By Blake Atwood; Church Leadership Editor; FaithVillage.com
The temptation of any online activity is to become someone you’re not. When you go online, you may create a persona that isn’t indicative of who you are in real life. This may happen involuntarily or even imperceptibly over time. Houses of worship are guilty of committing this same error when it comes to their online presence, especially in the realms of social media.
Some houses of worship use social media like Facebook and Twitter as a way to repeat basic information to their members. Event times, worship schedules, and other informational items are posted, and yet house of worship staff wonder why social media isn’t “working” for them. Other houses of worship attempt moderate amounts of engagement with their members, yet it’s likely that these houses of worship are also discontent with the effectiveness of their social media usage.
Why is this so often the case?
Simply put, the online persona of the house of worship fails to flow from the real life of the house of worship. A house of worship is not its events, its Sunday worship service, or its potluck dinners. As good and necessary and delicious as those things are, a house of worship is its people. The effective use of social media demands that you focus on the people. By engaging your people through the mediums of real-life conversation and online engagement, all the while maintaining the same persona throughout these conversations, you’ll start to see a vibrant display of your house of worship’s unique identity in an online space.
So, how do you get from rehashing event information to creating an environment conducive to building an authentic online community?
Houses of worship that don’t know who they are in real life won’t know who they are online. Your Communications Director or Volunteer Social Media Expert may need to have multiple conversations with house of worship staff members, lay leaders, and attenders. To go even further, consider asking those in your community that don’t attend, what they think of your house of worship. While this could be a daunting task, the results could prove quite beneficial, and will likely be surprising. What are the themes that sound a constant refrain? Take the information you’ve learned and consider how that should play out online.
No one likes to hear someone talk about themselves all of the time. Just like any functional relationship, communication has to happen both ways. Establishing a safe online place for your house of worship to communicate with each other and with house of worship staff allows for such a mutually beneficial relationship to take shape. Consider using social media to ask your members questions that dig deeper than simple yes or no answers, or ask for suggestions for a particular issue:
• How did the message affect you?
• What will you do differently today?
• How can we pray for you?
• What has God been teaching you lately?
• Suggest ways we can better reach our community.
If your focus in social media is squarely on your people, there will be work involved. Relationships take time and care to cultivate. The social media presence of many houses of worship is anemic at best because adequate time hasn’t been given to the house of worship’s social media endeavors. This is why many house of worship online personas devolve into the repetition of dry information that fails to engage. In order to be present, someone on your staff needs to monitor your social media feeds and work to start dialogues and promote daily interactivity. Here are a few suggestions:
• Ask questions and answer questions. It’s basic but effective.
• Become a recommendation engine. In other words, help your members find beneficial online resources that can work to move their faith.
• Offer giveaways or other prizes on your house of worship’s blog, or via your Facebook or Twitter stream. Most house of worship staff members have shelves overflowing with books and other useful resources that could be given away. Ask for a comment in return for an opportunity to win the book, CD, or DVD.
• Create something beneficial and give it away for free. Better yet, involve your members and crowdsource an idea for a giveaway for your community.
Obtaining buy-in for any endeavor (especially within some entrenched house of worship cultures) can be challenging. For a house of worship to have a successful online presence in social media, a majority of its leaders must participate. Without such buy-in from house of worship leaders, a house of worship’s social media presence will likely lack a defining voice. In other words, it will not be wholly representative of the house of worship. As with most issues in house of worship culture, buy-in from your leaders will lead to buy-in from your members.
There are a few surefire ways to lose your audience. For good or ill, establishing a vibrant online community requires daily interaction. If there is a perceived lack of consistency, you will likely lose followers because you’re not reliable. If there is a lack of focus (does your house of worship really need to see that funny cat video?), you will likely lose followers because you’re not being true to your house of worship’s real-life identity. If there is a lack of necessity, you will lose followers because . . . well, you likely didn’t have any followers to begin with.
Lack of necessity refers to this important question: Are you attempting to get your people to come to you, or are you going to them? For instance, ChangePoint, a house of worship in Anchorage, Alaska, was recently deemed The Juicys Communications Church of the Year after they ditched their traditional printed worship guide and monthly calendar in favor of a mobile app and reduced printing costs. They saw a noticeable hike in mobile-based traffic to their website and responded accordingly. They went to where their people were.
Furthermore, according to Nielsen’s latest Social Media Report, Facebook is the most visited site on the Internet, and 4 out of 5 active Internet users visit social networks and blogs. Additionally, 40 percent of social media users access social media content from their mobile phone. And, somewhat surprisingly, social media users over the age of 55 are pushing the growth of mobile social media usage.
Learn about the effective use of social media every day and seek tools that can help you engage your house of worship online.
• Michael Hyatt’s posts on social media can help you get a foothold.
• Mashable follows everything occurring and on the horizon in social media.
• Buffer is an invaluable service that allows you to schedule tweets.
• Strawberry Jam is a Twitter service in beta signup that allows you to see all of the links that your Twitter followers have posted, which is truly helpful as it alerts you to the issues that your people care most about.
• Google Reader allows you to aggregate your house of worship members’ blogs, or other useful Christian blogs, that could then be used as fodder for further discussion.
By remaining true to your house of worship, making yourself available, and consistently seeking engagement both online and offline, you may find yourself in the middle of a robust social networking experience that draws people to your house of worship, and, more importantly, to God.
Blake Atwood is the Church Leadership Editor at FaithVillage.com, a new social network for faith experiences coming in 2012. Follow him @FVmomentum