The Episcopal Church's Office of Communications, in partnership with Monk Development, has produced a white paper on social media, that is available free, after registration. Entitled "Social Media and the Episcopal Church: A New Way to Tell a 2,000-Year-Old Story" it recommends six "best practices" for church's interested in cultivating a more effective online presence. Here is a quick summary of each point.
1. Know Thyself Too many churches jump headfirst into designing their websites and Facebook pages without first identifying who they are. What is your unique personality? In what particular way do you hope to serve God? What are your specific social or spiritual goals? The beauty of social media is that you can precisely target certain groups of people and strategize to fulfill very specific objectives.
2. Make your website the crown jewel of your communications strategy — and keep it fresh with constant updates.
Everything leads back to your website—not just your Tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos, but all of your traditional outreach efforts, like your parish newsletter, direct mailings, and advertisements. Post everything on your website; make it self-contained. If you do your job right, most information about your parish should be easily discoverable online by first-time visitors to the site as well as to regular ones. In fact, you should assume that a significant proportion of the visitors to your website are looking to join a church, and plan the organization of the site and its content accordingly.
3. Make it a two-way conversation
One of the most attractive things about social media is that it allows you to have lively, interactive conversations with a large number of people. Make the most of that. When you post a sermon, encourage people to tell you what they think of it. When you put up a new video on YouTube, keep going back to see what people say about it—and respond to their comments.
4. Put someone in charge of your online strategy
Precisely because most churches are strapped for both finances and personnel, responsibility for the website and other social media outlets usually falls to volunteers. Although a typical scenario is that a committee is formed to get a website up, ongoing management of the website frequently defaults to staff members who have been there the longest: the office administrator or the parish secretary. Sometimes they have Web skills, but most often they do not, and as a result, after the initial push, the website is neglected. It’s therefore essential to tap into the knowledge and experience of the congregation on an ongoing basis. Specifically, you should appoint a clear “owner” of the website and other social media assets and put a formal structure in place for ensuring the success of the initiative.
5. Don't be too controlling
The most common pitfall for religious organizations is that they try to control too much. “I’ve heard pastors worry that if they post something on YouTube there’s a good chance that after our video is over someone will suggest a video that we don’t want our people to see,” says Simon Cowert, the IT and new media director of Day1.org, in Atlanta. .... “That’s true: on the Web you are in a universe where you can’t control the
message any longer. But living in fear is not a productive way to manage it.”
6. Don’t reinvent the wheel
When Day1.org’s Cowert worked with executive producer Peter Wallace to build their new website, they debated long and hard about whether to build their own social network. “But we decided there was no sense recreating something that already existed in Facebook and elsewhere,” says Cowert. “People were in the online social communities they were in.” Instead, Day1.org decided to use a hub-and-spoke design, where Day1.org would be the hub of the community, gathering content such as sermons, blogs, videos, and anything else of interest to its constituents. Then it would use the existing social media tools such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to get the content out to interested parties and encourage them to share with their social networks.
I am glad to see Church Center producing this kind of resource, and suspect it will be extremely useful on the parish level, where knowledge about social media is often scarce, and anxiety often high. I also suspect that some readers will be uneasy with the partnership between the church and a commercial technology and strategy firm. I didn't find the product placement pitches any more obtrusive than I do in other materials I read--and the Monk developers had some insightful things to say, as well. The visibility given to Day One seemed excessive to me, but that is my only complaint.
I think partnerships with foundations, non-profits, and businesses that serve church organizations are a matter of necessity for our cash-strapped church, and that we need to be both patient and vigilant about the nature of these relationships as they evolve.
But enough about scruples and sensitivities. What do you make of the contents of the white paper?