In Church Communications, We > Me

Our family has a special connection to football season, as my son has been playing since he was a tyke. Though he has played with various teams over the years, each shares one thing in common. Each selects a saying at the beginning of the season that becomes the rallying cry for the squad. Coaches know that if you don’t get your players on-board, and give them a sense of identity, the season is lost before it’s begun.

This year, his middle school team selected one I particularly liked: “We > Me.” The resonance with football is obvious. It’s a team game—no one player can be responsible for winning and losing. Everyone must pull in the same direction to win.

And here’s why I like it so much. The same is true with church communications. Winning in communications requires your church pulling together in the same direction. Both in terms of message, and in terms of the tools you use to communicate it.

Three critical questions

Very often, churches looking to improve their communications look immediately to a tool. “We need a modern-looking website,” said one client to me before we ever talked about what the church was trying to accomplish. “We’ve got to figure out how to make Facebook work for us,” said another, without giving any consideration to whether their congregation wanted it. The rush to find a tool that will fix things is never-ending.

But to get your community to pull together begins with examining your current communications and what it says about who you are and how you talk together.

Answering the following three questions is a good first step in understanding how effectively you are communicating.

  1. What channels do people in our church use now? Ask your members to tell you what communication channels they use day-to-day to get information. The answers may surprise you. I recently asked people at one church to sort themselves into one of several categories based on their preferred method of connecting with people. Texting, e-mail, and face-to-face conversation were the most popular. Not one gravitated to the group designated “social media.” Beginning with what people have will do more to strengthen your internal communications than trying to introduce another channel that people may or may not desire.
  2. Do our existing communication channels allow us to connect with one another? There’s no denying that adopting the latest and greatest is fun. And a potentially significant boost for your church. But if you are not communicating well with the channels you currently use, the problem may not be the channel so much as the message. Look to understand why your existing channels are or are not working for you, first.
  3. What do our existing channels teach us about our community? Before adopting something new, be sure that you are collecting as much information as possible from your existing channels about the people in your community. If you only have print communications, have you done a reader’s survey of how often people read it, and how they use it? If you are using e-newsletters, are you spending time with the analytic data these provide to better understand what resonates with people, and what doesn’t?

All for One

Austin Starting to KickAnswering these three questions will tell you a great deal about whether your church is a collection of people talking as “me” (different opinions about who you are, what you are trying to accomplish, and how you spread that information within your community) or as “we” (a unified message over every channel).

If your church can embrace We > Me, you’re ready to take your communications to the next level. If you find We < Me, there is more foundational work to do before taking on the world outside your walls.

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The Pope, Twitter, and the Man from Madrid

Gustavo Entrala is one in-demand dude. And why not? He’s the guy that put the pope on Twitter. Quite literally.

That’s right, the pope’s on Twitter, and by all measures doing quite well with it.

popeBut it’s Entrala, not the pope, who is the brains behind the account. And he told his story to those attending the conference I was at in way that held us all captivated. The next day, I had the pleasure of sitting beside him as we took a bus to the small town of Araxa.

My first question to him was, “how carefully do you measure the impact of Twitter on the papacy?” His response–“Not very.” We track relatively simple metrics, he said; mostly, we pay attention to what messages are resonating with what groups of people.

Come again?

The pope’s Twitter account recently topped 10 million followers. You read that right, 10 million. Entrala and company must have data coming out of their ears. But for all of that, they choose to focus on the relatively simple metric of how do tweets play with people, measured mainly through how often, and by whom, something gets retweeted?

There are two key take-aways here.

1. It’s not the size of your following (or the number of friends) one’s social media channels have. Instead, it’s what those who follow or befriend you are telling you about your thoughts when the react–or don’t–to what you’re transmitting. To benefit from this, you don’t require 10 million followers. You can learn the same lessons with 10, or 50, or 100 followers. Run your ideas up the flag pole, see who salutes, and react accordingly.

2. If Entrala, the brains behind the pope’s massive Twitter account, is looking mostly at what people are revealing about themselves when they retweet the pope’s messages, it re-inforces a notion we at SLC talk a lot about. The value of social media lay not in how it helps you grow. As a growth tool, it’s unreliable at best. But as a tool that provides insight into what people really want, it’s unparalleled.

Of course, I am simplifying here. Both Entrala and his work with the pope’s Twitter account are far more complicated than I’ve conveyed. He’s no hack who happened to stumble on a big customer. (Learn more about Entrala here, here, here, and [if your Spanish is good] here.) But the core of his message as conveyed here is correct.

