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Florida ad campaign boosts church attendance

Tampa Bay Unitarian Universalist churches invite visitors with postcards, billboards, TV ads.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Unitarian Universalists from eight congregations in the Tampa Bay, Fla., region kicked off a regional advertising campaign last month. Initial results are positive, said Victor Beaumont, chair of the Tampa Bay Regional Marketing Group. The campaign started the first week of February and will continue through April.

In addition to billboards, a newspaper insert in the St. Petersburg Times, and postcards, the campaign includes TV and radio ads, advertisements in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender newspapers, and Google text ads that appear when an internet user searches for phrases such as “gay-friendly church” or “open-minded faith.”

The Rev. Roger Peltier, minister of the UU Church of Sarasota, one of the eight congregations, said the number of visitors has already increased at his congregation because of the campaign.

“Even during the week people stop by saying they saw the ads and they wanted to know more about our church,” Peltier said. “We’re having a terrific response.” The church hung a banner outside, proclaiming, “Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal Our World.”

Peltier added, “The campaign has affected the congregation, too. We’re better at hospitality now. There’s a sense of community pride and team spirit. That’s been a wonderful benefit of the campaign. People talk about it at coffee hour. They feel really good about what we’re doing.”

Beaumont said, “Lots of people tell me, ‘Oh I saw the ads on TV’ or ‘I got a postcard.’ They’re proud to know our message is getting out there.”

The congregations created a group website, uutba.org. Beaumont is webmaster. He said they started tracking visits on February 22, and in the 12 days following there were 1,358 site visits.

He said the campaign has helped connect the congregations. The congregations initiated a “mystery visitor” program, where a visitor from one congregation visits another, in the guise of a church shopper, then shares with the congregation the ways that it might be more welcoming.

The early stages of the campaign included a postcard mailing to 150,000 households. Beaumont said he was surprised at how effective the postcards seemed to be. “Postcards can seem old-fashioned, but we got lots of comments on them and they prompted a huge number of visits to the website.”

Valerie Holton, the UUA’s director of marketing outreach, said about $50,000 is going into television ads on programs including Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She noted the first two programs often address issues around life transitions such as divorce and job loss. “We know that folks that are ‘in transition’ are often looking for a church community. Colbert and the Daily Show also are well targeted to our audience because of their liberal-leaning content.”

The campaign has a budget of $236,000, all raised locally, said Holton.

Another regional ad campaign was sponsored by congregations in the San Francisco Bay area between September 10 and the end of November 2007. That campaign included ads on two local radio stations and 30-second TV ads on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The campaign also included direct mail pieces, posters in Bay Area Rapid Transit stations, a newspaper insert, ads in various parenting magazines, and other specialized print media.

The number of visitors to the 17 San Francisco Bay Area congregations increased from around 100 on a Sunday in August before the campaign began, to more than 800 on a Sunday in October. Results of that campaign are still being tabulated, said Cilla Raughley, district executive of the UUA’s Pacific Central District.

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