Social media help

Introduction to social media - by Sue Woolley

Lifespan Religious Education Conference 2011
Star Island, New Hampshire, 16th – 23rd July 2011
Report on Social Media Workshop by Sue Woolley

Thanks to the generosity of the Manchester Academy Trust and the Hibbert Trust, I was able to attend this conference. The basic structure of our own Hucklow Summer School is based on this Unitarian Universalist conference, so many elements were familiar to me: the morning devotions, the daily theme talk, the compulsory morning workshops, optional afternoon activities, and lantern-lit procession to evening worship.

The morning workshop that I attended was led by the dynamic Peter Bowden, who is a “church growth consultant and Unitarian Universalist change agent” (to quote himself) who has dedicated his life to helping UU congregations to understand social media and to use them effectively. His blog (which is well worth looking at) is UU growth. I am writing the workshop up without much comment, as the things he was telling us are just as relevant to Unitarian congregations in the UK as to UU congregations in the US, if not more so.

Technology, Social media and the future of faith formation.

On the first day Peter explained where he was coming from, by quoting from the RE Education Futures Committee Report: “How can we be a vibrant liberal religious voice in our society and grow our denomination? How can we serve our longtime members, as well as those who have come to us from other backgrounds in their spiritual search, and at the same time continue to attract new seekers? Critical to answering all these questions is the centrality of religious education in our faith.”

He further quoted a definition of what religious education should be: “Religious education is the process by which we develop, renew and transmit our values, meanings, and convictions from generation to generation.” The workshop was concerned with showing conferees the many different ways in which modern social media can ‘transmit our values, meanings and convictions’ to the wider world.

The great pace of change was emphasised. Quoting from Socialnomics by Erik Qualman, Peter shared some startling statistics with us:
  • Over 50% of the world’s population is under 30
  • YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world
  • Facebook has the third largest population in the world
In other words, the potential impact of using online resources to transmit our message is huge. Peter also mentioned the significance of peer group recommendation – people are far more likely to change their actions or attitudes because of this than for any other reason. There is a social media revolution happening, with huge consumption of information.

The way in which Peter showed us the above information was a very fast-paced slide-show. This was to emphasise the fact that media has to be optimised for low attention spans – if you can’t grab someone’s attention in the first few seconds, they will click onto something else. He commented that the majority of UU congregations were hopelessly out-of-date technologically, which certainly also applies to Unitarian congregations in the UK.

For example, websites are generally text-based, with little or no potential for interaction. It is a known fact that before most people visit a UU church for the first time, virtually all will look at the website. So it is a vital tool for determining whether they bother to visit or not.

Web 2.0 = interactive. We must have interaction on websites to attract people who are used to interacting in real time on Facebook or Twitter.

Of the social media, Facebook, Twitter and blogging are dominant, and each has a different role to play – see separate handout. Congregations need to interface with all these tools in order to communicate effectively. One scarey thing that Peter shared is that e-mail as a means of communication is dead for the under 40s – if you want to communicate with them, it must be via text message, Twitter or Facebook.

Facebook gives people the opportunity to engage with friends, and to interact with them through comments. Whenever people sign onto Facebook, they are presented with the latest information that their friends have posted. The challenge for UU congregations: we are competing with the rest of the world in terms of engaging imagery. I mentioned earlier that YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine. The implication of this is that people want to find out about things by watching rather than reading it – video is the future of information transmission. Sharing videos via Facebook brings the immediate gratification of being connected to people.

The idea is to engage with people online, then invite them to participate in reality – in other words, to come along to your church. So it is important to link Facebook and YouTube to your website. News needs to be going out all the time, to keep people interested and engaged.

Blogs are another means of transmitting information. It is important to include a picture in every blogpost, to grab people’s attention, and to share blogposts via Facebook. The anatomy of a blog is as follows:

title – date – web address/URL – photo/graphic/video [essential] – text – links

It is possible to put a ‘widget’ onto the church website which will link to new blogposts. It is important to have an attention-grabbing title for posts, and to use a picture that Facebook will pick up to use in its link. Facebook will also pick up the opening sentence to use in its link, so it is a good idea to craft an eye-catching summarising opening sentence.

It is possible to set up Facebook pages to cater for particular groups within the congregation. It is vital to transmit what is going on from day-to-day. Look at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas Facebook page for a good example of what is possible.

It is very important for all people to have access to the tools to encourage co-creation and participation. The question is: how to use the tools to enable interaction and participation? Peter then mentioned the notion of tribes – people of like minds coming together on a basis of shared values rather than geography. There are huge possibilities of many diverse online communities. Social media can connect people who share passions.

Twitter is a method of communication based on 140 character text messages through a central website. Anyone can set up a Twitter account, and anyone online can follow it. Then every time an originator sends out a message, it goes to all his/her followers. Because it is based on short messages via mobile phone, it is very immediate, and can be international. Messages can also be “re-tweeted” which is like forwarding a message from someone else you are following. If it gets picked up by someone with many followers, who re-tweets it in their turn, it can spread the word very quickly and widely. Some messages “go viral” and spread like wildfire. News can also be spread through Twitter connections – Peter gave the example of someone who was tweeting on the spot during the invasion of Osama Bin Laden’s compound by the US military.