As you think about your groups’ social media channels, think long and hard about what you’re learning. If you’re not, you’re missing out on the most powerful component social media offers you.

Just ask the pope.

‘We’re a Church; Not a Business’: The Proper Role of Google Analytics in Church Life

Though I could list several hundred statements I hear people express about church life, “We’re a church, not a business,” has to rank among the most-often heard. There are a number of situations in which I will disagree with this idea (budgeting, legal matters, managing staff, etc.), but when it comes to e-newsletter and website analytics, I’m fully on-board.

This week, I wish to look first at website metrics. Google Analytics, by far the most popular of the website metric tools, is geared toward American business, not American nonprofits and churches. This doesn’t undermine the value of the tool for churches, but it does mean that churches must approach the tool with an awareness of how it can benefit them.

Pathways, not Numbers: Analytics is a valuable tool for tracking visitor numbers and growth. But, churches—especially smaller communities (less that 200 on Sunday)—should worry less about numbers and more about the pathways that people take through their site. Why? Consider architects. Most will tell you that while they work hard to understand how people will move inside buildings they are going to design, and they design with their research in mind, not until the building is constructed and people begin to move through it do they know how traffic will flow. The same is true for websites. And analytics will show you how people track through your site. This knowledge will tell you a great deal about how well, or how poorly, your site is working.

Recency, not Bounce: In the world of Analytics, “bounce” is a four-letter word. Bounce records a person who visits one page and then leaves your site. In business, that’s bad news. In churches, bounce does not necessarily mean failure. Because your users are more likely to be familiar with your site, they’re more likely to bookmark the pages they favor, visit those, and leave. Meaning your bounce rate may run higher. A more important statistic to pay attention to is recency, which keeps track of repeat traffic. High numbers of people who are there for the first time, as well as high numbers of people who come repeatedly can signal trouble for your website.

New vs. Returning: This may be the most important statistic for you to watch. This charts the percentage of new visitors (first-time visitors) vs. repeat visitors. Many churches who feel their website is stagnate are surprised to find out that a large number of visitors are “new.” How to account for this? It could be many things: People sending links to their friends (and Analytics will track this), or people looking for churches who visit your site looking for a home and who leave. There are other possibilities. It’s important to discover the answer.

When it comes to Google Analytics, be aware that it’s a business tool, first. But this does not mean it’s not useful for churches. You just need to look at it through a glass clearly.

Unleashing Staff Creativity with Data

As leaders of congregations, it’s important to remember that as you come to see the significance of what understanding data derived from electronic communications can mean for you and your staff, your staff may not feel the same.

Data, properly used, can have a liberating effective on staff creativity and energy. But very often, at the outset, your staff may well feel threatened by the emphasis on numbers.

It’s not hard to understand. Unless you’re the top person in the organization, any attempt to introduce data—which is objective and, to many, feels cold—can seem like a threat: to their ability, to their self-esteem, or to their job.

Removing the sense of threat, and bringing about the creativity, can take some time.

Change Comes Slowly

Anything new and different takes some getting used to. Though I have experienced this in my own professional life (as we all have), and have helped employees overcome their apprehension about analytical data, even I need reminders of how hard it can be.

Data, properly used, can have a liberating effective on staff creativity and energy.

I was reminded again on Monday night, July 15, as I watched Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A’s put on a clinic in the All-Star Homerun Derby—crushing shot after shot deep into the New York night.

Afterwards, as he was presented awards—always in English—the non-English speaker’s fear was palpable. And when an ESPN analyst asked him a probing interview question, I began to feel for the young man. It could have been a disaster. Instead, it became a shining moment. After asking the question in English, the analyst, on national television, asked the same question in Spanish. Cespedes answered in Spanish, and the analyst translated for the public.

What an extraordinary change from our not-too-distant past. As a child, I recall watching Roberto Clemente, and listening to announcers consistently call him Bobby, refusing to use his real name. A subtle, and at the time, pervasive racism fueled by fear of a culture few European Americans understood.

Change has indeed come—but it has taken a lot of work on both sides. And the same will be true in your congregation as you begin using analytics.

Pick at Yourself

The most important thing to remember is to be quick to pick at yourself.

