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The 2 Negative and 1 Positive Ways We Think About Marketing in Ministry
Series: #1 of 10 Useful Insider Marketing Tips for Publishing Your Ministry Book
“We do not want The Purpose Driven Life associated with the word ‘marketing’ in any way, shape, or form.”1
Rick Warren’s staff was not happy about the news that the head of marketing at Zondervan was going to write a book about the success of the book. At 30 million copies and counting, The Purpose Driven Life is the best selling hard cover book of all time. An estimated 25% of American adults have read it—or at least bought it.
Every author I know dreams of his or her book gaining a fraction of the influence of Warren’s book. Communicating to a large audience is why we write in the first place.
Yet, the team at Saddleback was ambivalent about the book becoming known for its marketing success. In a statement distancing the book from marketing professional Greg Stielstra’s business marketing book PyroMarketing, which details the plan behind the success of the book, Warren wrote, “No one [should] claim credit for the astounding success of The Purpose Driven Life book. The worldwide spread of the purpose-driven message had nothing to do with marketing or merchandizing. Instead it was the result of God’s supernatural and sovereign plan.”2
Is it safe to say that many of us in ministry have a conflicted relationship with marketing?
This is the first in a new series of ten posts offering an insider’s view of what goes in to marketing a book. Speaking on behalf of a Christian press, Invite Resources, we see publishing as an opportunity to invite people to meet Jesus. Yet, that doesn’t mean we approach marketing carelessly.
I can attest through firsthand experience to the challenges of talking about marketing and ministry in the same sentence. I’ve come to realize that some of the controversy about the word “marketing” in ministry comes from what we might simply call a failure to communicate. Thus, I want to start the series with an attempt to get on the same page with you about what we mean we say the word “marketing.”
Today’s bottom line: The first tip is to think about how we think about marketing. The assumptions we bring shape the end result of the thing, for good or for ill.
Specifically, I’d like to offer three possible ways to think of marketing, each with an “H” word:
Marketing is Hell
First, let’s just acknowledge that, for some of us, marketing is “hell”.
Metaphorically speaking of course. For many, marketing is miserable. I know few authors, artists, preacher, poets, or creatives of any kind who enjoy the work of building a market for their work. Some authors flat out refuse to participate in the work of marketing. They eschew social media, decline podcast interview requests, and ignore publicity. For these creatives, the work of marketing is a veritable hell on earth.
Then there are some of us who view marketing as literally hellacious—an unholy manipulation of people’s emotions and psyche, a dark art that seeks to cajole otherwise innocent people into parting with their money. In this view, marketing is not just the hell of misery, but hell unleashed, a controlling force that is antithetical to the gentle nudges of the Holy Spirit. Rick’s response hints at such a view by positioning marketing as mutually exclusive to God’s plan.
In what ways do you consider marketing “hell”?
Marketing is Hype
The second definition of marketing is perhaps not evil, but disingenuous. This captures the conventional wisdom about marketing, which I have noticed over the years is basically synonymous with advertising.
The assumption of marketing as “hype” is that it is a tool of interruption and harassment. People (“customers”) are living their lives and doing just fine, until we employ a set of tactics to interrupt them with a hyped-up attempt to “get the word out”. In this definition, we may not see marketing as unholy, but we do see it as a hassle. I hear authors cite the oft-quoted axiom that it takes seven such interruptions to get someone’s attention.
Such a statement assumes marketing is hype.
This entire premise works from poor assumptions regarding both our content and human relationships in general. It positions all human communication as reciprocity - “selling” - and each of as consumers in a market that at its best can only look toward mutual interest.
In what ways do you consider marketing “hype”?
Marketing is Help
The third definition of marketing aspires to something higher: understanding to whom you are speaking and offering something to help them. In fact, here’s a definition of marketing to consider:
Marketing is the process of becoming known as a trustworthy help on a topic to a specific group of people.
Here we may begin to see potential alignment between marketing and ministry. When it comes to kingdom purposes, the purpose of marketing is not to create customers. It’s to create community. It’s a form of strategic and focused caring, enacted on a large scale, as I outlined in a 10th anniversary article for Church Marketing Sucks, called Does Sharing the Gospel Justify Any Church Marketing Means Necessary?
Great marketing minds such as Seth Godin and Bernadette Jiwa have correctly named that marketing fundamentally acknowledges the necessity and unique attributes of one-to-many, group communication. In an age of mass media, we cannot avoid a discussion about how we communicate. We must choose whether to accept that one-to-many communication occurs, and if so, whether it is appropriate or inappropriate to consider that the Lord is aware of and involved with our communication.
Much of my ministry is built on the study of human communication. The Incarnation is theological proof that God does not live outside our experience but instead chooses to meet us in the specific context in which we live. It shows us that we may look with hope and expectation that the Lord is with us, even in our language, images, and technologies, already working, already ahead of our understanding. As we come to see that God can use our new technology as well as our old, we are free to discover how to communicate ethically and responsibly. Otherwise, we deny that one-to-many communication occurs. The latter is disingenuous, or willfully ignorant at best.
In what ways may we think of marketing as “help”?
Takeaway: “Marketing as help” frees us to move beyond a quid pro quo, transactional relationship with the people to whom we ministry. Instead, it frees us to focus on thinking about how we may build trust, which over time creates community.
In the coming weeks, we will come back to the story of The Purpose Driven Life. It is an oft-cited example in the world of Christian publishing, by both people who know and people who don’t. We will hear from some of the people who worked on that campaign, as well as many other leading marketing professionals who are also Christ followers, including:
A former ad agency CEO and protege of the original “Mad Man” and “Father of Advertising”, David Ogilvy
Christian publishing marketing experts (including some who helped launch Purpose Driven Life)
Veteran corporate CMOs
Church marketing specialists and gurus
Some of the best creative ministry minds I know—all of whom are part of the growing Invite community.
What you can do: share this Substack link with at least two friends and colleagues who are interested in Christian writing and publishing. Let’s grow this community, together.
Last: Comment/reply with your most pressing questions. What do you want to know about marketing a Christian book, and marketing in general?
Juli Cragg Hilliard, “Purpose-Driven Interference?,” Publishers Weekly, July 22, 2005.
Juli Cragg Hilliard, “‘Pyro’ Goes Ahead; Warren Weighs In,” Publishers Weekly, August 56, 2005.