A new way to build relationships in the digital age


By Barb Arland-Fye
Presenters of the Digital Church Conference believe it is essential for parishes and other entities ministering to Catholics to include social media — and a social media strategy — in their communications.
But don’t obsess over email responses or the number of followers, views, hits or fans on your parish website, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube sites. “It’s about relationships … The end goal is always people,” observed Matthew Warner, one of three presenters at the conference last month in Rockford, Ill. The conference’s aim was to provide tools and skills needed to understand and work with new media of all types to promote the mission of the Church.
“If you shoot for quantity at the expense of quality, you end up with nothing. Focus on quality connections. Treat them like people who matter. Build a social network on meaningful relationships,” advised Warner, creator of flocknote.com, a simple email newsletter and text messaging system for churches, ministries, teams and organizations.
As a Vatican official said in an article published in the Nov. 7 Catholic Messenger, “Social media is redefining how we understand local community … The digital parish will be where people cluster around shared interests and ideas.”
So how do you build a social network? Warner recommended the P.O.S.T. method:
People: Who are you trying to reach?
Objectives: Why? What are your goals?
Strategies: What ways are available to accomplish these goals?
Technologies: What tools help you to do that?
Presenter Brandon Vogt, author of “The Church and New Media” focused on the new evangelization: proclaiming the Word of God in a fresh way to a culture that isn’t necessarily conducive to spreading that message, nor to turning pages in a Bible.
He sees a role for all members of the Church in reaching out to Catholics who have drifted away and helping them to reconnect. The new media offers tools to do so: YouTube, a hugely popular website with a continuously growing array of videos; Twitter, a succinct messaging system that is one of the fastest-growing social media; Facebook (a popular social networking vehicle for people), text messaging and email, among others. Catholic memes — quirky, satirical online cartoons with a faith-based message — can be another effective evangelization tool.
Vogt identified 10 secrets of evangelizing online:
• Ground yourself in Christ.
• Get help. Archbishop Fulton Sheen (perhaps the father of new media) had a good team of people behind him.
• Learn the new media. Each media has its own flair, its own language.
• Share great content.
• Be zealous, but not a zealot.
• Use video.
• Welcome outsiders.
• Ask questions.
• Engage the culture.
• Do not be afraid — That’s the message of the Church.
Presenter Josh Simmons of eCatholic explained why it’s important to create a great website and how to create one. Among his tips: A website is the first impression some visitors may have of your parish or publication. What does your website say about your parish or publication? Who is your audience? Don’t put everything on your home page. Make pages consistent throughout your website through use of colors, fonts and layouts. Be accessible. Re­member the visually impaired by providing good contrast and font size. Offer engaging content. Don’t have last year’s fall festival on your home page. Outdated information jeopardizes the integrity of the site and rapport with visitors. Make the content relevant and meaningful. Video is one way to do that.
Simmons noted that email remains a highly effective way to communicate. People read emails that matter to them. He and the other presenters encouraged use of blogs (online columns that allow viewer interaction). Have a pastor’s blog or a paragraph from the pastor on the Scripture readings for the day, they suggested.
Amy Kersten, a volunteer for the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Department, was among the attendees at the conference. Something new she learned: “In many ways new social media, such as Twitter, force us to say less but communicate more. We really need to boil things down to our key points.”
She said she’s meeting with her parish’s webmaster to go over ideas presented at the workshop. “I’ve already incorporated some ideas into a website I maintain for the Iowa Hawkeye Ultimate Club. I also hope to share what I’ve learned with other members of the Social Action office at the diocese so that we can streamline some of the communications from that office and better target specific audiences.”
The lesson I took away from the conference: whether you’re communicating the Gospel through social media, a diocesan newspaper in print or a combination, the focus remains the same: building relationships.

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