Adrian Gates is the Media Director for Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg, MA. He’s a 16 year pro in media and communications. He’ll be presenting “Feeding the Robot: Unlocking the Facebook Algorithms” in the Church Communications Conference at WFX Dallas.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with my church leadership team: Why would we pay for a Facebook ad instead of just posting for free? At the time, most of the free posts we made on our page were reaching the audience who liked our church’s page. But times have changed.

On Facebook, the users are both the audience and the product. Facebook makes it’s money by selling access to what each user sees. Organizations pay to reach these users. The main way Facebook controls that access is with their News feed Algorithm. This bit of code assigns a priority to every post that appears on a users news feed, whether it comes from friends, groups or pages. It is constantly evolving to keep users happy and to keep the organizations invested.

So because of new changes in the algorithm, the question “Why pay?” has really become a question of “When should I pay?” Organic reach, or the influence of unpaid posts, has definitely declined in the past several years. It now takes considerable effort to reach your audience without paying at all. My church does not have a large social media budget, so we want to maximize every dollar spent. To help, we developed a set of circumstances for when we will buy an ad or boost a post. If your church is just starting to spend on Facebook, here’s 3 places to start.

1. When You NEED to Get an Important Message Out

Naturally, buying an ad is the #1 way to guarantee you will reach your audience. It cuts through all the other nuances of the algorithm. If you pay for something to be seen by an audience, Facebook wants you to be successful and see your audience grow. After all, if it fails, you have no reason to continue to spend.

At my church, we tend to pay for campaigns for big outreach events or important services, like Christmas. When we want to reach beyond our Facebook “fans,” the people who like our page, an ad is a great way to do it. Based on our pages organic insights, or the performance statistics for unpaid posts, we can fine tune the audience for best results.

With any marketing, it’s success depends on what goals you have in mind from the start. Before you spend a single dollar, decide what the outcome should be. Should more people like your page? Should people respond to a Facebook event? Should they visit your website? The tools for a Facebook ad campaign can be finely tuned to help achieve your goal. Don’t spend the money without a goal in mind or you will have nothing to show for it.

2. When You Want to Test a Message on an Audience

Our first Facebook ad was for Back to Church Sunday a several years ago. We wanted to reach an audience that wasn’t familiar with us yet, but we weren’t quite sure what they would like about us. After a little brainstorming, we had 3 top messages, but didn’t know which of these messages would bring people into the service: First, we had a really exciting, modern service, so our first message presented us as a big contrast to the more traditional New England churches. Second, we had ministries that touched our community, such as a homeless outreach, so our second message talked about helping people in our city. Finally, we had a strong campaign at the time on connecting men in church, so our final message was directed specifically to men.

This practice of running multiple ideas is a form of what advertisers call “Multivariate Testing.” These ads all had the same goal and where similar in design, but with different messages. By using all of these messages, we had a chance to test which would reach more people. The results were really helpful for our future marketing and outreach.

Using the Ad Insights, we found that men in our area were not the ones clicking on these different ads. We’d need to reach out to men through different methods. Targeting only men in this campaign was not a winning plan.

The worship and community ads both did ok, but were underwhelming. To try and improve things, we added two new versions of these ads to the campaign. The only change we made was a replacement of the original picture to a more focused picture for each. This is what advertisers call “A/B Testing,” or simply the practice of changing just one thing to see how that change improves results.

Aft hat, we finally had a clear winner. The best result by far was our new ad emphasizing community outreach. This used an original picture of a homeless man’s hand clutching a cup of coffee, taken at a well know location in the city. In the background, bagged meals and backpacks were laid out neatly on the pavement. The combination of the local image and compassionate message hit a nerve with the community. It became a real viral success beyond simply being a paid ad. Some people who saw the ad shared it in a Facebook Group about city news, which touched off a big discussion on homelessness in our community. Our average post at the time would reach 100 organic impressions and occasional engagement. This ad reached over 7,000 combined organic and paid impressions and the discussion had hundreds of comments. This was by far the most successful outcome we could have hoped for.

When Pastor asked the congregation that Sunday, “Who is here because they saw that Facebook Ad?” several hands went up. The statistical success is great, the actual success of new people in church is better. Perhaps even better still, we learned something about the city we serve and what they need in a church. It’s information we still consider today and has been key to our growth.

3. When You Already Have a Winning Message

Finally, sometimes you already know which messages and posts work. By tracking your Insights, you can tell when a certain post is reaching more screens or generating more engagement all on it’s own. Consider boosting these posts that are already winning.

In our church, we will boost a post only after it hits a threshold of organic reach. For example, two years ago, our average post was reaching about 400 organic impressions. If a post would reach 600, we would know that the content was connecting well with our audience. For whatever reason, it was worth their time to share, comment or like it. Spending $5 to get the additional engagement on an already engaging post was easlily worthwhile, pushing the total combined reach to 500 or 600.

After a few months, we noticed our average reach increased from 400 organic impressions to 600. It was easy to tell, since we would spend our small monthly budget in only a few posts. As the average increased, we also adjusted our threshold to boost. Each boost pushes your page out to a wider audience than organic reach alone. Plus, you can learn the types of post your audience is responding to best. This approach cost only a few dollars per month, but combined with our other efforts to reach people, has been part of our strategy to continuously reach new people for Jesus online.

Closing Thoughts

The only way you really fail is by not trying. Facebook wants your ad to succeed and your repeat business! Mixing in a few paid ads with your normal organic content can be just the shot in the arm you need to cut through the noise and reach your core audience more often. Remember this does not need to be overly complicated or expensive, so long as you are ready WHEN opportunity arrives. Set a budget, set reasonable goals for outcomes, and measure your results with Page Insights. Above all, don’t be afraid. We’re reaching people for Jesus!