It is possible to reply to anyone on Twitter, even if they are not following you and you are not following them. However, if your reply starts with their username, it only appears in the main Twitter feed of people who are following both you and them. When you create an account your username has a @ in front of it e.g. Peter’s is @uuplanet. The Twitter stream is totally public unless you allocate protected status (which rather defeats the point).

For general Twitter use, everyone following you gets all your tweets. It is designed to be viral, broadcasting messages, to be amplified through re-tweeting. If you tweet, it is like making a public announcement, also if you re-tweet something that someone else has sent. Peter warned us to remember this totally public aspect of Twitter, so it needs to be used judiciously for church matters.

The stream of messages coming through is fast-moving and never-ending. If you want to see what a particular person you are following has been tweeting recently, you can just click on their username. It is possible to create lists on Twitter of groups of people you are following, and other people can follow this list. e.g. go to UUA, click on lists. Once you are in the list, click on Following to get a list of people on that list.

The hashtag: # if you enter this followed by whatever, this becomes a link, so you can tag tweets – it is like putting keywords in them.

There is a tool called Tweetdeck which allows you to set up columns in a big window on your PC, where you can see different things e.g. All Friends, Mentions (recent tweets containing your username – can scroll down), New Followers, Direct Messages, FB status updates.

On tweetdeck, you can set up a column for any hashtag. There is also, which enables you to pull up all the hashtags on a particular subject.

Then there is HootSuite which is a similar tool to tweetdeck, and sends out information about a link you are interested in to everyone you are following.

Direct messages are private, like e-mails, but the vast majority of tweets should be public.

Multimedia e.g. YouTube can be used for presenting online news with the potential for embedding videos and links.

Peter mentioned iTunes-u  which is an Apple website which enables the sharing of educational material. To quote the website, it “brings the power of the iTunes Store to education, making it simple to distribute information to your students and faculty — or to lifelong learners all over the world. With an iTunes U site, your institution has a single home for all the digital content created or curated by educators, which can then be easily downloaded and viewed on any Mac, PC, iPod, or iPhone.”

You can download lectures and courses from many universities for free. A basic amount of material is available for free, with additional material at a cost. The idea is that you share information for free in the hopes of engaging with people, then once they are hooked, they have to pay for additional stuff.

Podcasts (audio or video) can also be shared through iTunes or links can be set up from your website. Search Unitarian on iTunes. It will mainly be sermons that are podcasted, because then there are no copyright issues.

Any content you put “out there” using the social media – who you are, what is Unitarian, follow us on Facebook/Twitter – you need to include search terms / tags in the description.

Beware of using potentially off-putting terms such as “committee” “preaching”. The Saddleback Church lists its online sermons under “messages”.

HOST – new concept in US for leaders of small groups:
Open up your home
Serve refreshments
Turn on the DVD player

It is a form of small group ministry, sharing online content in people’s homes. We need to ask the question: how are people we wish to attract consuming information? The number one answer is: video. You need to identify what messages you want to transmit, then organize to produce the appropriate YouTube clips etc (backed up by a one-page teacher’s/facilitator’s guide). Use more than one camera viewpoint in the video to break up the presentation and refresh interest.

Using video such as YouTube to produce a UU response to popular culture, politics and current events – transmitting our values. Fast response rate very important. [The UUA pressure group Standing On The Side of Love are very good at this – they are constantly posting reactions to new developments on Facebook].

Short, funny, cute, inspirational – these are the videos that people want to watch. So any UU video clip needs to be short, meaningful/relevant, fast-pace, entertaining, and have some dramatic tension. The first few seconds are crucial – you need to get the speed, tone etc right. Tell a story / make a personal statement / make it funny / use inclusive language (we not you). Suggests wearing jeans and a nice shirt – informal, to attract youth.

You only have between 5 and 30 seconds to engage people’s attention.

Peter has brought together over 1600 UU videos on the website Unitarian Universalism TV some of which could be suitable for UK use. At any rate, the content should be a useful source of inspiration. E.g. Peter Bowden video “UU what?”

The reaction you are looking for is “this is something I can watch”. Ask questions that will draw people in: “have you ever?” “are you looking for?”. Use short videos to transmit Unitarian values.

It is possible to link from YouTube to Facebook. You will need to include title, description of video content, tags (keywords) including the congregation’s website, so that it is searchable for.

Always bear these questions in mind: the media you are producing is:

  • Aimed at whom?
  • Educating them to deal with what situation?

How to make a call to action within a video: go to our website, like us on Facebook ticker tape. Put an active link within the descriptor your complete website address. “Connect with us online.”

NB it is vital to have permission forms signed by all participants before you film / take photos so that you can post the results online. Useful to have on registration material.

