Stonylands Golf Club – a communication parable

by Tony Whittaker 

101014-N-8241M-016 GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Oct. 14, 2010) Professional golfer Jon Fine helps service members at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Cuba with their golf game. Fine was brought to the naval station by the base Moral, Welfare and Recreation program to provide free golf lessons. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Bill Mesta/Released)
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Bill Mesta/Released)

You can’t miss Stonylands Golf Club if you take the winding back road out of town. But if you are in any doubt, the signboard says it all: “Stonylands Golf Club. Member of the Federation of National Golf Clubs. Est. 1924. Secretary: J S Peasworthy, BSc.” There follows in smaller letters, “Private Property” and without apparent irony, “No ball games.” The design of the sign is almost identical to the original 1924 version, as you can readily see in the photographs of The Opening displayed in the clubhouse foyer.

Had you been in the Club Committee recently, you could have participated in some lively discussion. The Club wanted a website. Or at least, they realized that they needed new members. The Committee had been doing some thinking. Membership was declining. Income was shrinking. With a majority of members being over 55, ill-health and death were chipping away at numbers. Replacement applications for membership were just not keeping up. Maybe a website was the answer. Of course, there was the unspoken wish that new members would be People Like Us.

People who behave well socially.

Fit in easily.

Good solid professional types.

And preferably those who know plenty about the game already. Novices can be so, well, difficult.

Text on a screen
Slowly, the shape of the website was hammered out in discussion, though Secretary Peasworthy tended to dominate. “We already have a brochure, and since this Web thing is just text on a screen, we can use that as a basis for the website,” he said.

Let’s take a tour of the site as it finally emerged …

On the homepage are two photos: the clubhouse and the greens. Some of the Committee had argued for pictures of members. However, as Secretary Peasworthy said, “After all, the Club IS the Clubhouse and the Greens. Let these Speak for Themselves.” (He tends to capitalize words, both in speech and writing.) Certainly in the clubhouse photo, the parked cars speak for themselves – of success and wealth.

The welcome letter
The Secretary thought that a welcome letter from himself should be an essential part of the homepage. This runs to a full 750 words and would benefit mightily from proof-reading and editing down in size. But Secretary Peasworthy, though charming, polite, and kind to animals (and members of the Club), is not really amenable to having his writing edited and proof-read. He is in truth a better speaker than writer, and can hold an audience well on the History of Golf for 40 minutes.

Other pages of the site
The Committee was unanimous in wanting the entire Rules of Golf posted on the site. Or, that is to say, the Federation of National Golf Clubs version of the rules, which vary ever so slightly from those of the Association of National Golfing Clubs. To explain why they belong to the Federation, there is also a detailed retelling of The Split – how the Federation and the Association had come into being many years ago.

There’s a page about the Club’s dress-code too. Sometimes, Secretary Peasworthy needs to have a polite word with members who do not comply. “So important to keep up standards. Scruffy dressing implies disrespect for the Game and the Club.” And if you need to read the Committee Minutes, why, there they all are, online.

Games I have enjoyed”
The Committee was insistent that there should be some people-related content within the site. So we can read a profile of Secretary Peasworthy plus photo taken in his clubhouse office, besuited, with his golfing trophies and BSc degree certificate behind him on the wall. And each member of the Committee has contributed a page on “Games I Have Enjoyed.” They all interpreted this to mean “Tournaments I have Won”, and with much use of golfing jargon, we are led hole by hole, to the inevitable denouement.

Few manage to avoid a somewhat triumphalist streak, and many include rather pejorative references to other lesser sports or non-golfers. Most of the stories sound oddly similar. None are less than 1200 words, and the contribution from the Oldest Member, James McFadden, tips the scales at over 3000 words. However, other members of the Club were immediately enthusiastic about these stories. Because they understood and enjoyed them, they said, “These will surely attract new people to the Club.”

