UX Lessons from Nigerian Churches

The Pentecostal and Evangelical movements in Nigeria remain a staggering multi-billion dollar industry. What is more staggering is the impressive growth seen in the last 20-25 years. I am intrigued, but more importantly I want to understand what strategies work. What strategies can new businesses, startups et al. learn from these organisations. This is no innuendo.

Product

Product is a key ingredient in the marketing mix (four Ps). What customers want is perhaps the most pertinent question any business needs to answer. From a coffee shop to a technology service provider, the product remains a key denominator for every business. No product, no business.

The basics suggest a product’s value proposition needs to be compelling and is often an extension of the overall business strategy - a congruence of product, vision and strategy. This value proposition is indeed a promise to the customer and is typically considered the overall net benefit (often quantifiable) to the customer. Put in simple terms it is: Why should I use your product?

I reviewed the vision statement of the largest of these establishments in Nigeria. What I found was a rather clear value proposition including a well thought out growth and execution strategy. One thing that was also evident was the use of emotion (or sentiment as some would call it) to drive the message through.

It’s a known fact that each day, emotions play a crucial role influencing our choice of products. Whilst having a compelling value proposition is great, an emotional connection or sell has an even greater impact. Emotion is a rather wide spectrum. Apple for example churn out some great products, however a key success factor is their ability to generate a deep emotional connection with customers even with not so great products. I recently played around with the new iPhone 6+ and still can’t understand the frenzy about a 5.5” phone that won’t fit into my pockets. The Apple effect is all I can call it.

User experience

I really should not decouple the user experience (UX) from the product. For the purposes of this post I reckon I should. UX extends well beyond the product. I see it as encompassing the end-to-end customer interaction with the business. Whilst aesthetics of an app might tick many boxes (from a user’s perspective), equally important are logistics, support and other back office functions to complement the end-to-end experience. A great app and wacky business support process only translates in a rather quick anticlimax.

These churches understand that the overarching importance of the user experience is fundamental to business success. This ideology is embodied in extending the product offering to great (often sensational) music, a charged up atmosphere including all the ambience and aesthetics required to deliver a rewarding end-to-end experience. To understand the level of planning and logistics required to deliver this level of excellence you need to visit one.

UX - Church Shuttle

These establishments also understand that UX extends to removing the hurdles (inconveniences) towards achieving a product’s climax. The image above is one example. Shuttles pick members from major stations in London. The message this sends to me is - a seamless user experience. We will take you to our product.

While most of these establishments sell a similar message (salvation, prosperity etc.), a key differentiator (from a customer standpoint) is the brand. The brand goes beyond aesthetics like the name and logo. Customers identify with brands. A delicate balance between brand identity (how businesses want to be seen) and brand image (how customers perceive a business) is one metric every business must monitor.

Brands are difficult to build and the value created isn’t set in stone. It requires businesses to continually work hard at ensuring the accrued value is sustained at the very least. For this very reason, these establishments have commendable communication strategies to filter (or counteract) negative information cascading to stakeholders.

I reckon every business requires a communication strategy which at a minimum addresses who their customers are, what messages (including channels) to disseminate, why the chosen communication strategy is ideal and how this aligns with the overall business strategic goals and objectives.

Data. Know your customer

One thing these establishments excel at is their data repository. If you have ever been invited to any of these gatherings, there is usually a few minutes dedicated to welcoming ‘first time comers’. While welcoming first time comers is great, a key objective is usually to solicit data – i.e. know you customer even better.

Newcomers are asked to fill out cards which tease out key details like phone numbers, email and physical addresses. Don’t be surprised when you get that unsolicited knock on the door or a barrage of text messages. For those that opt to stay as members, knowing your customer remains a continuous and intimate relationship. Arguably, the more you know your customer, the better you are able to use this data to offer tailored products to them.

The concept of data isn’t new. What is new is how we as humans interpret and exploit data. Business intelligence tools and techniques allow even the smallest of companies gain new insights into customer behavioural patterns to drive everyday decision making. Data is king. For successful businesses, data drives not just the product but also the shape of back and front office operations to deliver end user products. Businesses that ignore data insights do so at their peril. Businesses need that data, they need to know their customers better.

