From Visitor to Member: Strategies to Keep First-Timers Coming Back By Don Burns

From Visitor to Member: Strategies to Keep First-Timers Coming Back By Don Burns

Husband, Father, marketer, former barista, lover of all things Apple.  Don is available to help you with your marketing, advertising, and strategic planning needs.


On a recent trip with my family to Disneyland, I was surprised to find several fresh fruit stands inside the park. Among the French fries, burgers, ice cream, and churros are these wonderful stands serving up fresh juice and sliced fruits. Fresh fruit stands may not bring visitors to the park, but the lines of people willing to pay $5.50 for a few slices of pineapple show me that they’re excited to have a healthy option. While no one goes to Disneyland for the fruit stands, a positive experience does help bring them back.

The Disneyland pineapple stands may seem like a small touch in a park with so many attractions. But they do illustrate the difference between acquisition tools and retention tools—as well as the importance of the latter. While churches must focus on attracting visitors, they also must work to turn those visitors into regular attendees and members. Some believe that money invested in retaining visitors is between 10 and 20 times more effective than money invested in attracting visitors. Let’s look a few tools churches can use to encourage the transition from visitor to attendee.

Know who attends

It is imperative to know who visits your church. Whether they are first-time visitors at a weekend service or neighbors visiting a church event, be sure to obtain their contact information. Many churches hand out visitor packets or pass around visitor information cards, with limited success. To increase the effectiveness of this method, have your visitors turn in the card at the visitor booth after the service for a gift. Along with the gift, give them information about your key values and various ministry areas.

Follow up immediately

Several months ago my wife and I visited a satellite location of one of the fastest growing churches in the country. The best part of our visit didn’t happen until after the service had ended. We got home after eating lunch to find a message on our home phone from the campus pastor. The message emphasized how much they appreciated us visiting. He knew we brought our children and said a few things about the children’s ministry at the church. We turned our information in just a few hours earlier, and he had already called us. Hundreds of people attended the same service we did, and they had three services that morning. I kept thinking that he had to make a lot of calls that day. His effort made an impact, and we have told that story many times.

This story illustrates a simple technique: When you get information on a visitor, make sure to get in touch with them quickly. You might choose to call or send follow-up letters. Whatever you do, make the message personal and timely. This follow-up communication should reinforce the key values and ministry areas discussed in the materials you gave out during the initial visit.

Invite them back

After the initial follow up, invite your visitors to come back. There is a lot of truth to the old saying, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Asking people back is critical. One church we visited sent us a warm reminder by email the following week, saying they enjoyed having us the previous Sunday and hoped we would return. They kept it short, reminding us of the church’s values and giving a teaser about the message series about to begin. The message brought the church back into our minds just a day or two before the next service.

Ask for feedback

The company I work for is really big on customer surveys. We send out surveys to each internal department as well as our various external customers. Those surveys are taken quite seriously—the annual bonus structure is based partially on how well we perform on them.

This model makes customer satisfaction a priority, and while visitors are not the same as customers, their experience of your church matters. Obviously, no one is more conscious of the visitor experience at your church than those who have just attended. Ask them for feedback. Be vulnerable—let them know that your church is focused on reaching the community and their input can help you make the visitor experience better. Ask them about things they liked, disliked, questions they may have, or things they may need prayer about. The key is to not discount the responses. Listen to what these surveys tell you.

Measure the results

Be sure to track visitor data very precisely. Over time, you will be able to determine the number of visitors who become committed members of the church. Once you know this ratio, you can figure out how many visitors you must attract to grow by a particular percentage. That information is extremely valuable when making decisions about advertising or events.

It would be wonderful if each person who attended our churches decided to stay. Unfortunately, we know that is not very likely. But we can plan to become as effective as possible at converting visitors into attendees. Hopefully, the strategies outlined above can help you strengthen your church’s efforts to grow.