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SMS texting: 7 new ways to reach church members

By Laura Powell

Ever need to need to send an announcement or an alert to your congregation quickly? Short Message Service (SMS) text messaging could be the solution. Conduct live surveys, collect sign-up information and much more.

According to Nielsen Mobile, 97 percent of mobile subscribers read an SMS message within 15 minutes of receiving it, and 84 percent will respond within an hour. The average mobile marketing campaign response rate is 12 percent with some companies seeing response rates as high as 60 percent plus! Compare these statistics to direct mail - which has an average response rate of 2 percent - and you can see the value of mobile marketing.

Compared to other communication channels such as newspapers, radio and TV, SMS texting is relatively new but in many locations, more accessible. Missionaries are using text messaging to reach people in countries where the Internet may not be as accessible. Smartphones are not required for text messaging, so your message can still reach those with a basic phone or those who lack Internet access.

Here are a few ideas for using a texting service for your church or ministry:

1. Send important alerts such as notices of weather cancellations, friendly event reminders or changes of plans.

2. Conduct live surveys among your congregation for an immediate response during a sermon or Bible study.

3. Conduct live polls and receive questions during a worship service or bible study and address responses on the spot. Consider different ways to manage incoming messages so they are not distracting, like using another church leader to filter questions. The designated leader or speaker could answer certain questions after the service or the leader could immediately text the question to the speaker. Alternatively, a trusted person working on projection could insert interesting or poignant questions on the big screen. Training and rehearsals will be necessary for everything to run smoothly.

4. Advertise events and update attendees before, during and after an event.

5. Promote other media campaigns such as a live Twitter chat, Google+ Hangout or video chat online.

6. Collect additional information when users opt in to your SMS database. Consider asking subscribers to submit their communication preferences such as frequency (weekly or monthly) and preferred channel (text, email or call). Ask recipients to submit their email address if they would like to subscribe to weekly or monthly email updates. Once a week or bi-weekly, plan to export that data out of your SMS database and import it into another system such as Church Management Software or perhaps an Email Service Provider. Alternatively, you could send a text message that links to an online form that feeds their information directly to the aforementioned systems. This will cut out the need for an export/import; however, it creates an extra step for the user and only applies to those with data/internet plans.

7. Send lifesaving information. Since over 75% of the world now has access to mobile phones, SMS can be used to save and improve lives in rural communities. United Methodist communicators in Africa and the Philippines are using SMS to alert communities about cholera outbreaks, and how to prevent malaria. Some communicators are using SMS to strengthen communications between bishops, district superintendents and pastors, where email is not possible. Others are using it to share adult learning opportunities. Learn more at umcom.org/global.

To start connecting with your church members through texting, you must first select an SMS texting service provider. Here is a guide on how to choose an SMS service provider that will teach you about the two main cost structures and help you ask all the right questions before jumping in.

The next step is to launch a marketing campaign to collect mobile numbers. Recipients of text messages must opt in to your campaign by texting a keyword or five- or six-digit code to your number. They may also sign up through a Web form and confirm their subscription via text. When they opt in, they should receive a message stating how to opt out (i.e. Reply "STOP" to opt out.) Customize keywords and opt-out codes with your SMS text service provider.

Advertise your texting campaign in all marketing channels. Marketing material should include options for opting out; be sure to warn people of fees that apply if they do not have an unlimited text plan. For those who have limited text plans or no plan at all, consider developing your very own church app. Then you can send push notifications to the app and those who have the app will have access to your alerts. Your church's UMC app can also include a calendar of events and allow users to "Like" and share your social media updates. To get started, check out the mobile apps offered through Techshop at www.myUMCapp.com.

Consider promoting both text sign-ups and app downloads together. After your mobile sign-up campaign is complete, you should be ready to send SMS blasts. Control the unsubscribe rate by keeping messages infrequent and interesting. Be considerate of those with limits on their phone plan.

Texting is easy and effective. It could be just what your members need to connect with your church.