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Where did all the visitors go?

Photo by Javier García on Unsplash
Photo by Javier García on Unsplash

How an automated welcome campaign can help

If you’ve spent much time at a church that gets a steady stream of visitors, you may have noticed a frustrating phenomenon: Many people visit for a month or two, and then they never come back. 


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The reasons for people not returning can vary widely. They range from theological disagreement, musical style preference, coffee quality and everything in between. But one of the most common reasons is that these newcomers simply feel disconnected from the life of the church.

There’s a major freeway near my house in Nashville, Tennessee. To get on this freeway, you have to use a particularly treacherous on-ramp. It’s nasty because it curves abruptly over a short distance.

Church is like that freeway. It’s in constant motion, full of different people going (mostly) the same direction. But many of our methods of welcoming visitors into the life of the church are like the on-ramp near my house: too abrupt and short.

If we want visitors to stay and benefit from being part of the body — and be a benefit to the body — we may need to fix our on-ramps. We need to design experiences that help visitors easily get and feel connected to the life of the church.

Extend a welcome through email automation

I’m aware of the possible irony. You may be asking, “What does email automation have to do with warmly welcoming someone into a vibrant community? Aren’t email and automation a bit impersonal?”

Well, yes. But don’t shy away from using “impersonal” means to connect people to more personal means. We often use bulletins to accomplish similar goals. 

What if we used email with the same intentionality to help visitors feel more informed, cared for and welcomed?

Email automation is the process of predetermining a set of messages to be sent to various people in response to certain triggers. A trigger can be any number of actions, such as putting your email address into an online form or clicking a link in a previous email. But for our purposes, we’ll consider the trigger to be whenever someone is added to an email list.

Let’s assume you’re using a popular email marketing client for church communications, such as MailChimp. It allows you to create an automated campaign, which, once created, will send out an email whenever the proper trigger is … triggered. Here’s an outline of how a campaign might look:

Email One: “We’re glad you came!”

  • Sent automatically, one day after an email address is added to the list
  • A simple message thanks the visitor for coming and gives an option to connect with someone directly who can answer questions

 Email Two: “Check out these three messages.”

  • Sent automatically, four days after email one
  • Offers two or three links to prior sermons (podcasts, YouTube, etc.) that they might enjoy
  • Provides another opportunity to connect with someone directly

 Email Three: “Have you visited a small group?”

  • Sent automatically, one week after email two
  • Briefly explains what small groups are like and gives the visitor an opportunity to express interest in getting connected with a group meeting nearby

Such an email campaign can accomplish several really important things: It lets visitors know that you’ve prepared for and care about them. It gives them more information about your church and connects them to more of your content to encourage their souls. And it gives them a valuable opportunity, from their phone or computer, to take the next step toward community.

How to collect email addresses

To connect with visitors, you need their email address. It sounds simple, but many visitors are reluctant to give them out. Perhaps they fear spam or other misuse. So wherever and however you collect email addresses, make sure you stress that you will never send them junk, sell their information and that you will always respect their privacy! (Always include an unsubscribe option in every email sent.)

There are many ways to collect email addresses from visitors, but perhaps the simplest are the tried-and-true “connect cards” or the passed-around clipboard. Don’t overthink it. Let visitors know that your church would love to stay in touch and help them get connected.

MailChimp and most other marketing clients will help you set up customized landing pages with forms to collect email addresses. Emails collected from these landing pages will be automatically added to your email list, which is a huge help. (If you need help in crafting a full website, consider reaching out to the local church services team at United Methodist Communications for assistance.)

If emails are collected in a more manual and analog fashion, you’ll begin by adding or importing contacts into your list. Don’t worry. It’s not difficult and should only take a few minutes each week.

If you’re looking for more creative ways to connect with visitors, see Tricia Brown’s helpful tips!

How to set up a welcome campaign in MailChimp

If you already have a MailChimp account, creating an automated welcome campaign should only take about 20 minutes from start to finish. MailChimp’s free plan includes a single automated welcome email, which is valuable. It's okay if you need to stick with the free plan! Just make sure you make the most of that single email by including all the well-organized and prioritized information of utmost importance to your visitor. Focus on their needs, not yours. (Remember, you are not your audience.)

For standard and premium MailChimp plans, follow these steps:

  1. Log in and click “Campaigns,” then click the “Create Campaign” button.
  2. Select “Automated Email,” and choose the “Welcome New Subscribers” card.
  3. From the three options across the top, choose “Onboarding series.”
  4. From there, you’re off to the races! Choose when to send, write/design your emails, review and click to “Start Sending” the emails.

(Check out MailChimp’s helpful step-by-step.)

Final reflections on welcome campaigns

Intentionality is the name of the game. Be sure to keep in mind why you are sending the email. What are you trying to accomplish? And always have in mind what you would like the recipient to do/feel. Stay focused and always include wording that expresses a call to action.

If you’re ready to take the next step and learn more about email automation for churches, the MyCom Podcast series has a great episode on that subject. Find it on YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

With a little thought and care, you can help visitors feel and get connected to the life of the church, and catch them up to speed. So no more curvy, short on-ramps! Smooth them out, and help visitors feel honored and important to the church.


Jon Watson

Jon Watson is a long-time marketing and communications expert with a heart for ministry. He and his family are currently serving as missionaries, and are passionate about discipleship and church planting for revitalization and revival. He has served in communications director and management roles for tech startups, a Bible software company and United Methodist Communications.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

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