set up and promotion. Alternatively, if they are only lukewarm, maybe it is time to reconsider your event’s goals.
Form a small team to promote and prepare for the event. This is crucial, as parish leaders, however committed, will have limited time to contribute and a good event promotion requires an ongoing commitment.
What is Your Advertising Content?
While you cannot judge a book by its cover, a poorly designed poster or messy bulletin notice may be all it takes to lose the interest of a potential attendee. Well designed glossy colour flyers say to people your event matters and compete with similar materials invading our letterboxes and emails daily. Surprisingly, 10,000 small colour glossy flyers can cost as little as $250! You may also consider investing in a graphic designer, or one may exist in your community. These people have special gifts in making your event engaging to your target audience.
Posters should have in large print the main goal of your event and a large image reflecting this goal. Consider A3 size (or larger!) People walk past notice boards at a distance and so large words and images are needed. Less is more with posters as long as there are clear contacts for finding out more information.
For your advertising does it answer these questions:
- Why should I be interested? What will I get out of it?
- Where? When?
- How much will it cost?
- Will there be food and drink (especially if around meal time)?
- And for parish events – will they want me to do a job if I go? People are sometimes turned off because they are suspicious that there will be strings attached.
- Do I need to RSVP?
- Who do I contact? How?
Where is it Promoted?
As already noted, bulletin notices and a pulpit appeal are well short of what is needed.
If your event matters, show that through the prominence in your bulletin. If possible, add an additional flyer and insert this in the bulletin. Ensure advertising occurs in the bulletin at least four to six weeks before event and try changing the message each week – as well as the heading. Different messages appeal to different people. Larger bulletins can include engaging images and perhaps the personal endorsement of recognized parishioners who are attending.
Speaking at Mass
Have other people deliver the invitation and then back it up with the priest’s endorsement. The priest may feel they are only repeating what has been said, but those in the pews are quick to judge what the priest may be enthusiastic about by the priest’s willingness to add their own words of support. Again, have the message delivered over a few weeks, with a different angle each time. If it is seeking a particular target group, then have someone from the target group offer the message.
Significant events may even require people to fill out an attendance form before the end of Mass and/or have a registration table set up after the Mass.
Local Catholic School
Both the Catholic Primary School and Regional Catholic School are excellent forums to share the message. Beyond the school newsletter and website, place posters at strategic locations, send flyers home with endorsement from principal and offer talks at assemblies.
A personalised letter from the parish priest to parishioners involved in ministry or to other key members of the parish followed up with a phone call from a member of the pastoral council to attend a planning meeting for your big event is a great start. Then the various coordinators can issue their own letters followed by their own calls to personally invite to the event.
Emails, SMS, Facebook, Twitter
The communication world is changing and it is important that your advertising employs these mediums. However, a word of warning. Do not become dependent solely on these approaches. Email boxes are overflowing and your message can be lost. Not everyone has computer access or is connected via facebook. There is also a message that you are making a greater effort if people receive a personalized paper invitation. An email attachment may never be open; an invitation in the hand is easier to ignore.
“How to Invite” Guide
There are flyers available which assist parishioners in inviting others to a gathering. It sounds like such a simple thing, yet Catholics tend to be shy and don’t like to be pushy. Offering them some simple techniques can take the pain out of inviting others. And, as we have said, personal invitation is the most powerful way of persuading others to participate.
There is easily space for another article as there are many more considerations. Most importantly, when people come to the event will they have a positive experience? Offering a good event does wonders for people’s desire to come again and for them to say to others that it is worth the outing!
Some things to consider at the event have been mentioned but include comfort for participants, a nice looking venue, good sound and lighting, proper accessibility including for those with a disability and for those who find walking difficult. Is there a crèche if the event is for families? Have people been asked for dietary needs? Does the event start and finish on time? If we are inviting strangers or people are unfamiliar with the locale is it well lit and signed? Are there ample parking spaces? Ushers and greeters can make a great difference too and good food and drink can make all the difference!