Putting the Bullet In the Bulletin: One Year Later

At this time last year I was neck deep in designing the content and layout of a print piece that would replace our aging bulletin. As we’re moving into the fall season and ramping up communications for our fall kick off series, I’m taking some time to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes we made a year ago. Here’s the story.


 

Over the course of the past 25 years, the bulletin had seen little change save occasional updates like typefaces, logos, and some minor layout changes. But the basic gist—the half-folded letter, sermon series name on the front, songs on inside left, announcements inside right, contact info on back—had been holding on for quite some time. The bulletin itself was then filled each week with no less than 3 inserts, some of them also being half-folded letter, printed front and back. We were averaging around 2,200 words in every bulletin, it took a minimum of four hours to produce the print documents, and at least 20 volunteer hours to print, fold, cut, and stuff 1,850 bulletins. The majority of which were being thrown away or recycled.

So, in August of 2014, after some open and honest conversations with the leadership team, I set out to develop a new solution to our bulletin woes. The new layout needed to achieve a few particular goals in order to be considered a success:

  • Provide the information needed to welcome a new guest, familiarize them with our church, and begin the assimilation process.
  • Provide a clear means of gathering personal data for our assimilation and next steps processes.
  • Enhance communications on digital platforms (website, social media)
  • Be an effective use of available resources (time, money, staff, and volunteers)

The resulting design was a single 6 x 9 page, color printed on both sides, with a micro-perforated detachable card at the bottom. The look was fresh and colorful, unlike anything that had been produced in the church to date. The copy was reduced to under 300 words, our response card was refined, and next steps were given prominent real estate. In the “no news is good news” sense, the new format, now called the Connection Card, was well received in the first weeks of roll out. There was limited praise, but also surprisingly little negative feedback. A healthy win in my book.

So what now, a year later, can we take away from the change? To answer this, I’ve asked myself three questions: What have we gained? What have we lost? What needs to change?  Here are some answers to those questions.

What Have We Gained?

Focus

The original bulletin was loud and cluttered. It provided a solid 12 minutes of reading material to the average reader. We were promoting everything under the sun, providing song lists, overviews of the current series, and on and on. We approached the new Connection Card with a nod to minimalism, stripping down everything to the most important information. Some of it we moved into other channels, some of it we simply eliminated because it provided no real value. We used to say things like “the bulletin can have a life outside of Sunday.” But then we would put bins at the back of the auditorium to collect them. It made no sense. So the new bulletin was designed solely to exist on Sunday.

Color Printing, Relevant Design

Make no mistake, black-only photocopying makes a statement about how you truly value relevance—especially to savvy millennials who are steeped in fantastic design. You can draw a direct line from your creative efforts to cultural relevancy, an oft claimed underpinning of the modern church. The switch from black-only printing to a thoughtfully designed color piece communicates that we value the creative space and it helps set a precedent for what to expect from the rest of the church experience.

Better Data Collection and Assimilation

By reducing the type and amount of information we collect through the detachable connection card, we made the form less daunting than its predecessor. The process of revising that form shed enough light on our existing data collection and assimilation processes for us to begin taking action in other areas outside of the connection card. A few months later we restructured our entire assimilation process, including the build out of new environments, and have seen incredible returns on that investment. All because the new connection card forced us to ask “Do we really need this?”

Enhanced Digital Communication

Our new Connection Card was designed with the specific intention of forcing us to rely more heavily on digital communications. We couldn’t just eliminate the primary communication channel of our ministries without having a plan to support them elsewhere. But our website was out of date and social media efforts were only just beginning to pick up steam. In order to eliminate page after page of ministry clutter, we had to rethink the way we leveraged our digital channels. This, in turn, led to an overhaul of the website, the development of a social media strategy, and the cultivation of a more effective and dynamic means of communicating to churchgoers. Today, the Connection Card is not used as a promotional tool at all, yet we’ve seen growth in participation both digitally and in various real-life activities. Because we can connect with people on Facebook in a timelier and more frequent way, I believe we’ll continue to see growth in participation in the future.

What Have We Lost?

Agility

The virtue of building your church bulletin on a weekly basis is that if something changes that week, you can usually respond quickly to it. But we now produce our Connection Card on a series basis which can be anywhere from 3 to 7 weeks. Because we don’t use the Connection Card as promotional tool, lack of agility isn’t a major problem. But it’s still something to factor in if you’re considering a switch.

Volunteer Opportunity

The team that printed and assembled the bulletin every week predated my hire by about eight years. This team of nearly 40 volunteers had been working together for 9+ years when I killed the bulletin. I think this may be the biggest loss in the transition to the new Connection Card. Because it’s designed in-house, and then sent out for printing, and is only one page, the need to involve volunteers was eliminated. It was a broader change that needed to be made, but it did mean that this close-knit group of volunteers now had to find new serving outlets. Some did, some did not. The change even alienated a few volunteers because they felt they were being put out to pasture.

One-Stop Shop for Ministries

The previous bulletin provided a weekly place where most ministries could have a voice and a promotional tool. We used to provide an insert called “Next” that served as a promotional calendar for what was coming up. That was completely eliminated and so some ministries now have limited access to promotion. However, to my knowledge we have not experienced a downturn in involvement of activities put on by those ministries. That leads me to believe that we assumed the bulletin was more effective than it really was. The question is, are we now assuming the same thing in regards to our social media? A question for another time, perhaps.

What Needs to Change?

The switch to our new Connection Card, is, in my opinion, a success. It has met the goals it set out to meet and has been a useful tool in assimilating new guests and helping people take next steps in their faith. The tendency might be to leave well enough alone and move on to something else that needs attention. But someone once said to me “If it ain’t broke, break it.” It really annoyed me at the time, but now I understand it. It’s time to put the Connection Card under the microscope to see if there are ways to make it better. Where does it fail? Does copy need to be revised? Does the layout still feel fresh or is it time for a design update? Do the ministries that rely on it have more insight that I haven’t considered?

Conclusion

Nothing in our churches should be outside the realm of constructive criticism. We must constantly call in to question the tools and methods we use to communicate the Gospel, even down to the effectiveness of our bulletins. The Church cannot afford to be raising herds of sacred cows.