Lady members and youth
The Club regards itself as quite forward-looking. Why, there is even a woman on the Committee now. After all, they permitted ‘ladies’ to join as full members back in 85. A few members left over that decision, and chose instead to take the hour’s drive to Bleakwoods Golf Club, where a time-traveller from 1932 would fit in immediately. At her suggestion (she is the only Committee member with a Facebook account), the Club opened a Facebook page too.

They do have an open youth session once a week. Sadly, it mainly caters for children of the members, especially as they must bring their own golfing equipment.

Nine months since the website went online, and the Committee members seem rather disappointed. There are indeed five new members. But three joined because they knew other members socially, another moved to town and drove past the Club daily, and one found the Club in the Federation’s yearbook. “This new-fangled Interweb thing doesn’t seem to connect with outsiders,” was the consensus at the latest Committee meeting. You’ll find their discussion in the latest online Committee Minutes.

Meanwhile, in a completely different valley

Just 10 minutes drive and you reach the next valley and the town of Freshfields. The golf club is easy to find – they asked the town council to erect signs at key locations. The entrance board is clear too: “Freshfields Community Golfing Center. Free trial session – book now” (followed by email, website URL and phone number). The graphic design is lively and attractive, and a photo-collage of faces reflects the diversity of golfers using the club.

Planning their website
Freshfields also sensed a need for a website last year. Team Leader Jon brought together the center’s staff and coordinating group, and asked several members with writing, design, and communication skills to join. He also invited representatives from several other golf clubs who had websites to share some lessons from their experience. Elizabeth, a reporter on the local paper and keen golfer, was asked to advise on effective communication principles. One evening, over coffee and pizza, they brainstormed ideas and looked at existing golf websites using a data-projector. Jon emphasized, “Really, we are here to promote golf as a game, rather than just ourselves.” Ideas for the site slowly came together. Before it went online, they tested reactions to it – not from their members, but by asking a range of non-golfers. They made a number of changes based on this feedback.

They also developed an integrated social media policy, using Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest as a shop window into the club’s activities, and also demonstrating a wider focus on other issues of interest to the community. Individual club members were also trained to use their personal social media accounts to engage with these issues, and highlight specific Club pages and news from time to time.

A tour of the Freshfields site
The homepage is short and attractive. A photo-collage of members’ faces of all ages gives a sense of family and demonstrates that the membership “looks like Freshfields”. Under the Freshfields Community Golfing Center heading and logo is the strapline “I never knew golfing could be such fun!”

Personal stories
The navigation menu takes you to enticingly-titled inner pages. Elizabeth emphasized the need for personal stories. These include “Meet the staff”, with short profiles and photos of each member of the team, from Jon the team leader to Maria the cleaner. Somehow, it makes the team ‘real’ by showing that Jon plays drums in a tribute band, coach David breeds tortoises, and Maria loves painting in watercolors.

“Why we love golf” covers a range of members’ stories. No golfing jargon though. No hole-by-hole accounts of games. Elizabeth helped them shape their stories, and did proof-reading and revision. “Use humor as much as you can,” she advised. “Be self-deprecating. Use direct speech where possible. Look how magazines tell a story. And also try to counteract those awful stereotypes that some people hold about golfers.” Several members felt inadequate in writing skills, so Elizabeth wrote their stories as interview features. Each story is enhanced with a photo, a personal profile, and a two-minute video clip. Let’s look at several:

  • Juliana writes movingly of how golf has been a life-saver to her as a single mum. She can leave baby Sergio in the center’s daycare facility and find peace and relaxation with her best friend. She never dreamed of being a golfer, until she was given a free golfing token by that friend. And she benefits from the center’s low pricing for those not in work.
  • Darren shares why he has found golf so pleasurable for many years. He paints a warm personal experience. The breeze on his face. The smell of the grass. The animals and birds. The satisfaction of a shot well-placed. The friendships made and strengthened. The sense of belonging to something both local and worldwide.
  • Golf gave Cheng a new sense of release and purpose after the death of his wife and a time of depression. “I have found so many new friends,” he writes.
  • Candice (15) started golf after a multiple fracture of her ankle while playing basketball. Doctors told her to choose a new sport. “So I did,” she says simply. “Now three of my mates come along too.”
  • Denzel (17) was mixing with a bad crowd when a golf training session was held at his school. He was hooked, and after only one year, shows the potential to become professional. “Man, I was real messed up. Golf has turned my life right around.”

