“Happy #CincoDeMayo!” he tweeted, fork in one hand, thumb raised on the other, grin as cheesy as the grated cheddar-topped dish in front of him. “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”

Don’t be fooled by any proposed legislation or any previous instances where his words might suggest otherwise: he clearly loves Hispanics. He celebrates the clearly Hispanic holiday of Cinco de Mayo like any Hispanic-loving individual would: with an authentically-Hispanic taco bowl. (Please, dear reader, note the sarcasm.) This man understands marketing to Hispanic audiences. He’s a man who gets Hispanics. He doesn’t just get them, he does great with them.

Understanding this demographic has become more and more important for many organizations and brands. Many cultural experts have researched and written much about Hispanic Americans in recent years, digging into the attitudes and aspirations of this relatively young, fast-growing demographic. Full disclosure: I am a white male of Italian, Swedish, and English descent, born and raised in the middle of Indiana. I do not proclaim to be one of those experts. I do, however, have the honor of working with Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle in Indianapolis, so I can offer my experience on this particular project.

The Situation

This historic Episcopalian church came to Pivot for assistance with some soul-searching, if you will. The cathedral was undergoing some leadership changes, and the makeup of the congregation itself was changing too. Downtown Indianapolis and the surrounding neighborhoods were (and still are) becoming much younger and diverse. That trend was slowly being reflected in their Sunday attendance, especially among Hispanic populations. This led to the creation of La Santa Eucharistía (Christ Church’s Spanish-language mass) on Sundays at 1:00 pm. Which evolved into a natural desire to expand their reach among this demographic.

Christ Church was aware, however, of a more challenging trend. The nature and role of churches in today’s society are not the same as they were 20 or even 10 years ago. The attitudes of Americans toward religion have also changed drastically.

Some Background

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans of all ages and ethnicities are becoming less religious. This is certainly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) true for the Millennial population, those bastions of godless, immoral, independent secularization (again, dear reader, note the sarcasm). Over one-third of Americans born between 1980 and the glorious mid-1990s consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. That’s up from one-quarter of that group just seven years prior.

Perhaps more surprisingly, though, was seeing a similar drop in Hispanic populations. Long identified by their strong religious ties, Hispanic Americans as a whole have also been leaving the church in droves—particularly the Catholic church. The percentage of Catholic Hispanics dropped by ten percentage points over the seven-year period of the Pew studies. Many of those leaving are swapping their religious association for none at all. One-fifth of Hispanics identified as unaffiliated, up six percentage points from the previous study.

Know What You Don’t Know

As we got into the project, we realized if we wanted to increase the church’s exposure among Hispanic audiences, we first needed to understand their existing Hispanic audience. We conducted a focus group with members of the cathedral’s Hispanic community. We developed a Spanish-language e-survey to ensure everyone in the church could have their say. And we supplemented this primary research with secondary sources, such as the aforementioned Pew study.

This research yielded some very important insights for Christ Church. Among many other things, we learned about the parishioners’ experiences (both positive and not-so-positive) at the church. We learned how they felt about seemingly-small things like parking or service times. We also learned about larger issues like obstacles preventing their friends from attending church or ways to further integrate the Hispanic and non-Hispanic church members.

Put It Into Action

Christ Church now has a solid understanding of their Hispanic congregation. Rather than make guesses, they know how this audience feels about the church, as well as their motivations, ideas, and concerns. This helps them make more effective decisions to increase their presence among this community.

Certain pages of their website (and soon the whole website) can easily be switched over to a Spanish-language version with the click of a button. We’ve helped them develop strategic relationships with members of the media to amplify their voice on issues of social justice. They’ve opened Circle South, a gallery and neighborhood center in the Fountain Square neighborhood, to provide a more relaxed and casual atmosphere to connect with parishioners, neighbors, and friends. And they’ve been more intentional about creating more opportunities for cross-cultural interactions within the congregation to strengthen bonds across racial and ethnic lines.

The Takeaway

A thorough understanding of your target audience will always lead to more effective solutions than assumptions or pandering. As easy as a tweet can be, using a hashtag to connect with an audience is not a sound strategy. It may even have an adverse effect. And as much as you tell yourself you’re great with a certain target audience (whether it’s Hispanics, Millennials, recent engineering graduates, or C-suite executives at beverage companies), you never can truly tell until you take the time to do your research and truly understand their opinions, values, wants, and needs. Need help with that? Let’s grab coffee.