Friday 28 December 2007

Exclusively for Everyone (= Anyone?)

Having mentioned denominational ins and outs yesterday, I stumbled over a thought-provoking and perceptive post by marketing guru Seth Godin, about the power of exclusion to fuel sales:

When I was in college, the Dean tried to put together an advisory group of students. Nobody he invited joined--it wasn't worth the time. Then he named it, "The Group of 100" and in just a few days, it was filled. The easiest way to have insiders is to have outsiders.

Credit card companies have made billions by selling a card that others can't get.

Politicians stand up and talk about their (exclusive) religion, or pit one special interest group against another.

And of course, the best nightclubs have the biggest velvet ropes and the pickiest doormen.

Limiting the supply of your service, or the quantity of your product, or being aggressive in who you sell to (and who you don't) are all time-tested ways to build a killer brand. Humans like being insiders, and will work hard to create their own imaginary demarcations to demonstrate that they've made it inside.

Populism is almost always a hard sell, it seems.

When Tiffany's lowered prices and quality and tried to reach out to the masses, they almost went bankrupt.

He goes on to talk about how this works on the net, and the exclusion models, conscious or not, of Wikipedia and others. He goes on to suggest, as a marketing guru,
The first thing I'd ask myself before launching a product, a service, or a candidate is, "who are we leaving out?" If the answer is no one, be prepared for uncharted waters. The future of marketing (at least the big successes) is going to be fueled by those with the guts to embrace the masses. The profits, at least in the short run, may well be found by those that embrace exclusion.
Groucho, famously, said he wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member, and this aspect of human nature applies to faith, too. The C of E, like it or lump it, with its all embracing medieval parish system, lack of ass-busting heresy trials, and legal niceties that give rights to anyone and everyone, flies straight in the face of conventional marketing. Formally, the doors are open to all — It’s informally that the social networks have subtle ways of excluding. Church is a worked example of both the joys and perils of open source thinking and living. The most exclusive and demanding churches grow fastest but seldom get any bigger. The least are always in decline, but seldom die out. Can marketing theory help explain these paradoxes?
  1. “S/He who is not against me is for me” is there in the gospels, but balanced by “S/He who is not for me is against me.” With teaching on his second miles, giving away you shirt, and going anywhere to teach, Jesus challenged this aspect of human nature, as well as acknowledging it. Some people are attracted, and some repelled, by the concept of a really inclusive church. We need to understand why and how this happens, and look behind both kinds of slogan, asking what’s happening in us when we react to them, and why. Coincidentally, How gender specific is this response?
  2. The Kingdom of peace and love only grows when people feel special and together, but at the same time empowered to embrace strangers. Expressions of Christianity have to hold in tension a coherence principle and an inclusion principle. They have to find ways not to play one off against another, but somehow feed one off the other. Are Liturgy, symbol and art, perhaps, ways of expressing the whole that square this circle?
  3. If people are interested in Church growth and Evangelism they have to distinguish two different kinds of processes that can claim the name —
    1. a marketing process driven by exclusivity, guilt or chauvinism that always ends up diminishing its objects, wittingly or not — church imperialism can be very powerful, but its fruits will turn out to be sick, like cancerous growth. Here, people have firmer in and out lines, and are harder on outsiders than themselves. Ideals never quite translate into action, and the ceiling to growth is that of the marketing paradox to which Seth refers.
    2. organic growth, often more steady, where the stress is on discipleship leading to personal growth in community. Here, people are harder on themselves than outsiders, and its hallmark is powerful bonding (social capital) which is at the same time generous and outward looking — they'll know the Christians by their love and because those people, being unlearned, are turning the world upside down. Thus the exclusion paradox is transcended.
What, in Seth’s terms, is our experience of Church growth and evangelism? What does the fruit of our effort imply we are really doing? How much is our practice based on marketing logic, and how much on Jesus’ radical bucking of this aspect of human nature?


Anonymous said...

Another angle: organic growth tends to follows existing interpersonal and/or community links; marketing processes tend more towards the scattergun effect. Which is most likely to reach the socially excluded and terminally lonely?

Just a thought.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for a really interesting thought. There is a radical availability-to-all about commercially advertised products and services. I suppose some low confidence low status people could feel ennobled by being offered the opportunity to sign up for an elite. Having got them in, however, it has to stop being elite... I wonder if being non-elite that would put the original members off?! We are a strange lot.

Anonymous said...

No, no - surely the gospel is that anyone can become elite. All they have to do is act elite - and low-confidence people are frequently good at that, given encouragement. In fact, as long as you make sure their feelings of eliteness depend on how many others they can get to join up, then you soon end up with a superb pyramid-sales scheme. God-given marketing at its best!

Meanwhile, other churches can claim to be focussing on organic growth as they seek out people like us, to become a clone army.

Some of the above is serious. Ish.

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