Data-Grounded Outreach

by Mary Frances

When I was in my first call (feels like forever ago), someone asked me about my target audience.  The question seemed absurd to me at the time.  Wasn’t it obvious that we would take anyone who came through our doors?  Why would we focus on one particular part of the population to the exclusion of others?  Wasn’t everyone in need of the good news of the Gospel?  How little I knew back then!  Understanding your target audience is, indeed, key to reaching people.  It’s not surprising, for instance, that young people were not impressed by presidential candidate Joe Biden’s bus with the word “Malarkey” scrawled across the side.  Did they even know what malarkey meant?  And older people were less attracted to the technology emphasis repeated over and over again by once candidate Andrew Yang.  But Biden was looking to reach older people and Yang was looking to reach younger people, so their approaches were inherently different.  Who are you trying to reach and how will you know where to find them?

The best tool I have found for identifying your target population is the Neighborhood Missional Intelligence Report (NMIR) from FaithX.  It’s easy to read and inexpensive.  You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a data subscription.  This 2-page report has over 40 data points and it comes in a pdf or dynamic html version, the latter of which offers clickable data behind the data.  It will also provide data for three different drive or walking times such as 5, 10 or 15 minutes, or for a custom distance or time, therefore tripling the amount of data you receive.

Generational Breakdown

What kind of data could help you know the kinds of visitors you could attract to your church?  First, basic population data and whether the population in your area is growing or declining.  Is your community experiencing an increase or a decrease?  Your task certainly becomes more challenging if the population in your town is on the decline.  And then, who makes up that population?  In this part of the report you can see the population by generation.  I recently worked with a congregation who was, like most churches, eager to bring back families with children.  The NMIR showed that, indeed, the predominant generation in their community was Generation Z (ages 3-20); their community was teeming with young children.  And further exploration of the data showed how many children of each age so this church could plan appropriately for the majority group of grade school aged children right around them.  By grounding their planning in data, the church leaders could focus their outreach to families with grade school aged children, attending soccer games, connecting with the schools, offering back to school backpacks.  They made sure they had the right pieces in place regarding Sunday School and also began to make plans for an after-school homework help program.  And, they even remembered to include something in their visitor packet that would appeal to grade school aged kids.

Housing Information

What does housing information tell you about your potential future visitors? Housing data shows you several important points, each of them compared to the national average.  Is the median home price above or below the national average?  Does this translate to affordable housing in your community?  Is the vacancy rate high?  Are homes predominantly owner occupied or filled with renters who may tend to be more transient?  The NMIR also shows you the average amount that people in your community spend on their mortgage and other basics (utilities, healthcare, etc.), both the actual dollar amount and the percentage of income. Compare this to their median disposable income to get a picture of whether folks in your community are struggling financially or feeling pretty comfortable.  

Lifestyle Modes

Hundreds of points of demographic data come into the NMIR from the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI).  ESRI is one of the largest providers of geoinformation in the world.  They translate and categorize all those points into what are called Tapestry segments.  Tapestry segments are broken down into 14 lifestyle modes and 68 segments that create a demographic profile of the people in your community.  The NMIR will show you the top 14 lifestyle modes present in your community and the dynamic NMIR will provide you with detailed information on the top 3. First you will receive a one page summary and then you can click through for a more detailed 4 page report with all kinds of socioeconomic data highlighting what people in a particular lifestyle segment tend to like and dislike, how they spend their time, what kind of work they do, preferred methods of communication, their charitable giving AND what they tend to prefer in terms of worship. So, if the people in your community tend to want traditional worship, you might think twice about using your praise band to appeal to newcomers.  

Tying it Together

All in all, the NMIR and the vast amount of information therein, provides a road map, a description not of your perfect visitor but of your likely visitor.  Once you understand who is in your community you can tailor your approach, your outreach, your marketing accordingly.  Don’t try to reach young people with words like malarkey and don’t try to reach families with children unless you are prepared to have noise and mess and a bit of chaos in your church.  Each demographic comes with their own set of needs, values and priorities.  Once you tap into those, you begin to tap into the reasons that people would come to church and what will make them stay.  

One caveat, demographic reports cannot take the place of building relationships in your community.  They point the way, they give you an idea of who you want to meet and where you might find them but it won’t replace good old fashioned relationship evangelism – it will just make you better at it!