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Global Outreach International

Social Media for Church and Ministries: Where to Begin?

by Blake Wages
Social media is never about us, it's about our audience and the people we serve.

Most churches and ministries recognize that it’s important to have a presence on social media. But it can be difficult to know where to begin, what’s worth spending time on, and how to define and measure “success.”

If you are reading this, you’ve probably seen blog posts that try to grab your attention with a promise of 5 simple steps to social media success (or something like that). The truth is that there isn’t a simple 5 step solution to guarantee effective and wise social media usage for your church or ministry. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

At the end of the day, excelling at social media requires planning, hard work, and – most importantly – trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. I believe that, when done well, social media can be a very helpful source of information and engagement.

Here are three foundational practices I’ve found that will help churches and ministries use social media effectively, based on my own experience and things I’ve learned from others.

1) Know Your Audience

Ministry is ultimately about other-mindedness. So the very first thing I recommend is to be clear about who you’re trying to connect with on social media. Who are they and what do they value? What are they looking for? Why does it matter for you to connect with them?

One way to figure this out is to brainstorm what’s sometimes called a “target persona” or an “archetype.” There are several ways to figure this out, but the basic point is to think seriously about who your audience is – what they want and what demographic characteristics they have – and make sure that you’re really writing for them and not just for yourselves. Maybe you want to make it easier for new guests to find out what your church is like. Maybe you’re a donor-driven ministry and you want to tell impact stories more effectively. In all of these you want to put your audience first.

Once you start creating some online content, there are many free analytical tools to help you further refine your target personas. These tools include Google analytics (to help you track how people use your website) as well as different analysis dashboards on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This is helpful for testing your hypotheses about what’s truly important to your target audience. You might write what you think is an incredible blog post and discover that nobody read it or reshared it on social media. Don’t be discouraged – one way or another, that’s important data!

Teams will often create several specific target personas, complete with a name and other demographic data, give each a stock photo, and seriously think about them as real people. It helps you remember that ultimately social media is a tool for serving others. In my experience, if you don’t start here, you likely won’t end up where you want to go.

Here are two examples from my experience of why this is important:

  1. Facebook’s analytics data tells me that around 60% of our Global Outreach Facebook Page audience are women around their mid-40s within a 100-mile radius of our Home Office in northeast Mississippi. That means that we need to consider that audience first when thinking about our tone and content. Otherwise, I might make the mistake of assuming my audience is exactly like me – male, millennials, the mid-20s – and we probably wouldn’t connect in the same way. (Does this mean all mid-40s women near us think and value the same things? Of course not – but it does mean that we need to care about figuring out what they value!)
  2. It’s widely known that younger millennials and Gen Z youth have mostly abandoned Facebook in favor of other platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Church youth ministries who write Facebook posts targeted at their youth probably won’t connect. But data shows us that those students’ parents are actively using Facebook, so youth ministries need to target them with their language and information.

Ok, how can I learn more?

If you want to dive in further, these resources (in addition to what I linked above) should be helpful to you. This guide to social analytics can help you decide what to measure on social media and how to best do it. Facebook Blueprint provides introductory courses and help articles on the best ways to use Facebook and Instagram (since Facebook owns Instagram). Finally, this is a good place to begin if you’re interested in Search Engine Optimization. This is especially helpful for churches who want new guests to be able to quickly find you through a Google search or for ministries who want to be found when people search for information or opportunities related to different specific keywords (like “homelessness,” “clean water,” “mission trips,” etc.).

2) Narrow and Clarify Your Story

I have the privilege to help train missionaries on how to best communicate the purpose of their ministries to potential donors. I challenge them to define their ministry in five words or less. If I’m working with married couples, I’ll ask the spouses to do this separately and have them compare notes later. (That makes for some hilarious conversations.)

The main point here is that you can’t be everything to everybody. In reality, your church or ministry has a specific story that you need to tell in as few words as possible and with the highest degree of relevance to the specific audience with whom you hope to engage. While it may not be true that the average adult has an eight second attention span, there’s a lot of content competing for people’s attention online. Narrowing your story ensures that you’re not wasting your, and others’, time.

If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to do this as a ministry or church staff. Take an hour or so and spend some time with each person writing out, in as few words as they can (5-10), the vision and/or purpose of the organization. Pair up and compare notes. See if you can reach an agreement as an entire team on the shortest and clearest possible version of your story.

Another way to think about this is as an elevator pitch. You’re stuck in an elevator with someone and they ask you what you do. You’ve got twenty seconds or less between the first and fourth floors. What can you tell them in that amount of time (and without sounding like the end of a drug commercial)? Make your messaging quick, to the point, and simple enough for anyone to understand.

Along with this, consider what kinds of stories are truly compelling. This is especially true for mission-driven ministries and non-profits. Most people are not compelled by vague numbers and aggregated statistics. We’re compelled by specific individuals, specific circumstances, and a clear call to action that requires a response.

You may remember the start of the Syrian crisis years ago. When it first began, it seemed that people didn’t fully grasp the situation or honestly care that much. News outlets would periodically talk about facts and figures with quick clips showing the overall picture. The thing that caught people’s eyes and hearts globally, however, was a specific photo: a young boy sitting waiting to be treated with ashes all over him, blood on his head, and a horrific expression. This outraged the global community and began drawing heavy attention to the matter. Attention grew not because of numbers, but because of a story that impacted the hearts of many. Narrowing and clarifying your story matters.

Global Outreach is proud to partner with Eight Days of Hope, an organization that mobilizes volunteers to be the hands and feet of Jesus after natural disasters. This video, You Saved My Life, is an example of compelling storytelling that focuses on specific stories rather than just general statistics.

3) Define Your Toolbox

The first two things on this list are foundational. If you don’t spend time on them, you probably won’t be able to use social media very effectively for your church or ministry. However, if you’ve worked through those things, the natural next step is to ask, “How do we start?” 

It’s important to remember that social media is a means to an end. Usually, churches and ministries don’t use social media just to use it – there’s a goal they’re trying to accomplish, whether that’s actions they want someone to take or awareness they want to raise.

This is where having a good website becomes important. By “good” I mean easy to navigate and containing clear, well-organized, and relevant information. Relevance, in this case, is defined by the target personas you created in part one. Usually, social media is a means to bring people to your website, where they can take other actions: signing up for a newsletter, reading and signing a petition, donating, finding correct information about a church’s doctrinal beliefs or service times (so they can then drive to the building on Sunday), or signing up for a volunteer opportunity.

The truth is that it’s possible to over-plan social media usage. If you’re just starting out, my recommendation is not to get too bogged down in the planning. Make sure your website has up-to-date and well-organized information, whether that’s videos, blog posts, or just “about” pages – and then start using social media to spread the word. 

After some time, you’ll probably start to see different types of posts perform better than others. Keep up with your analytics, test multiple versions of a post across different platforms, and if you are using paid advertising, don’t be afraid to change your approach mid-way if you see it not working well.

Lastly, as your ministry grows and expands, keep quality images, video, and audio on file somewhere for future use. It’s likely that you already carry around one of the most powerful storytelling tools ever created in your pocket without realizing it: your smartphone. These photos and videos can help tell your story online in a more engaging way.

Ok, I really want to learn more. Help me go deeper!

I am providing below a few links providing additional resources explaining some areas of this conversation more in-depth. Remember that excelling at social media ultimately takes planning, hard work, and most importantly, making your audience the center of your messaging.

What Post Work Best? / Best Instagram Practices / Top Social Media for Business