All of them are honest about themselves and their reactions. Sometimes, they get frustrated with the game. Sometimes life is too busy for golf. Those new to the game can find the rules strange and frustrating. But a common factor in every story is the discovery of friendship and purpose. This is probably helped by one of Jon’s informal club rules: “Every time someone you don’t know comes into the center, invite them to your table and offer them coffee. This Club is about them, not just you.”

Youth and publicity
Freshfields wants to reach out to youth. Members and staff take volunteer sessions in local schools and youth clubs, and offer regular youth training at the center. These sessions can be requested through the site.

The website also has a range of online games ranging from Tetris to several golf-oriented games and a phone app. Many younger people first arrive at the site by finding these games.

Club members are encouraged to invite friends to the center, and can use ready-made contact cards with the club’s URL.

Jokes and blogs
A page of golfing jokes and cartoons demonstrates that the Club doesn’t take itself too seriously. The coaches run a question-and-answer section to help golfers with problems. And there are two blogs. One about golfing news and developments is mainly for members. But the other, about local community issues, demonstrates a commitment to the town, and draws outsiders into the site.

Freshfields was already growing before their website went live. But the site has dramatically enhanced overall growth, and new visitors to the center have increased by 80%. It’s not that the site is somehow magically doing all the work. But it gives site visitors a sense of community and welcome, and introduces them to Club staff and members, showing that they are normal people who have found a game that is fulfilling. It draws people to free trial sessions, youth training, and other activities. Then face-to-face relationships with real people take over.

The Club is now considering buying land on the other side of town near the industrial sector and housing projects, for a second golfing and sports center with a special focus on helping marginalized youth and families. The town council is giving active support to the project. “Our website is now integral to all we do,” says Jon.

What now?

This parable is not of course about, or critical of, the noble game of golf. Apologies to golfing friends: there never was, to our knowledge, any such split between national golfing federations, real or imaginary!

Church websites can be outsider-friendly (Col. 4:5). But this must be an intentional strategy, with priority given to outsiders. Your church site (and social media use) are like a shop window to your wider community. Here are two blog posts that highlight the issue:

An inability to see ourselves and our message, as outsiders perceive them, is a major communication fail:

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / to see ourselves as others see us.” (Robert Burns)

Internet Toolbox for Churches is one of the best places to learn more about outsider-friendly digital church ministry. You can also test the outsider-friendliness of your church website with this free assessment tool.

Check also Yvon Prehn’s resources at Effective Church Communications. These are wider than just digital communication, and include a newsletter, free templates, and many design ideas. Your site can include outsider-friendly topical articles, such as the free-to-use resources by Rusty Wright.

Individual church members also have many opportunities to share their faith online, especially through social media. Churches will benefit from appointing a digital advocate – someone who can resource the rest of the fellowship by explaining these opportunities.

Another option, for those with the appropriate gifts, is to become a digital mentor. You can work from home as a volunteer for a large online outreach team such as Truth Media.

More digital communication resources

Internet Evangelism Day has a range of free downloadable ebooks relating to digital communication, and other book recommendations.

Do check a title you may not have come across: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. This is a hugely significant book about effective communication: how to make a message ‘sticky’ (i.e. understood and remembered). Whether you are an evangelist, preacher, Sunday school teacher, house group leader, mission advocate, administrator, creative, lecturer, parent, or just a member of the human race, you need people to understand and remember what you are trying to say to them! This book will do for you exactly what it says on the cover. Taster extracts are available online.


Tony-WhittakerTony Whittaker (@soonguy) is coordinator of Internet Evangelism Day, and an advocate for the use of digital media in evangelism.