Regional campaign in San Francisco Bay Area advertises on 'Daily Show with Jon Stewart.'
The national campaign coincides with a new regional marketing initiative in the San Francisco Bay Area that includes cable TV ads broadcast during The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central.
The UUA is inviting individual UUs to donate to the national marketing initiative through the first “Association Sunday,” scheduled for October 14.
The national campaign through Time will include a series of ads promoting Unitarian Universalism and another series promoting a UUA-sponsored archive of Time articles on religious and ethical issues at Time.com. (The online archive will feature other UUA ads and promotional content.) The UUA has reserved space in four issues of Time this fall, including the December 31 “Person of the Year” issue. The first issue with UUA ads, dated October 14, will go on newsstands October 5.
In a letter September 13 announcing the campaign, Sinkford said, “Our partnership with Time will ensure that Unitarian Universalism is an important voice in the religious landscape.”
The campaign will be the first national ad campaign by Unitarians or Universalists in about 50 years. From 1956 to 1961 the Unitarian Laymen’s League sponsored ads that appeared in the New York Times, Saturday Review, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Chicago News, and Chicago Tribune. The ads had headlines such as, “Are You a Unitarian Without Knowing It?,” “Are You a Closet Unitarian?,” and “Are You a Religious Humanist?”
Seventeen congregations in the San Francisco Bay area raised more than $300,000 for a local advertising campaign, which they launched September 10 with ads on two local radio stations and 30-second TV ads on Comedy Central during The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The campaign also includes direct mail pieces, posters in Bay Area Rapid Transit stations, a newspaper insert, ads in various parenting magazines, and other specialized print media. Ad materials direct people to a regional website, uuba.org.
To prepare for the campaign, the congregations held four hospitality workshops and one on making websites visitor-friendly. The district also sponsored a conference on growth.
The Bay Area campaign is a three-way partnership among the congregations, the UUA, and the Pacific Central District. UUA Marketing Outreach Director Valerie Holton designed the materials and made media buys. The UUA’s Stewardship and Development staff solicited major donors. Cilla Raughley, district executive of the PCD, helped arrange for smaller donations and coordinated congregational preparation of hospitality and websites. All the fundraising for the campaign was local, said Raughley, with more than 650 donors in the 17 congregations.
The genesis of the Bay Area campaign occurred three years ago, said Raughley, when leaders of several congregations began thinking about ways to share the message of Unitarian Universalism. That led to a Bay Area Roundtable on growth issues, which met for a year, discussing various options. “Then,” said Raughley, “like a snowball rolling downhill, picking up mass and momentum, the project exploded outward until it involved all the members and friends of 17 congregations!”
The campaign planned on raising $260,000 and ended with more than $300,000. Every congregation has a marketing captain and also a tracking captain to measure the results.
The national and Bay Area ad campaigns follow several other regional campaigns in which the UUA gained experience and had success in advertising, said the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA’s director of Congregational Services and a coordinator of the national ad campaign.
In 2003 the Association spent $225,000 on a pilot ad campaign in the Kansas City metro area that included billboards, radio and TV ads, and a newspaper special section. During the campaign congregations reported a 10 to 25 percent increase in visitors. Three years later the congregations reported growth of 27 percent in membership across the metro area, compared to 11 percent for the Prairie Star District as a whole.
A campaign in Houston in 2005 used radio ads, billboards, print ads, print inserts, and direct-mail pieces sent to 200,000 households. The campaign cost $212,000, which was contributed by local donors. Houston congregations reported an 8 percent increase in membership one year after the campaign, compared to a district decline of 7 percent.
Seven congregations in Orange County and southern Los Angeles County launched a regional campaign in 2006. Two direct-mail postcard mailings, radio spots, and a four-page insert in the Los Angeles Times generated “lots of visitors,” said the Rev. Karen Stoyanoff, minister of the Orange Coast UU Church in Costa Mesa.
But Stoyanoff said the campaign was also successful at changing the congregations. “It created a lot of energy in the congregations,” she said. “That made it worthwhile even if we hadn’t gotten any new people.”
Congregations in the San Diego area are currently running spots on National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” show and will be placing ads in the local Sierra Club newsletter.
The next regional campaign is planned for Tampa Bay area congregations in Florida in early 2008.
