Imagine you’re traveling to a new city. Your friend lived there for years and emphatically says that you simply must visit this one Thai-food restaurant. At the same time, they strongly encourage you to avoid a specific pizza joint because it’s overpriced and overcrowded. If you’re like most people, you’ll take your friend’s restaurant recommendations. They’re offering free advice and they have first-hand experience. That’s the power of social proof—and it’s a significant factor in marketing, even online.
About 82% of consumers read online reviews for local businesses. On average, customers read about 10 reviews before making the decision to trust a company with a purchase.
While online reviews aren’t as intimate as personal recommendations, they’re the next best thing. Online reviews are also significantly more scalable, since you won’t always have a friend that’s lived in every city you decide to visit. But you can always search a place online and scroll through the countless opinions of helpful strangers.
This is true for businesses, and it’s true for churches, too. While you’ll never be able to fully control online reviews, your church should avoid focusing on them at your own peril. When done well, these digital ratings can help your church in a number of ways.
Here are a few helpful suggestions for how to make the most of them.
Find Your Online Listings
If you haven’t already, begin with an audit of all the places someone could review (or read a review) of your church online. There are quite a few possibilities, but here’s a list to get you started:
To expand this list, search for your church’s name in your favorite search engine. Sift through a few pages of the results. You’d be surprised how many places your name pops up. Create a list of these links in a place you and the rest of your team can reference later.
Claim The Listings
Most of these online platforms allow you to claim your listing as an official representative of your church. This primarily means you can update your church’s information to ensure that it’s accurate. More importantly, it also means you can directly respond to reviews on behalf of your organization. More on that later.
In most cases, you’ll have to provide some proof that you’re legitimately affiliated with your church—that way, not just anyone can claim the listing. Every site is different, but this might mean the site will call the church’s phone number or mail you a verification code to the church’s physical address. This takes a little bit of effort, but should only happen one time per site.
Update The Information
Once you’ve claimed your online listing, it’s time to ensure all of the information provided on the review site is correct. Check the physical address, phone number, website URL and other details listed for your site. Update anything that’s incorrect and fill in some of the missing pieces.
Many of these sites aggregate information automatically—so much of it could be old or inaccurate. Having a wrong phone number or address for your church would be obviously problematic.
Even if you can’t officially claim your listing for a specific platform, you should be able to submit requests for changes. Review sites want to make sure they’re providing people with helpful, not misleading, information.
Respond To All Online Reviews
Now that you’ve got the basics taken care of, take some time to read the reviews people have written about your church. Take these with a grain of salt. Don’t take any negative comments too personally—we’ll address that more in-depth shortly.
Spend time responding to more recent reviews individually. It’s usually best to not follow up with anything older than a year or so, because that can come across as inauthentic. These responses don’t have to be too in-depth—the main goal is to acknowledge you’ve heard them. A simple “Thank you for your review!” can be enough for positive reviews.
It’s best to handle negative feedback with care. People who leave negative reviews are emotionally charged. They had a bad experience and are often lashing out. The main goal is to acknowledge that you’ve heard them and invite them into a conversation offline by providing a contact number.
Even if they don’t respond, you’ve publicly shown that you’re actively interested in resolving the issue. Avoid any confrontations or debates online—it’s all too easy to get sucked into one, but your church never comes out looking good. Thankfully, showing that there’s another human involved in the situation is sometimes enough to de-escalate the tension.
Now that you’ve started responding to these online reviews, don’t stop. Set up a regular rhythm (eg. monthly) of checking these sites and responding to any feedback. It likely won’t take you long to do each time, but this helps prevent potentially harmful reviews from going unnoticed for an extended period of time.
Create a process to ensure that this monitoring happens regularly. Set this up as a recurring task in your calendar or project management system. Decide on the right people to check these reviews, like your communications director or community pastor.
Think through possible ways to respond with your church team. You don’t need too much effort to acknowledge positive ratings. But it could be helpful to establish a system of communication for dealing with critical feedback. Take time to craft a thoughtful response when necessary.
Encourage Honest Reviews
People who have positive (or even average) experiences don’t often think to leave online feedback. However, people with more negative experiences tend to be more motivated to tell people about it. Therefore, the goal with social proof is to provide a wide range of feedback.
Do this by occasionally (and non-intrusively) encouraging people in your congregation to leave honest reviews of their church-going experience. This could be via a simple announcement from the pulpit, a short blurb in the bulletin, or a helpful flyer on the bulletin board.
These reminders could also come in more digital forms. Drop requests for reviews in the occasional social media post. Link to a few review sites on your church website. Or add one of these links in your church’s app. None of these places will lead to a flood of reviews—but combined, they let your supporters know how they can help.
Listen To Make Improvements
If you’ve been hesitant to dive into online reviews, it’s likely because of potential negative reviews. We’ve addressed a few ways of how to respond in these cases. It’s also important to remember that critical feedback is never easy to hear, but it can also be helpful.
Even if the bad rating wasn’t fair or fully representative of your church, realize that it does represent a real person’s perspective. Enough of these perspectives over time can give you a clearer picture of ways to improve your church.
For example, if one person says that the worship music is too loud, they may just be a grumpy outlier. But if ten people feel strongly enough about the volume to speak up about it online, then you should have an internal discussion about your worship acoustics.
Online reviews aren’t just a way for church attendees to give feedback to others. They’re also a way for you to listen to their perspective. And if you aren’t willing to listen, then you can start expecting quite a few more one-star ratings coming your way soon.
What is your church’s biggest challenge with online reviews?