Three Things I Learned While Working for An Organization Exploding with Growth

As I look forward to a new year of pursuing growth for clients and consider creative new ways to approach it, I can’t help but think back to times when I’ve seen explosive growth firsthand. When you’re lucky enough to be part of a growing organization, you see patterns and gain insights that stick with you.

I’m spent five years of my career working for one of the fastest-growing churches (as well as one of the largest) in America in both 2017 and 2018. The last year I was there—2016—attendance jumped by 26 percent. All while church attendance in general declined.

As I observed the inner workings of this organization, I saw them do a few things that ended up paying off big time. Here are the top three things I noticed:

1. Find THE right core persona and target them with everything.

While knowing everyone who buys a product (and mapping a buyer persona for the different types) is important, you can’t aim at multiple targets with your core messaging. So if there’s not a distinct brand target, messaging sounds inconsistent at best and, at worst, insincere.

I felt this pain acutely while working for a tech startup. As in any startup, much experimentation is required to determine product/market fit and, like any bootstrapping young company, each person wore many hats. One of the growth team’s was branding. As an additional challenge, however, the tech startup had two products built on the same foundational technology. One appealed to data-driven marketers; the other appealed to data scientists and engineers—senior and junior. We desperately sought to craft a single story that would intrigue each of these four personas: marketer, data scientist, junior engineer and senior engineer.

To complicate matters even further, it quickly became clear that the person using a product sometimes wasn’t the person buying the product. Once again, this was the case at startup. An executive had to sign off in almost every case, so we also needed to appeal to the C-suite. Enter, persona number five.

But aiming at five targets means even if you hit one dead-on, you’ll completely miss the others.

This doesn’t mean you throw the others out, but it does mean taking the time to do extensive and thorough branding work to find the persona that could impact the other buyers. Which most companies eventually do—and which is what this church did.

I imagine the process was no simple feat (I wasn’t around when they began in the 90s). They could have targeted women because more women go to church than men. They could have targeted Baby Boomers because they are the ones who attend church most regularly. They could have targeted the demographic majority in their (first) location.

Instead, they targeted the 30-year-old male. After deep market research, they decided for a variety of reasons that if they could appeal to that man, others would join him. Turns out, they were right.

Then, they transformed that persona into a “person.” With a name, a background, a family, specific interests, even an face. Everything—every sermon, every video, every song, every joke—was crafted with this person in mind. Of course, plenty of messaging went out to other “buyers,” but the core assets told the same story to the same person.

The result? The product had direct and deep appeal to a certain audience. And their numbers grew from around 20 to more than 20,000 (and counting) in just 20 years.

So while a little experimentation on the front end is necessary for finding product/market fit, don’t be afraid to spend time on your brand and narrow that persona to the ONE that will drive all other messages—and give you an authentic and strong voice.

And when you find the voice that speaks to that persona, use it boldly—and without concern for what anyone in your industry may think. That’s because my number two learning is this:

2. Don’t worry (too much) about what your competitors are doing.

Okay, so it’s good to know what your competitors are doing.

But any organization can easily be inspired by competition or create benchmarks based on what others in the industry do. To win in the market, however, you have to SET the standards.

So instead, worry about what your persona thinks.

This church did that. They didn’t want to be a great church. They wanted to be great, period. That meant venue, videos, music, storytelling, etc. had to be inspired by the best that the world has to offer their persona.

My role was Director of Content on the kids’ team, and we operated in the same way. To get inspired and stay in touch with what kids might want in church, we explored what kids wanted, period. We visited popular childrens’ museums, watched Disney/Pixar hits, ordered well-reviewed toys on Amazon and explored latest fads, like those YouTubes with kids opening surprise eggs. If we were at a concert or attended a great party, we took notes. After all, if adults seemed keen to pass around an inflatable shark during a performance, wouldn’t kids be too?

This strategy seemed to work not only for the adults, but for my team too. By the time I left, our kids’ program had grown. Almost weekly, other churches wanted to visit and observe, and we had many testimonials indicating that a decent number of parents came to this church in particular because their kids liked it.

Growth continued because we were constantly experimenting to figure out what worked. Which is the third growth instigator:

3. Be willing to try new things.

Often, churches are known for being pretty set in their ways. This one wasn’t.

They put on a Christmas event so good that 100,000 people came every year. It required months of prep and hiring professional dancers to pull it off. They decided to turn the lowest-attended weekend—Super Bowl Sunday—into a can’t-miss event, complete with tailgating in the parking lot. They support more than 6,000 kids in Nicaragua through an entirely different organization (pretty rare when donations are what keep the lights on).

In fact, they try new things so often, they hired a team of data scientists to make sure every decision is made responsibly, based on data, not gut.

And now, they’re trying something totally new by moving to a church model outside of the familiar brick and mortar. Instead of only bringing people on-site (though they do have multiple sites), they’re creating content—sermons, music, videos—that can be consumed in homes. People anywhere in the world can “attend” church together.

This too is a major risk for an organization funded entirely by donations. Making church as easy as binging Netflix certainly requires less investment up front. You don’t even have to get dressed! If that translates to less financial investment, the growth stops. But… if it doesn’t? The growth opportunity is exponentially greater than ever before.

Most new things are like that: risky. The payoff comes to those who are willing to try.

So this year, I’m approaching growth with fresh, reflective eyes and looking forward to taking a few risks. In a nutshell, I want to know who I’m talking to, talk directly to them better than anyone else and figure out how to do that by experimenting with ideas, some that likely fail. If career history has shown me anything, I can expect to see major growth.

Laurel Brunk