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Web communication tips for your ministry

The following is an article I wrote for one of my denomination’s publications. I have permission to republish it here for you all.

A lot of different social media websites have popped up in the past couple years: YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter, Virb, LinkedIn, MetaCafe, DeviantArt, Friendster, Ping.fm, Orkut, Tumblr, and a whole lot more. As if that wasn’t enough, just as many communication services are being developed online, too, like Google’s soon-to-be-released Voice and Wave services. It’s almost impossible to keep up with it all!

So where can your ministry communicate online without hiring someone full-time to oversee all the possibilities? These communication methods can be highly effective and can greatly enhance your ministry in so many ways, but the options can definitely be a bit overwhelming. Here are some tips that might help you in determining what communication method is best for your church.

1. Determine who your primary audience is for the info you want to communicate.
Different audiences look for information in difference places. For example, people who are new to your neighborhood probably are not going to search Twitter or Facebook for your church’s information. They will typically go to Google and search for your town’s name and “churches,” hoping to find some helpful local church websites. Thus, the information on your church’s website should be geared primarily toward newcomers and first-time visitors, not necessarily to church members.

To communicate with people inside your church, though, it is important to first know how they communicate. Is it by Facebook? Email? Text messaging? Twitter? If you have a lot of church members who are active on Facebook, then creating a Facebook Page (not a Facebook group) may be a great direction for you to go. If only a few members are on Twitter, than do not worry about jumping on board there.

2. If you choose to use social media, put someone in charge of it who knows how to use it.
Whatever social media you use, never put someone in charge of it that’s mostly clueless about how it works. Every network has unwritten etiquette rules that should be followed in order to be respected. Don’t let that scare you from using it, just put someone in charge who is familiar with the territory. Or, enter it yourself as a personal user for a little while before pulling your church into it.

3. Understand that it may be necessary to train the congregation to use your new forms of communication.
If you continue to add new methods of communicating and never eliminate old ones, you’ll eventually become overwhelmed with distributing the same info in too many places. It is more effective to be focused in a few methods rather than spreading yourself out among many methods. That means when communication methods shift, you may have to do a lot of re-training so people know where to look. Even if you start putting church information on your Facebook page and active Facebook users become fans, that does not mean those fans will remember to go to the Page Updates and find information. You may have to train people regardless of how active they are on the social network you church uses.

Also be prepared for the vocal minority to share their opinion about the shifts in how your ministry communicates. There may be those who resist the change and will give many valid reasons why abandoning the older method is a bad idea, so you’ll have to determine ahead of time if the time and energy you put into the old method is worth continuing it for those who use it.

4. Always evaluate what works best.
Just because 100% of your congregation frequently uses email doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to communicate with them. All of us often see mass messages and click delete without even opening it. In fact, the mass email service I use for our youth group shows that less than 20% of subscribers open my weekly news emails. That means 80% of the parents and teenagers in our group are not even looking at my messages there even though they all actively use email. The obvious solution is seemingly to send mass Facebook messages instead, but using a tracking link in those messages indicated that only 2% of my youth group kids ever clicked through those messages for information. Again, very poor results. Don’t assume that putting information in the most “obvious” places will always be the best communication method.

For my ministry, the evaluation process revealed that people in my church will not take 2 minutes to read an email or Facebook message, but they’ll take 10 minutes to watch a YouTube video. Similarly, if I stand in front of the youth group and make announcements, no one listens, but if I say the exact same thing on a screen via video, they’re all glued to it! So now I do my weekly communication by recording a video with some added value (giveaways, contests, polls, funny YouTube clips, etc.) and distribute it via email and Facebook. Plus, the videos spread much more viraly to people in our community via Facebook and YouTube than one-on-one emails and private Facebook messages can. Even a random stranger at Wal-Mart recognized my wife by her last name because of the youth group news videos I do on YouTube!

Whatever method you use, just make sure you evaluate it. Not only do communication methods change over time, but so do the ways people use those tools.

A video that goes into more detail
Earlier this year I taught a seminar at the National Youth Ministry Conference on this very issue in much greater detail, giving more insights into communication trends in my ministry, how to evaluate communication effectiveness in your ministry, and ideas for improvement. You can watch the seminar in it’s entirety here.


Posted on July 22, 2009

  • "3. Understand that it may be necessary to train the congregation to use your new forms of communication."

    I feel this might be the hardest thing to do for my entire church. In my context, many of our members barely use email. They still write letters and are wary of anything involving technology.

    For the student ministry, most of my parents are on Facebook and most of my kids are on MySpace. But even after doing updates on both these platforms (and ever so reluctantly on MySpace), for some reason, good old fashion bulletin announcements and postcards work best with my ministry.

    Are your online communications effective? How do you teach an "old dog" the new technology? Is it even worth trying to change them?

    • If you found something that works well for your ministry, there may not be a big need to change it just for the sake of using technology. For us, we made changes because our old methods were not very effective (only 20% of the emails are opened!), but if your methods are working great, then I'd recommend you stick with it.

  • Luke

    Great post Tim. Especially about retraining. We getting ready to push our new website.

    As a side question… have you ever done online signups? We are going to start requiring people to signup, but only once they have turned in their money and permission form is it official..

    I've thought about having a simple form that dumps to a google doc that I can use to track stuff instead of a paper signup sheet on the bulletin board we have be using for communication. Experimented with this at all?

    • Yeah, we used to do sign-ups online. I even had a cool script setup that let people see who else is registered to go since kids always wanna know who else is going.

      We stopped doing online registrations, though, because the hassle of collecting money and keeping track of who paid and who didn't was a lot of extra work. Since they have to come in to the church office to pay anyway, now we just say, "You're not signed up until you pay."

      And thus there is no longer the need for online sign-ups for us.

  • I agree – training people to use new forms of communication can be a challenge! (In some ways) I wish I was around when email was an emerging technology, to hear the arguments people used against it, and how they tried to resist it. Sure, email (like any technology) won't meet all needs in all situations, but it sure is a time saver for many administrative tasks! I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on how to train the congregation.

    • The best way to train them is to over-communicate the changes and keep pushing them to that resource when they default back to the old ways. For example, if you decide that the best way to communicate is to put all the info on a website, then when people call you asking for the info, give them a quick summary in order to be polite, but point them to the website for more details.

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