When in staff meetings, be the first to point to something you did for the website or the newsletter and point out that it didn’t do very well numbers-wise. Then listen to your staff. Do they say things like “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” or, “it was a really great piece, don’t feel bad.” If they do, chances are good they are projecting their own fears of offering pieces that don’t do well—and they are watching to see how you handle it.

By being quick to point out your own failures, and then ask the probing questions why (Did I word it well? Was this the best time to run it? Do people really want this material? Was it placed poorly on the page?) staff members will begin to see that data is not a tool for judging them, but a way of learning more about their own work and thinking about ways that they can do things better.

So long as you treat your staff members the way you treat yourself when their article numbers are down, you should begin to notice something powerful: the staff taking ownership of the work, and being willing to risk more and more to produce quality material.

By using data to reflect, and not punish, you give people room to expressive their creativity and learn for themselves.

It’s a great gift for you; most important, however, it’s a greater gift to your church.

Hospitality and Cold, Hard Data

Placing technology and faith at odds with one another has become something of a cottage industry in the world of faith. It’s not that we’re uncomfortable with technology; very few of us don’t interact with the internet, e-mail, or social media daily, if only at a cursory level.

But many faith communities remain suspicious, fearing that electronic communications can quickly de-humanize the faith experience. This is unfortunate, as in the congregational setting the information that electronic communications provide, courtesy of Google Analytics and the data that other communication tools provide, can be a real source of strength for building hospitality.

Before looking at how the data generated by technology can build hospitality, let’s look a bit closer at the tension between technology and faith.

Why Are Faith and Technology at Odds?

Many are unaware that electronic communications can teach as well as push information into the ether. On one level this is simply because understanding the information that electronic communications provide takes training and a certain amount of experience.

On a deeper level, many are still burdened by the faux tension that exists between technology and faith. The number of essays and articles that describe this abound, and examples are not hard to find.

Consider this very good commentary published in Religion News Service on July 8 by Tom Ehrich in which he argues that religion has succumbed to simple thinking. A big part of the reason?

We should be teaching the arts of subtlety — learned through literature, history, ethics and philosophy. Instead we teach how to make things work profitably through engineering and technology. Those are useful skills, but they shouldn’t be allowed to override a grasp of nuance and complexity.

Or this one that ran July 3 in Patheos by Paul Jesep.

[Technology] can empower, but also dehumanize and emotionally disconnect people renewing the purpose and relevance of spirituality often enhanced through religion. This is why religion is so important today.

There are many reasons for the faith/technology juxtaposition. The tension between science and faith runs deep in Western history (if you don’t know Wellhausen, you should—he is among the early flashpoints in this debate). Recent works by the likes of Richard Dawkins have understandably put people of faith on edge.

Add to this the the heeby-jeebies that so many of us have about math to begin with, and it’s easy to understand why we want to put the hard numbers behind electronic media (Google Analytics) at odds with the very human expression of faith and grace.

Can Data Be Hospitable?

The perceptions are unfortunate, as behind the cold, hard numbers generated by Analytics and other programs that track our every move on the web are real people.

Carefully read and interpreted, these numbers can provide insights into those who take the time to read the materials that we make available. To be fair, let’s admit up front that a cold side to this does exist. Anyone who has visited a website (say you click on page about Maine) then flipped to his or her Facebook page only to discover an ad screaming “Vacation in Maine” knows that the ad isn’t accidental.

In fact, so much of marketing today is about mining data and using that to “know” the people on the other side of the screen.

But there is a warmer, more hospitable way to approach this data. Especially in the confines of congregations. Unlike major corporations that can’t possibly know the real people behind the data, congregational leaders can, and do. Even within relatively large communities of faith.

That knowledge alone changes the dynamic. In congregations, analytics are not just numbers, they represent the people you minister to. And information gleaned through social networking channels and e-newsletters allows you to see exactly who is reading and reacting to your work and information. By clicking, liking, and following they are revealing a great deal about themselves to you and your ministry team. Information that can sensitize and strengthen your interactions with your members.

Data, in short, opens the door to hospitality—an ancient ideal in Christianity as well as many other world religious traditions—by allowing you to put yourself in the shoes of those you serve.

Individuals consistently clicking information about health care issues or mental health issues may well be signaling a great deal about their own situation that they may well have been hesitant to voice. Being aware of this can only improve your empathy, and your ability to create a hospitable environment for that individual.

Technology and hospitality are not disconnected—they are two sides of the human coin.