blue parrot thinking: the shared plight of churches and car dealers

Reflections on websites, damned websites and how analog and digital approaches are now one and the same.

Over the years here, I’ve shared at length (and perhaps lengths too far) of the brief life I once spent working in ministry. I haven’t spoken much about the life I spend now.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in digital media: writing, editing and overseeing content for sports websites and support for and development of websites for the auto industry. I began the former with a background in journalism and WordPress; this very web presence, along with the work I did with a collegiate fishwrap, got me in the door there.

I began the latter with what could only be charitably described as rudimentary coding ability. I never studied anything more than QBasic in junior high and had a crude understanding of HTML. I would never consider myself a savant or expert developer, but I did find that I had a knack for this stuff, so I learned HTML, Bootstrap and CSS, can read and mostly interpret JavaScript but can’t seem to make the jump to writing it. I intuitively understood that if I didn’t swim, I’d sink and my family would starve. My understanding of ‘innovate or die’ is in many ways quite literal.

Over the last two-plus seasons in web support, development and a stint in account management for good measure, I’ve worked on a lot of projects and websites, which has allowed me to interact with a lot of people in the auto industry, from dealership proprietors from the used lot down the street to executives overseeing some of the largest auto groups regionally and nationally. By and large, my opinion of auto dealers remains healthily skeptical; I’ve been privileged to talk with really smart, savvy and collegial folks from every time zone.

I’ve talked to others, as well. (Haven’t we all?)

The interesting thing is how similarly those professionally part of American Evangelicalism and in your garden variety North American car dealership think.

Whilst perusing LinkedIn, I happened upon this meme:

As a rule, I don’t do much on LinkedIn. This, and the presuppositions behind it, moved me to violate my own principles. I couldn’t not act, and that was the moment that I realized that I was and am, indeed, a fully-fledged digital evangelist. Much like encountering someone upholding the principles of five-point Calvinism, the fire was trapped in my bones and I could not contain it.

Let’s talk about blue parrot thinking.

The world now exists as a singular duality: the material world (the booth I’m sitting in, the coffee I drink, the keyboard upon which I am relentlessly hammering right now) and the digital version (the website you’re reading [hi!], the memes you share, the snaps that were and are no longer save for the gutter of one’s mind.) There is no longer a difference between the two: your website, digital brand, social media footprint, all of them are viewed as equivalent to your actual self. A car dealership’s website is not a billboard or TV spot, it is the car dealership itself. People are window shopping (and, in a growing number of instances, getting financing and even desking deals in the virtual space.) A church’s website is not a tract, bulletin or radio spot, it is the vestibule (and in a growing number of instances, the sanctuary.)

My response to the meme: “Your dealership website IS your showroom. A poorly-functioning, design-blind website is the same as a dirty, dingy converted gas station used car lot. Not an extension of your brand, but your brand itself.”

You might own a converted gas station used car lot. There’s nothing wrong with a converted gas station used car lot, provided quality vehicles are marketed by quality people there and provided at mutually-beneficial value between buyer and seller. The point is that a poorly-developed website will undermine sales efforts and hamstring efforts to grow your business. A bad website is a loud fart during the exchange of wedding vows: the deed might get done, but the process in getting there is seriously disrupted.

The idea that businesses or organizations of any variety can and should be unapologetic in their digital crumminess isn’t just bad marketing, it’s bad business. There’s a reason this website exists and now in a semblance of ironic glory.

Be glad there isn’t an easily-accessible similar site for car dealers.

Examples of both of these are examples of selling blue parrots. They’re dead on arrival. Worse yet, no one’s even buying.

One can try to talk one’s way out of it; a bad website isn’t bad as long as people are coming in the door and we sell a car is philosophically identical thinking to the Machiavellian ‘even if one person comes to know Jesus, it will have all been worth it!’ gambit tossed out without a shred of self-awareness by Christian zealots who are content with alienating thousands so that they can hoist one on their shoulders in their deluded, bizarre tendencies toward self-congratulation.

In missiology, it is referred to as the ‘mission station’: an outpost people are expected to be drawn toward, as though it were a force of nature bringing them into the center (never mind that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist.) The mission station, despite its obvious limitations and demonstrable, historic flaws as a strategy for proselytization, remains the preeminent method of ecclesiastical brand building in the world today.

The car dealership without a digital footprint and identity suffers from an identical problem and, without a way to interact with and get in front of others, others will remain staid or, worse, resort to their stereotypes. No one denies that the church and car dealership both suffer from historically poor optics. The fact that every church is stumbling over themselves to declare themselves real and authentic and relevant and that many car dealers talk up their hassle-free, stress-free, not-your-typical-dealership experience only underscores the point.

Churches and car dealerships have been offering the public blue parrots for so long that they only show up when they have to: when the car breaks down, or Christmas and Easter.

What it comes down to is integrity. If an entity wants to put its best foot forward, it’s going to do the best possible job in every possible way. That includes digital marketing, because digital presence is now actual presence, thus the same efforts put into a difference-making organization–be it of the religious or RPM variety–must be put into how that organization exists in the digital space. The same is also true in reverse: a great website or digital presence shouldn’t be papering over blatant flaws in the brick-and-mortar space. To wit, Wendy’s has a killer social media presence, but I’m not buying a Baconator.

We have to come to grips with the fact that it may be more expedient or more affordable to cut corners, but it isn’t right. We may not be turning back the odometer or putting floor mats over cigarette burns, or masking insecurities of conscience by using scare tactics to manipulate someone into a conversion.

It’s all selling dead blue parrots, and when confronted with the fact that the parrot has ceased to be, readying any number of excuses as to why the parrot is alive (or, more to the point, why we aren’t willing to provide a refund.) If either church or car dealer is interested in changing perception, they’re going to make sure their various forms of presence are aligned and consistent with one another, if for no other reason than there are no various forms of presence: either there is presence or there isn’t.

This is how the world is. In reality, this is how the world has always been. We’re just recognizing it anew via emerging technology…and a nearly 50-year-old comedy sketch.

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