Execute quickly

Ideas are a dime a dozen and execution speed is perhaps the most competitive advantage any business can exploit. I recently fell into the trap of developing a product over an extended period due to various commitments etcetera. Whilst I took time to deliver a full-featured-all-encompassing product, the market moved on by the implementation date. The lesson was simple – quick to the market.

One integral element in most successful growth strategies is the ability to validate ideas rather quickly. There in an inherent cost in validating ideas and if you must do so, you must do so quickly - ideally with a minimal cost base. These establishments understand this concept. As part of their growth strategy, most start as satellite meetings (little to no cost base) with a handful of people which quickly morph into full-fledged nodes. This aligns with the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP). Like a scientist, you validate the concept in a lab in the first instance. A number of these establishments have perfected the art of quick validation and are able to churn out 2 parishes a day! Now that’s commendable.

Viral is cheaper

Most new ventures have little to zero marketing budgets. The quest remains how to drive customer growth up vis-à-vis a limited budget to achieve this. This dilemma translates in many products never taking off. Interestingly, these establishments start with only a handful of members and growth is fuelled by the word of mouth multiplier effect from person to person. They rely on rather keen (and free) product evangelists to spread the word. WhatsApp comes to mind here - i.e. products customers simply fall in love with. Get customers to fall in love with the product and they’ll inevitably spread the word.

Kaizen. Good change

Kaizen is a philosophy of continuous improvement. Good change. Kaizen is about standardizing and making business and/or system processes more efficient – think about eliminating waste in a supply chain.

Kaizen and Agile are also closely linked. In this digital age, the process of morphing into a dinosaur can happen rather quickly. Technology is evolving ever so quickly driving customer wish lists and sophistication to the roof. Businesses cannot continue with the same business as usual luxuries they enjoyed years ago. Think of Kaizen and Agile as essential methodologies every business should embrace in maintaining continuous customer engagement.

These establishments understand that the message (or product) has to be new (agile) or at best renewed frequently (a different slice of the same thing). They understand that customer engagement isn’t a one-off but a continuous investment in being relevant to the customer. Customer acquisition is an expensive game and accordingly customer retention is a must do strategy for any business venture.

Channel (platform) agnostic

While the pulpit is the main medium to spread the word, these establishments increasingly realise that members are channel agnostic - they want the product in a variety of ways. For many, a podcast suffices while others they require a daily newsletter or boost via email. Accordingly, the product reflects the varied touch-points of interaction with the customer. Customers drive channel scope and these establishments understand their success depends on transmedia storytelling.

Multiple channels however can translate in a convoluted message, particularly with poor integration across channels. The message (and timing) needs to be consistent and technology can help with this seamless integration. As businesses grow larger, poor integration can contribute to crippled operations which translate in a higher cost base and business lethargy. A multi-channel approach is great, however integration is key.

Revenue and cost models

It’s all about the money (unless you are a charity that is – even that). Most of these churches appear to adopt a freemium (or variant) revenue model. The model is simple really: Showcase that your doors are open to all who care to meander through and work out a strategy to monetize.

While a freemium revenue model can be expensive for most businesses (due to required cost base required to push through), the holy grail remains how successful the revenue extraction strategy is. Otherwise, the customer becomes a cost burden to the business.

In addition, while one-off earnings are great, businesses have an aversion to volatile and unpredictable earnings. Volatile earnings mean planning and forecasting become difficult. For this reason, these establishments push the tithing narrative (a subscription based revenue model) to reduce earnings volatility. As most business costs are fixed (or at least semi-fixed), the minimum success criteria is to generate enough revenue to shoulder these costs (i.e. breakeven at the least).

Keeping business costs within check is crucial and I am also a fan of lean strategies. While I appreciate there are business justifications to burn cash to achieve rapid growth, these strategies aren’t sustainable in the long term. Cash isn’t bottomless (regardless of how it is showcased) and many startups could learn some cash management strategies from these establishments.

Cover Image Credit: Jeff Attaway

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