UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 4: Incentives and the ethics of promotions

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One of the key things we picked up from Cru in the US was the crazy idea of providing substantial incentives for people doing our O Week surveys. 

Here was the St Louis Cru advice:

  • The “giveaway” is what will motivate people to fill out your survey
  • Community College: Raffle for a $25 gas card or gift card to Walmart
  • 4-Year University: Raffle for something Larger, like an iPod or a bike
  • If you have the option, giving away free stuff (like water bottles, highlighters, Bibles, etc) to freshmen is a great idea!

Like many things American there is a bizarre ministry culture shock. Raffle for an iPad? Are you kidding?!

So we ruled out some of these more extreme ideas, espcially those that involve some kind of quasi-gambling, and instead went for: 

  • free KeepCup from local hipster cafe (owned by Christians, they donated 100 and gave the rest at cost)
  • free coffee voucher from same cafe
  • when these ran out, we were given free large pizza vouchers by Dominos (!!) so we used those.

We wanted something easy and portable and non-perishable. And we wanted something with enough WOW factor. In O Week, there is so much free stuff, that students can get entitled and almost ignore some stuff as just part of being at uni. We wanted to stand out.

Not this meant it cost a lot of money. But then, spending money on making new contacts is about as good an expense as any, right? We were able to afford this, because of the grant we received. But having seen its power, we will raise support to make this possible in the future. 

1. The power of incentives

  • We weren't prepared for quite how powerful this would be. We were literally swamped with interest, especially on the first few days (everywhere, that is, except for the hyper-suspsicious School of Fine Art).
  • What the incentive did, was enable us to 'go viral'. Once word got around that we were giving away free KeepCups, people began telling their friends, and people were lining up to do the survey.
  • This meant we were able to make contact with more people in an hour than if we were approaching people, without incentive, one by one.
  • I know that some unis have enjoyed a similar efficient this when they have had large give away BBQs at key central hubs: if the line gets long enough to be able to do the surveys in the queue. Others used to do this while students lined up to get student cards... before being stopped from doing this by mollycoddling uni admin.
  • The incentive also this made us memorable. We made an impact by giving away something with a Wow factor.
  • Free food at campus events are another example of incentives: come for free lunch and short sermon etc. Having been reminded about the power of incentives through this project, we have also renewed our resolve to plan to budget for free food at our mission events.
    • We provided Subway and Sushi at a lunchtime event and it was a real hit.
    • Likewise, those attendeding our evangelistic course could order a hot drink on the Facebook Event and our staff would buy drinks for everyone from the campus cafe that woudl be ready as they arrived.

2. The problem with incentives

  • Something feels icky about this. At what point are we compromising or corrupting our ministry through free stuff?
  • There are a bunch of potential risks:
  • Creating 'rice Christians': people who only come to our stuff, or even claim to be Christian, because of what they get out of it.
  • Creating a consumeristic culture: what you convert people WITH is what you convert people TO. If people join our group with the expectation of free stuff, will they then bring that kind of entitlement to their whole invovlemenet with our group? 'What free stuff do I get if I come to MYC?' 'What free stuff do I get if I become a student leader?' etc
  • Giving the impression we are tricking people into religion.
  • Wasing money.
  • Giving things which actually compromise our values: supporting a corrupt business, giving away things that are associated with immorality (free beer!) and so on.
  • We might also be careful about encouraging consumerism, materialism and so on.
  • Of course we don't feel icky about all sorts of free stuff. Somehow giving away sausages is fine. Why not keep cups? Providing free hot drinks and snacks after church... but not sushi for a lunchtime meeting perhaps. What's the difference?

3. The ethics of incentives and the ethics of evangelism

  • From the very beginning of this plan, we talked a lot and thought a lot as a staff team about the ethics involved.
  • Here are some of the things we realised:

1. We realised that there is a difference between the ethics of EVANGELISM proper and the ethics of PROMOTION. What you can and can't do as you hand out fliers or do surveys is different to what you can and can't do as you actually evangelise someone. We don't necessarily have to be as 'pure' in broader promotion as we do in evangelism.

  • We had a similar converation around our radio ad. Some of our students were concerned that we didn't explain theologically sound reasons and motivations for why we exist and why people should come. But we suggested that you don't need to unpack the atonement in a radio ad. Your obligation for detailed clarity is different in an advert than in a sermon.
  • I am not witholding the free thing on the provision that someone responds or converts. It would be one thing to only give the keep cup if someone sais 'YES' to finding out more. Another thing if everyone receives the gift, whether they say yes or no.
  • So although there are ethical issues raised in, for example, 1Thessalonians 2 or 2Corinthians 4, these are not all directly applicable to all our promotion.

2. We need to be honest about who we are and what we are wanting to promote. No advertising 'free pizza' events, that hide the fact that there will be prayers or God-talk.

3. Some free stuff is associated directly with hospitality. It is incentive-in-relationship. So free dinners at FOCUS events, or free lunches at mission events are not cheap, 'come and we'll feed you' scams, but rather expressions of hospitality to our guests.

4. However, lavish free hospitality can create patron-client obligations. So if the free hospitality we offer is too impressive, it creates a complicated power dynamic with our guests. So dial it back a bit!

5. The dynamics of the giveaways need to be ethical: so we ruled raffles out, for example.

6. The things being given our need to be ethical: so think carefully about what you are promoting with your incentive. Are you feeding materialism or entitlement or drunkenness or sexual immorality (!)?

7. Sponsorship relationships with businesses need to also be approached with care. Are you simply receiving a donation from the business? Or are you partly helping them advertise? Or are you endorsing them? All three of these MIGHT be fine, but it needs to be thought out clearly. Likewise the degree of exposure the business' logo might get needs thinking through. 


That's just a beginning list. You might be able to think of others?!

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