The Marketing Power of the Church Newsletter

Eric Melcher
Innovation Showcase

Television, radio, newspapers, and social media; community college marketers use many channels to communicate these days. But perhaps they should be considering a more grassroots approach: the humble church newsletter. Volunteer State Community College (Vol State) administrators learned this lesson thanks to a group of dedicated learners. The older residents and their unique communication approach helped to make the Keep Educating Yourself (KEY) Lifelong Learning continuing education program at Vol State a resounding success in its inaugural session. It began when Shirley Arrendale of Sumner County, Tennessee, was talking to friends about continuing education classes she was taking at other colleges in the Nashville area.

"We were saying it's a shame that we can't have this in Gallatin," Arrendale said. "I'm ready to do this and we have a wonderful college right here to support us."

They proposed holding continuing education classes for older adults at Vol State. The first step for Arrendale was a bit of old-fashioned market research with her friend Pat Highers.

"We decided to reach out to people to see if they would be interested," said Arrendale. "I had my church on board and she had her church on board. We started sending out information to church newsletters and we had a lot of churches participating."

They quickly determined there was interest. The next step was contacting the college.

"It was very much a grassroots type of thing," said Hilary Marabeti, Assistant Vice President for Continuing Education and Economic Development. "We formed an advisory council. They gave us topic ideas and time suggestions, and helped us to publicize the lectures."

What developed was a series of lectures on topics such as genealogy, art, and books. Each topic had several lecture sessions over the course of a few weeks. The fee to enroll in one or all of the lectures was $49.

"We had 85 people attend our first meeting," said Arrendale. "It all added up to 110 people who gave us their information."

They once again employed the church newsletters as part of their publicity campaign, with the continuing education staff at Vol State registering people.

"The college has come through. We had 98 people register for our first program," Arrendale said.

Allene Byars of Gallatin, aged 101, attended several of the lectures with her daughters. "I'm interested in history and genealogy, almost anything along those lines," Byars said. "I'm a born student. I read a lot. I've read all of the books in the lecture series and I want to see what the speakers say about them."

The lecture series and the process has proven worthy of another session this winter. The topics are: Spiritual Storytelling, A Proactive Approach to Health, Music Genre--A Count of Four, and School and Life of the Civil War Soldier. Many classes are taught by Vol State faculty members.

"I think we need to keep our minds active and we need to keep learning," Arrendale said. But she also stresses: "It's open to all adults. Some come over their lunch hour. The biggest part is retired people, but you also have mothers and fathers who are at home with kids."

Many colleges already have such older adult learning programs, but the Vol State story shows the power of grassroots organizing and the value of having energized ambassadors conducting word of mouth publicity. Church newsletters, email listservs, and even talkative groups of friends can all serve as effective methods for publicizing new programs. They're usually free and come with an important added benefit: trust.

"People often put more trust in smaller social group communications than larger social media or mass media publicity," said Tami Wallace, Director of Public Relations at Vol State.

Marabeti says the program earned the college money, but adds there are benefits for the college in the long-term. "These lectures gave this group of well-connected people an insight into the talents of Vol State faculty. They're telling their kids and grandkids about us now."

Eric Melcher is the Coordinator of Communications and Public Relations at Volunteer State Community College, Tennessee.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.