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Tech Tuesday

The Power of Self-Service

Back in the old days, 2005 to be exact, I had a problem. I needed an email template to send our very first newsletter for Youth Ministry Exchange.

Email marketing was starting to become a thing and I wanted to send an HTML-based template that looked like I knew what I was doing. (Even if I didn’t.) Back then, we sent email with a little program that ran off our webserver using the PHP mail() function. It was archaic, at best, and usually shut our server down in the process. But it’s what I had and I was determined to make it look as professional as I could.

As I continued to look at templates I kept ending up at a little website, MailChimp.com. It was a paid service, I didn’t want a paid service, but they were offering free templatesfor them, this was an early entry into the SEO game… and it was working by drawing me in.

I started using their templates. I’d copy/paste their code into my HTML editor, add our content, then copy/paste their template into our software, and send it out to our customers. Then our server would shut down… and people would freak out because the forums were down or the articles I was linking to weren’t visible because I’d have to call Bluehost and get them to reboot the server, again. On top of that headache I had to create and manage forms for people signing up for our newsletter as well as manually manage people opting out. It was a royal pain.

By early 2006 I’d had enough.

Even though we really didn’t have the money to pay for any service I knew that I could sell an ad on the forums that’d pay for MailChimp. But the downside of paying for something I had been doing “for free” on our webserver was easy to overcome when I could get more uptime for the forums, less complaints, and MailChimp would also offer me some basic reports, handle the opting in and opting out, all of that.

And so, MailChimp became my email marketing platform of choice. They were still kind of small at that time, they had something like 11,000 customers. (They have more than 7 million customers now)

Pretty soon I had questions. Something didn’t work right or I couldn’t figure it out, so I’d hop on live chat or send in an email to ask my question. And instead of “just fixing it” they’d often times point me to their support documents which told me how to fix my problem.

They’d roll out a new feature, I’d try it in my next message, if there was a problem I’d email them, they’d send me a link to a document and I’d fix it. This little loop would continue for the next year or so. With each message I sent I got a little better, our emails got a lot better, and we were rocking and rolling. (Open rates of like 45% were the norm!)

Then in summer 2008, Patti and I sold little YMX to another company and the next thing I knew I re-entered the dark ages as I began working for the larger company on their email marketing.

All-in-all, the emails we were sending at the new company were prettier– the copy was much more snappy. But the open rates were terrible– less than 10%, the click rates virtually non-existent– less than 1%, the lists were full of spam and duplicates, we had a very hard time showing how emails created leads/sales, and we were spending lots and lots of money sending email messages with an array of contractors and over-priced, out-dated systems.

Worse yet, when something went wrong, or we wanted to do something different… the answer was always either no, more money please, or that’s not in our contract.

In 2009, I finally convinced this new company to move to MailChimp. And you know what? Our open rates, click rates, and every other measurable skyrocketed. (Not to mention we saved boatloads of money.)

Self-Service = Power for the User

Here’s what I learned in this:

  • Most expensive can mean something is the best, but not necessarily.
  • When you empower your users to help themselves, your cost of doing business per customer drops to almost zero.
  • When you empower your users to help themselves, the value of your product increases in the eyes of your customer.
  • When you empower your users to help themselves, they become your evangelists because they make themselves better by using your product.

The Problem of Religion

It’s not just MailChimp that’s taped into this. If you think about it, the driving force behind much of the current internet/app crave is that power has shifted from CEO dictators who control every aspect of how a product is used with their greatest weapon being restricting access to CEOs who act like anthropologists and data-driven analytics monsters whose greatest weapon is granting near limitless access.

YouTube makes very few videos but their platform and reach is massive. Apple’s iPhone struggled until they publicly released the software to build apps and make the entry point for submitting apps just $199. (Android was built from the ground up on this principle.) WordPress is an open source product that runs nearly 1/4 of all the websites on the planet. Want to contribute? Anyway can help make WordPress better.

On and on, most of the most powerful technology companies today have empowered their users to build their own platforms.

This shift in power, from a small group to the masses, presents a problem for the church. Culture demands the power to create, transform, remix, reimagine, innovate.

And the Christian leadership establishment is terrified by this.

Their entire model of subsistence depends on large gatherings where a guru speaks to the masses. Power is equated by how many people listen… a church is deemed as being more powerful if the guru speaks to 10,000 people versus a church of 100.

The challenge for the Christian establishment is to quickly pivot from an organization who finds it’s power/influence in culture where everyone listens to the guru to becoming a place that empowers believers see the local church as a place to become equipped to influence their network wherever they are and with whatever they do.

Fortunately, there’s a playbook. The first century church faced nearly the same challenge as they pivoted away from a Temple-based, hierarchical priesthood to empowering every believer as a priest. The less control the leaders had, the more individual believers were empowered to live out their faith, the faster the church grew.

If you want to know what to do right now to see the local church impact a culture where old-school power doesn’t work, read the book of Acts.

Photo credit: MailChimp Vinyl Toy by Tomos via Flickr (Creative Commons)

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

One reply on “The Power of Self-Service”

Yes! Very well put. This last part (on the Church) is exactly the way I have been feeling for years! My heart has broken as I’ve seen people with passion for ministry get stifled, disillusioned and discouraged by the bureaucracy and top-down controlling structure of the church. The Church (and youth ministries) should be about enabling, empowering, equipping and encouraging God’s people for ministry.

Some of this is brought up in the book, “Back To Jerusalem: Three Chinese House Church Leaders Share Their Vision to Complete the Great Commission” showing how the Chinese Church flourished under the decentralized authority and autonomy.

Over the past few decades there has been a rise in the mindset of church as corporation and pastor as CEO, partially driven by churches wanting to emulate the “celebrity” churches. Ironically, at the same time corporations were starting to move toward trying to include the employees as partners (think Starbucks). But the church missed that memo and kept on with this top-down control mindset. So imagination, creativity, empowerment, equipping and so on is stifled and practically discouraged. At the same time, the people have been conditioned to see church in the view of consumerism and less as participating members. Reminds me of the people’s cry for a king in the O.T. as opposed to the Judges that God had appointed for the Israelites. Give us a king (pastor) that we can view as celebrity who tells us what we should do…

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