The national ad campaign is being funded through the Now Is the Time fundraising campaign, which Sinkford launched at the 2007 General Assembly. The first Time ad has been paid for by early donors to the campaign. The UUA is inviting congregations to participate in the fundraising campaign by holding special collections on Association Sunday, October 14. The UUA’s goal is to raise $1 million. Part of that money will pay for additional ads in Time.
The first phase of the Time campaign, October through December, will cost $425,000.
The Now Is the Time fundraising campaign has two financial goals: $20 million in cash and $30 million in deferred giving. Association Sundays are being planned as annual events for the next four to five years. About 525 congregations, more than half of the congregations in the UUA, had signed up by the end of September to hold Association Sunday events this year, according to the UUA’s Stewardship and Development staff.
Funds raised at this year’s Association Sunday won’t go just for the ad campaign. A quarter of the money will go to support ministry opportunities for ministers of color and Latino/Latina and Hispanic ministers, by identifying and working with congregations that make a commitment to these ministers. Another quarter of the funds will be set aside for grants to congregations, administered through the districts, for their own growth and outreach projects.
“We are asking congregations to think of this as helping the movement grow,” said the Rev. Stephan Papa, special assistant to the president for congregational giving and growth funding. “We have the same number of members today as we did at the time of the consolidation of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961. If we want Unitarian Universalism to be there in the future we have to make it happen.”
Two full-page ads developed for the Time campaign will be made available on UUA.org for local use by congregations beginning October 5, said Robinson-Harris. Other resources, including graphics for outdoor banners and website banners, will also be available. The UUA already offers hospitality resources online.
Sinkford and UUA Moderator Gini Courter announced September 27 that they will host “a conversation about how we prepare our congregations to welcome these guests” attracted by the ad campaign. The conversation will be held on an open conference call on Thursday, October 4, at noon (Eastern Daylight Time). Call 877-844-6052 on Thursday to participate.
Robinson-Harris said the national campaign in Time is planned in two phases. Phase I runs through December. The second phase would be an identical campaign beginning in January. “We are hoping that our congregations will enthusiastically support the marketing campaign and help us maintain our partnership with and presence in Time from January through April 2008.”
Robinson-Harris said the partnership with Time is a first. “Neither Time nor the UUA has done anything like this before. This is new ground for everybody.” She described how the Time-UUA archive at Time.com will work. “Someone who goes to the archive landing page and clicks on the link to one of the articles there, for example on God and science, will be able to access the full article and to click through to UUA.org for a UU perspective on the same topic and to get information about our faith and find congregations in their area.”
The UU responses are being written specifically for this purpose by ministers invited to contribute a response on one of the themes.
“The primary purpose of the Time partnership campaign is to generate greater name recognition for Unitarian Universalism,” said Robinson-Harris. What will constitute success for the campaign? “We’ll monitor website use information from UUA.org and Time.com, review membership and visitor statistics when available, and we’ll get feedback from key constituent groups.”
Robinson-Harris said the campaign is targeting young adults, families with young children, and “adults in transition”—those experiencing life changes such as job changes, divorce, and relocations—“circumstances that often cause people to be receptive to and seek out religious community.”
The new campaign retires the “Uncommon Denomination” tag line first introduced with the Kansas City campaign. The new tag line is “Nurture Your Spirit; Help Heal Our World.” Robinson-Harris said, “This theme is strong—it gets people thinking about what’s possible, about what religion can offer.”
The San Francisco Bay Area regional campaign is using this new tag line along with a theme created for earlier campaigns, “Imagine a Religion.” Its ads use the lines “Imagine a religion where people with different beliefs worship as one faith” and “Imagine a religion that embraces many different beliefs, including yours.” The ads feature multicultural and gay and lesbian families.
Robinson-Harris said the new campaigns learned from earlier regional campaigns. “We found that billboards are a good choice in some communities, but not in others, because of cost and travel patterns,” she said. “We’ve learned that National Public Radio varies from place to place as to what kind of religious advertising a station will accept and what language. We’ve gone increasingly to using targeted direct mail—to get our message to individuals and families along with an invitation to be our guest. The same is true for tabloid inserts run in local daily newpapers. That’s one of the most successful things we’ve done. An insert gives us space to tell our story and highlight congregations in the area. The cost per household is quite modest. We learned that television is a valuable component of the media mix when costs are within reach and viewership is high.”
