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6 marketing ideas from retail giants

SUMMARY: Your congregants are also consumers. They are the audiences reached by millions of advertisements and promotions produced by the retail industry. While the billion-dollar giants of marketing sometimes get a bad reputation for manipulation or overselling products, we can learn from their approaches.

Retail marketing nets big results. The industry is always reinventing itself, and so can you. Use these tried-and-true strategies to strengthen your marketing efforts.

1. Dress up.
In the weeks before April 15, Uncle Sam makes appearances on street corners around the U.S. He's there to draw attention to local tax services. Consider having a congregant (look to your youth group for help) dress up to promote a unique activity or service in the church. Imagine Noah in front of your church, complete with a few animals (stuffed are OK), to promote a worship service, Sunday school or vacation Bible school. Cokesbury provides costume patterns and ideas with its VBS packages. The Hometown Nazareth VBS offers a Bible-times costume pattern pack. The easy-to-sew patterns - a Roman soldier, rabbi and other Bible-times costumes - may be used for other church events.

2. Go A/B.
Retail marketers spend billions, so they need to know which messages work. They often conduct A/B test campaigns, where one audience receives message A and another receives message B. The researchers compare responses as demonstrated through email click-through rates, number of coupons redeemed and so forth. With that information, marketers launch the campaign for the masses using the most effective one. For example, if you use an email service provider (ESP), consider sending two different emails regarding one of your ministries. Make one message long and include details. Make the other message short and to the point, linking to more information on a website. Use your ESP's analytic tools to determine which program garners the most click-throughs. In follow-up e-mails, use the method that works best. Test different subject lines, images, stories and ministries. Read this article to learn about sending messages to segments of your congregation.

3. Catch their eye.
Stores catch your attention with appealing visuals, signage and friendly clerks. Incorporate this strategy by placing a banner promoting your church's programs front and center in the lawn or by the main entry. Promote things like community projects, exercise groups and children's programs. For a special event, consider larger banners that work with your other signage and incorporate hard-to-miss details such as air puppets or even an outdoor billboard.

4. Giveaways
Take a lesson from Gap, which gave free jeans to customers who went to their store and checked in via the Facebook "places" feature. "Places" lets you share where you are and find friends nearby. It's basically Facebook's version of foursquare. You can check in at places you visit from your mobile phone and tag friends who are with you. Check out the "places" FAQ page.

At your local church, allow the first five people who check in during a particular worship service or big event to pick a hymn, special music, Scripture or other element of worship. Coordinate those elements into future services to encourage them to come back and witness it. Offer children an opportunity to choose that month's fun activity. Make it creative to involve everyone.

5. Create a catalog.
No, we're not suggesting you drop a five-pound glossy book on people's doorsteps. However, you can display the best of God's work in your community through direct mail, door hangers and invitation cards. Instead of using only a picture of your church with the worship times, feature your entire "line" of services. Share ways to be involved in the community through service projects, social time, volunteer opportunities and children'sactivities. Give them plenty of details so they're not left guessing who you are and what you offer.

6. Take calculated risks.
Whether it's toothpaste with foaming suds or a microwave popcorn bag that becomes a bowl, retailers always are looking for the next new thing. Likewise, let your creativity flow in sharing the ministries of the church through fun, new ideas. Set up an online Bible-study group through Facebook. Invite group members to share their reflections with one another. Ask them to share the group with friends so they can begin faith conversations in new ways with new people. Whatever the scenario, the goal is to get outside your marketing-strategy comfort zone.