[Editor's note: This article is a summary of the presentation, "Saddleback Church: How One of the Largest Churches Nationwide Has a Purpose-Driven Mobile Program," presented at the DMA 2010 Nonprofit Mobile Day last Thursday.]
Saddleback Church serves the Southern California community through more than 200 ministries, eight worship venues, a variety of counseling and support programs, Bible studies and seminars, local and global outreach programs, and a broad network of small groups meeting in local homes. It is one of the largest churches in the United States. Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback, is well-known beyond his church. His book, "The Purpose Driven Life," has sold more than 30 million copies. In January 2009, Warren delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
Saddleback aggressively experiments with new technologies. If something doesn’t work for the church, the costs are so low that it can move on. And as one of the largest churches in America, it has the scale to show that what it tries works or doesn’t work.
Why mobile? As Doug Hart of Saddleback said, “We want to be where people are, and mobile is where people are.” People are distracted. Whether you’re a brand or a nonprofit, you’re fighting for every person’s attention. Text messaging is one of the best ways to cut through the clutter.
Saddleback started off by adding text message polling to services on major holidays like Easter. Those services are broadcast on XM Radio and streamed on the Web. Text messaging allows those outside of the church itself to become active participants in the service.
After a successful test, Saddleback took the polling a step further. Polling on its own was meant to build community cohesiveness. The next step was to use text message polling as the initial "touch" of its new member engagement process. When the audience members responded to the poll question — in this case about their spiritual state of mind — they received a text back, asking them to respond with their e-mail addresses to learn more about Saddleback. If they responded to the prompt, and many people did, that information was passed via Ez Texting’s API into Saddleback’s own communication system. Depending on the answer to the response to the spiritual state poll, people received target e-mails.
The point of this was to figure out the best way to engage potential members. The poll had four answers, and there were four engagement paths. Instead of blasting the same message at people who are considering the organization from very different levels of interest, Saddleback customized the message.
All of this happened in less than a minute. People did this, watching or listening, with their mobile phones in their hands. They texted in, the response came back in seconds, they chose to e-mail and the next time they checked their e-mail, the message from Saddleback was there waiting for them.
This is an advanced implementation of text messaging, but the costs are extremely low. Text messages on a platform like Ez Texting start at 5 cents and go down quickly. Incoming messages through most providers are free. If a nonprofit organization has a Web developer in-house, this is not too difficult to set up. Outsourcing it isn’t cheap, but it isn’t incredibly expensive either. Every nonprofit has a different budget, and different goals, so each will implement text messaging in different ways. But the important takeaway is that this is something you can be doing on your own, right now.
Americans sent 1.5 trillion text messages last year; about a quarter of Americans have given up their landlines. Text messaging is the communications medium of choice for an increasing number of Americans. Text messaging is fundamental to the daily routine of the next generation of donors and members. To build community and to recruit new members, text messaging is an option every nonprofit should explore.
Shane Neman is CEO of mobile marketing platform provider Ez Texting.