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Create the right online advertising plan

SUMMARYCommercial advertisers’ big efforts always center on Christmas. However, advertising by faith communities is evolving as churches recognize the value in online promotions to reach seekers year-round.

Change is essential for the church to stay relevant. According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than a third of Americans younger than 50 do not have a religious affiliation. Web-based advertising campaigns can help bring younger people into your United Methodist community.

 Prospective church members may search for a greater spiritual presence online or participate in other online activities. You can reach various audience segments with a well-thought strategic approach to online advertising.

Start your engines
Young people, especially, are searching for religious communities online and use search engines to find a place to worship. Take steps to make certain your church’s Web site comes to top of view in search engines.

Evaluate how these online “searchers” think. What words would they type into the search-engine box? Use Google AdWords Key Word tool to help in this task. You input words someone might use in a search, and it suggests other keywords most likely to return quality leads within your budget. No budget? Use no-cost options such as incorporating these words or phrases into your Web site copy and descriptive “tags.”

Have a budget for online advertising? You can start with relatively inexpensive keyword advertising on Google AdWordsAd Sense or Yahoo Search Marketing. In these programs, you create ads and choose keywords related to your business. When people type in your ad’s keywords as part of their search, your ad may appear next to the results. (In Google, these appear on the right under “Sponsors” or highlighted at the top.)

Keyword advertising campaigns can be quite successful, but they require thought and ongoing attention. You cannot simply pick a few words and hope for the best. Start by writing effective ads. Consider doing multiple campaigns so you can test a variety of words and messages and see what gets the best response rate. Both Yahoo and Google will “bold” those words in your ad that were “searched,” so be sure to include those keywords in your ad copy.

Keyword advertising can fit almost any budget. Your church can set a maximum amount it wants to spend per day and only pay when someone clicks on the ad, not when it appears in search results. “Click” costs are usually just cents, athough exact costs depend on your individual contract with the keyword search-engine advertising site. For example, you can set a $5 daily limit for keyword advertising. If each click costs 5 cents and 100 people click on your ad for the day, you have met your budget maximum and your keyword ad does not appear the rest of the day.

Be cautious. Recognize that if your AdWords do not receive a minimum number of clicks, Google can raise the prices. Monitor each ad keyword campaign continually and change your message to optimize the most attention-getting words and messages.

Keyword advertising will only be as successful as your Web site. Once someone clicks through to your site, make sure you gear your site for visitors. Include directions, basic information and frequent updates.

Find non-searchers
How does the church advertise to visitors who do not use search engines for spiritual purposes? Identify Web sites focused on topics of interest to your targeted audience. Secular subjects could include sports, health, hobbies, music or news-related items as a jump-off point. Buy space on those sites and create ads that connect your church or ministries to the site’s viewers. Be careful, however, not to bait and switch your visitor; the advertised topic of interest must be present on your site when the visitor clicks to it.

Advertise on sites that align with your church’s values. For example, you do not want your church’s ad next to an ad for pornography. Investigating the host site requires looking beyond what appears on its home page and identifying its advertising policies, supporting organizations and so forth.

Advertise at no cost
Search for local sites that host calendar listings. They may include your activities as well. The site is a cost-free, effective means of spreading the word. Look to local online media for free opportunities as well.