Effective Communications Key to Successful Affinity Marketing

The economic crisis has not only affected Wall Street, Main Street and neighborhoods across the nation. Its reach can be felt in non-profits worldwide for which demand for services are increasing, while incoming donations are decreasing. Churches, which offer both spiritual and financial support to their congregations' needy, are in a similar position. To address the current challenges, it is more important than ever for churches to utilize every option available to help raise funds. Affinity marketing, whereby a church enters into a partnership with one or more vendors who agree to give back a portion of the sales they make to the church and its congregants, is an extremely viable option. It can be especially productive where ordinary, everyday products and services are involved; particularly technology-based products and services such as wireless phones, long distance phone service, cable television, Internet service, etc. However, affinity marketing will only succeed if it is effectively implemented and communicated.

"Avoid Common Misconceptions and Mistakes"
In order to benefit fully from affinity marketing, churches need first to recognize what is fact and what is fiction:
  • Fact: Churches do need to assume a proactive role in communicating their affinity marketing relationships within their internal organization (i.e., to administrators, staff, Board Members, etc.), as well as their congregants. It will only work if the church fully backs the concept and is not hesitant to encourage purchases of the products and services through the affinity marketer.
  • Fiction: Affinity marketing is a replacement for regular fundraising such as weekly collections, annual pledges, and capital campaigns for renovation or expansion projects. Affinity marketing is not a replacement for these other established and successful fundraising vehicles. However, affinity marketing can substantially supplement these areas and should be a part of the yearly fundraising plan.
  • Fact: Not every vendor qualifies as a good affinity marketing partner. Being a strong affinity marketer requires a certain philanthropic mindset and equally important, the right infrastructure to support this business model. For instance, affinity marketers must have strong in-house marketing departments for creating materials to help their customers promote their products/services, as well as a state of the art call center with fully-trained, courteous customer service representatives to take and track orders.
  • Fiction: Because another church had a bad experience with affinity marketing, your organization will also have a bad experience. When an organization has a negative experience with affinity marketing, it is usually a function of not selecting the right partner (i.e., vendors not experienced with affinity marketing, unappealing products/services, noncompetitive pricing, poor customer service) and not effectively promoting the relationship.

In addition to understanding the realities of affinity marketing, churches should avoid common mistakes associated with the affinity marketing process. One of these is overcomplicating the process with unnecessary forms to complete or survey questions to answer. As with any good marketing process, the key is to keep it simple.

Another mistake is relying too heavily on direct mail and printed materials and not fostering an online relationship between the affinity marketer and your members. As we all know, online shopping is a mainstream activity. Some consumers rely more heavily on Internet shopping than they do on traditional brick and mortar retail shopping. It is in a church's best interest to also promote an affinity marketing relationship on its website with links to the affinity marketing partner's website, and with email marketing. To optimize the communications process and derive the greatest benefit from an affinity marketing program, there are several strategies which should be implemented.

"Strategies for Success"
Start by designating someone within the church to serve as your affinity marketing team leader. The team leader will serve as your church's primary liaison with the affinity marketing company and be responsible for staying abreast of the vendor's products, customer service and marketing support to your church members, as well as for reviewing reports which track sales and the associated funds generated. The individual selected for this role should be someone who is conscientious and organized, marketing-oriented and Internet-savvy. Additionally, he/she should know your members and be able to share some insights with the affinity marketing company that can applied to create meaningful communications and offers. This is not to say that the affinity marketer will not take the lead in the marketing of its product and services. As a for-profit organization, this company will be savvy as to how best to position its products and services for sale, but will welcome feedback from an insider as to the composition of the church membership and related demographics (i.e., age, socio-economic, ethnicity, etc.).

The communications program should also reflect a multi-channel, "piggyback" marketing campaign. Its goals are to: inform, educate and encourage all of the church's members, supporters, staff, etc. to make purchases through the affinity marketing partner. The multi-channel aspect of the program refers to the broadest use of both traditional media (i.e., print advertisements, direct mail, direct marketing letters, contests to win products/services from the affinity marketer, a booth displaying the affinity marketer's products at the church fair, etc.) and new media (i.e., Internet marketing via website landing page, links and e-commerce applications, e-marketing through email messages and e-newsletters). The idea here is to use a wide range of communication channels to continually build awareness and heighten exposure for the affinity marketing partnership and its products and services.

As part of this marketing strategy, it is important that you keep your members apprised of the funds being generated by the affinity marketing program. Let your supporters know - through the church newsletter, on the website, in mailings and even with strategically-placed signage in the church vestibule - that the church recently received a check in the amount of $X because of the members making purchases through the affinity marketing partner. Let them know how the church will use the funds generated (e.g., to help a needy family, to purchase new church office technology, toward new landscaping or altar alterations, etc.)

"One Church's Affinity Marketing Approach"
While each church needs to develop a communications strategy that works best for its membership, good ideas can be borrowed from successful programs implemented by other churches. The Potter's House (Dallas, TX), a ministry with a global mission, is one organization that is benefiting from affinity marketing. Among some of the communications tools the organization is using are:
  • Website landing page, which acts as a soft-transition from The Potter's House website to the affinity marketing company's website.
  • Website ads and banner ads, placed on The Potter's House website. When a supporter clicks on the ads, they are linked to the affinity marketer's website.
  • An email header which The Potter's House uses in its emails to its supporters regarding the affinity marketing program.
  • Banner ads on the affinity marketer's website about The Potter's House Partner Benefits Program.
  • Media rich emails to callers who have an affinity for The Potter's House and make inquiries about the affinity marketer's various services (e.g., its Internet service, credit card offering, etc.).
The Potter's House is fully leveraging various communications tools to reach its members worldwide and other potential supporters with information about their affinity marketing program. The organization has learned that affinity marketing is a viable alternative for generating funds without having to continually ask its supporters for donations.

"Closing Remarks"
Charitable giving trends mirror national economic trends. In a down cycle, contributions decline. From all indications, all non-profits including churches will find the year ahead challenging from a fundraising standpoint. The good news is that these challenging times can be a great motivator for implementing other ways to generate funds such as affinity marketing. By effectively communicating to their members other ways they can help the church raise funds which do not impose an additional stress on their personal finances, churches can avoid having to make a difficult decision such as cutting back on religious classes, closing a church school, eliminating retreats or reducing staff. Instead, they can raise funds through their members' ordinary activities such as making a phone call, watching television, surfing the Internet, making a purchase with a credit card, etc.