Much of the impetus for UUA advertising has come from Sinkford, who, even before he was elected UUA president in 2001, began discussing advertising opportunities. “It grew out of my belief that so few people knew about Unitarian Universalism,” he said this week, “and that if we made ourselves known to people who were yearning for a religious home we would grow.” Sinkford had a career in marketing before joining the UUA. “I had some experience with what advertising could do.”
He added, “When I visit congregations who have done ad campaigns they talk about how the experience of the campaign changed the culture of the church. They become more welcoming places, they become known in the community, and the vitality is just very apparent.”
He said the national ad campaign is designed to raise awareness of Unitarian Universalism while regional campaigns are designed to invite people to visit local congregations. “The hope is that we’re beginning to create an awareness of Unitarian Universalism as a viable religious option. Locating ourselves in Time puts us in the center of religious discourse rather than on the margins.”
The UUA began promoting Association Sunday in the spring, but until Sinkford announced the advertising initiative September 13, few knew much about the national ad campaign. Robinson-Harris said conversations started with Time in the spring and continued through the summer. Congregations were informed as soon as the campaign details came together, she said. “As soon as we had something definite to share we were sharing it. It all came together in late summer on what was going to be possible to do.”
Before the Bay Area congregations began their advertising campaign this fall, the leaders of the campaign invited the Rev. Peter Morales to speak to them. Morales, senior minister of the 700-member Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., and former director of district services for the UUA, believes there are better ways for congregations to achieve growth than through large-scale advertising efforts. He believes congregations should instead focus on welcoming and integrating the visitors who they already attract every Sunday.
“I don’t think advertising is the solution to the problem of our lack of growth,” he said. “I think that properly done it will bring in more visitors and some of them will be converted to members. But the data show we have a ton of visitors now. Most of our congregations get more visitors a year than they have members.”
“As a movement our issue is not that we don’t have people coming to us looking for a religious home,” Morales said. “The reason we have not grown significantly is that we haven’t done a good enough job of making these people feel this is their home.”
He believes that as an Association we would be better served by looking at those churches that have grown steadily over the years into congregations of 500 people or more. “Not a single one used marketing as a key part.”
“That doesn’t mean marketing is bad, it just means that the key to growth is to change our behavior,” he added. “My biggest worry is that advertising is a distraction for us. We need to work on being more relevant to peoples’ lives.”
He told the Bay Area leaders, “It’s okay to [advertise], but make sure you’re ready for this increased visibility. If you change your culture to meet these new folks just make sure it’s not just a temporary change. It has to be permanent change, not just during the campaign.”
Advertising’s best value for Unitarian Universalists, he said, may be to inspire those who are already in a congregation so that they will work to welcome and integrate newcomers.
That’s what happened at the Bay Area UU Church in Houston, said the Rev. Matt Tittle. “The biggest effect of the Houston campaign was that the ads gave our members talking points,” he said. “The campaign created some excitement about Unitarian Universalism and their church. When their neighbors and coworkers got our postcards in the mail it gave our members an opportunity to share their religion. It got us more out of the closet.”
The campaign ran from January to mid-April 2005. Tittle said the number of visitors more than doubled and two years later is still doubled. Church membership has gone from 220 to 280. The congregation broke ground in August for an expanded building. “I’d say the campaign changed the culture here,” Tittle said. “It made us recognized in the community. We’re looking forward to the national campaign.”
Bob Meiss, a member of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose who also has connections with the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale, contributed $50 to the San Francisco Bay Area ad campaign. When the first ads showed up in September on radio and on The Daily Show it was “exhilarating,” he said. “I love them. I’m hoping that people who are searching for a spiritual home discover them.”
He said the campaign has already changed both congregations. “At San Jose we’ve become much better organized to welcome people. Sunnyvale improved its religious education program and added youth and young adult programming. So this benefits more than new members. I’m really glad we’re doing this.”
The national ad campaign was developed by Swardlick Marketing Group of Portland, Maine. In addition to Robinson-Harris, others with key roles in the national campaign are marketing outreach director Valerie Holton, growth services administrator Susanna Whitman, the Stewardship and Development Staff Group, and the Office of Electronic Communication.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.