Church advertising campaign uses new forms of media


By United Methodist News Service

PITTSBURGH — The United Methodist Church is testing a new mobile advertising strategy from now until Christmas Eve in the Pittsburgh area, incorporating text messaging and outdoor advertising as a way to woo a younger audience.

More than 40 billboards and transit shelter ads aimed at reaching thousands of commuters and pedestrians are going up this week, according to a Dec. 3 news release from United Methodist Communications.

Other ads will be delivered to subscribers of 4INFO, an ad-supported text message information service. The ads feature messages of hope and prompt recipients to text a keyword such as "BELIEVE" to a designated number. In response, they receive a longer message inviting them to attend a United Methodist church at Christmas and giving them an opportunity to learn how to find a church in their area or get more information about The United Methodist Church.Some of the text message ads incorporate text shorthand — for example, "God is F2T. CW2CU Xmas," which translates "God is free to talk. Can’t wait to see you Christmas."

"Christmas has been one of our peak advertising times since the beginning of the campaign — and in these dim economic times, it is especially important to give people hope and invite them to be part of our faith family," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. "Now with new media, we can be more interactive and actually provide addresses of churches in their area."

United Methodist Communications is delivering the $97,000 campaign in partnership with the church's Western Pennsylvania regional conference.

"We especially hope to bring more young people into our churches, and that means reaching out in new and innovative ways that are relevant to our target audience," said Bishop Thomas Bickerton. "We are pleased that the Pittsburgh area was chosen to test this new strategy."

The 11.5 million-member denomination began its "open hearts, open minds, open doors" welcoming and advertising campaign in 2001. Numerous surveys have since indicated that the campaign has increased attendance and raised awareness about The United Methodist Church.

The focus of the U.S. campaign has primarily been cable television commercials aired each year around Lent, Advent and the back-to-school season. In 2006, a large-scale outdoor advertising strategy was incorporated in 15 test markets. In 2007, the denomination ventured into online advertising with interactive ads incorporating poll questions and video.

In 2009, United Methodist Communications will launch the next evolution of the church's "open hearts, open minds, open doors" campaign by redefining the traditional church experience as one that extends beyond the doors of the church and seeks to transform the world. The target audience will shift to a younger demographic: audiences between the ages of 18 and 34, as opposed to 25- to 54-year-olds.

To reach a younger audience, the church will add to the mix more contemporary and less traditional advertising channels such as iTunes, YouTube and other digital media, the news release said.