** Be careful if using music that is in copyright. In the US if it is under a certain length, it is exempt – UK situation needs to be checked **

A suggested sequence for video clips:

  • Are you [such and such]?
  • Longing for [better scenario]?
  • Check out [institution] → solution

Ideas from conferees for short video clips:

  • Kids doing chalice words with hand motions – using cute/funny to transmit values
  • Open with question leading to UU response/answer
  • Do you consider yourself spiritual but not religious -> all you need is love
  • Don’t like organised religion – we are not that organised!
  • Kids say the darnedest things …
  • Use of puppets / props – cute and under your control. Need to use your own, not copyrighted puppets
  • Linking UUism to social action
  • Do you have a problem → UU solution
  • Video of different activities adding up to picture of congregation as a whole.
  • The personal touch – video introduction by DRE / minister – human face.
  • Testimonials can be beautiful.
  • UU family values
  • Team spirit as representative of UU values
  • New minister – video clip – interview
  • Looking for something – People looking in different places, no words, then looking for a spiritual home → UU. Using mystery and humour – looking in all sorts of bizarre places

With social media it is hard to track the return on your investment. It is necessary to record a baseline, what you are doing now, then record what new things you do with dates, views to website etc.

“coming soon” idea – building interest / awareness before the launch of a new social media project.

**Important advice: “start as you mean to go on” – have a plan for how you are going to integrate the different social media elements.**

Second Life a virtual reality site, which includes a virtual UU area called UUtopia, which holds two services plus engagement groups every week and has real-life interaction.

Summary of session:

  • The most important outcome for Peter is that congregations are broadcasting messages, changing me to we – creating conversations. The importance of ownership and participation in the new media – being stakeholders.
  • Sending out the message “we are doing amazing things together.”
  • The importance of weaving stories and testimonials into what we are doing.
  • Mashable – a technology and culture website
  • Peter’s group on Facebook uugrowthlab – a place to talk about growing your congregation 
  • Also social media lab, which is a support group for social media 
  • Peter’s blog: UU Growth
  • The importance of consistent, authentic output.
  • If you are setting up a Twitter or Facebook account for your congregation, it needs to be based on a congregational e-mail account, so that if/when you move on, the communications team still has access to it.
  • Googlevoice phone number: you can set it to forward to your home or mobile number, but it doesn’t give it out. Can text from this number. This means that none of your private information is given out, and it is free. Can import your contacts.
  • Hootsuite – can create multiple users to access a single Twitter account.

How do you develop a voice?

Start as you mean to go on. Work out how you want to be in relationship with other people. Need to be authentic. Share your passions. But need to have boundaries – decide how much you are going to share. Be careful about how personal you get – blog, Twitter, Facebook are all very public.

If you are representing a congregation, you need to have consideration for this. It’s OK to put something personal in if it is relevant to the subject because it engages with people, but think anecdote rather than agonising. Keep personal minutiae to yourself. Remember that all this is public. Only share what you would share with someone in the queue at the supermarket.

At the same time, you are likely to get more hits / followers if there is the personal element there, because people can relate to it. Use your judgement.

How often should you be posting?

It depends on what tool you are using, and what you are using it for. But again, start as you mean to go on. You need to be consistent e.g. posting a podcast of the sermon every Monday.

For forthcoming events, you will need to share the information more than once, to keep it in the front of people’s minds. For example, you might make an initial announcement, then follow up about different parts of the event at regular intervals. As you get closer to the big event, post more frequently – this is a big build-up.

As back-up to this ongoing information (on Twitter or Facebook) have the basic information on the congregation’s website and as a Facebook event.

Content is king – the information has to be interesting and relevant.
The other angle to frequency of posting is that you have to be aware of the danger of information overload – if you post too frequently, there is the danger that your posts will just become background noise and will get ignored. Have to make a considered judgement.

Have to have appeal – the equivalent of cute kittens.

Good idea: thanking people after services, events – affirming and celebrating successes. Again, there are considerations of privacy.


You need to have people’s permission to post personal details – photos, videos, names

There is need for space between posts in time. Posting regular, (but not too frequent) high quality content will attract followers.

People engage most with social media at 10.00 am, and between 2.00 and 4.00 pm, apparently. So it is important to schedule your social media time.

CCS – Christian Copyright Solutions – for $500 you can buy a licence which enables you to use over 16 million copyright songs in worship and post online, so long as you don’t have the intent to sell. I don’t know whether this would apply outside the US.

Best practice for using social media
All the services – Twitter, Facebook etc want to be the main attraction. Peter’s recommendation is as follows:

  • Broadcast news via a news blog on the congregation’s website
  • Then post a link to the website from Facebook / Twitter
  • Need to educate key people into what social media can be used for.

This was an enlightening workshop – as you can see, I learned a lot. The vital messages for UK Unitarians are as follows:

  • Engaging effectively with social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is vital if we are to raise the profile of Unitarianism in the UK
  • People, particularly young people, want something funny / cute / inspirational / moving pictures to look at – static websites just aren’t good enough any more
  • If we do not engage with the social media, we will be increasingly perceived as outmoded and irrelevant
  • It need not take much time or cost much money to do this
  • BUT, what the interested outsider finds when they visit our church / chapel as a result of being engaged by our snazzy videos and tweets MUST match the image we have projected online, which is another problem altogether.
  • See also Social media - a new country for an interesting take by Rev. Victoria Weinstein.