Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist, Social Media + Big Data, North American Division
When it comes to digital evangelism and discipleship, content is made to inform, to educate, and inspire—for the purpose of attracting and nurturing a loyal audience that connects with your ministry’s message. Ultimately, your goal is to support their growth in their spiritual journey.
The currency of content marketing (or in our case, evangelism) is ACT: Authority, Credibility, and Trustworthiness (though we should also add “Empathy” to this list, especially when dealing with spiritual topics and life lessons).
Use multiple forms of content to maximize your organization’s ability to get picked up by Google’s search algorithms, as well as to further engage your audience. Keep in mind that certain forms of content will perform better with some audiences than others. By diversifying your content creation strategy, you optimize your reach and increase your impact across a variety of demographics.
Here are the four major components that work together in a comprehensive content creation process:
Most Popular Types of Online Content
The written word is the foundation of any type of content, and, therefore, this is where we must begin. Ideas are usually written down first—whether in the form of notes, scripts, or outlines—before they’re turned into anything else. Even in visual media like video, written content often accompanies and supports the other content types. When you set your content evangelism goals, you’ll want to prioritize quality writing.
Keep in mind, however, that good writing in an academic sense is not the same as what’s considered good content writing or copywriting. Writing for digital environments is much more straightforward, casual, conversational, and concise.
The most common forms of written content online are:
One-third of all online activity is spent watching video. This isn’t surprising. People, as visual creatures, have been naturally drawn to online video and made it one of the most popular ways to consume content for all ages! The increase in mobile device usage has made video more popular as well. With a smaller screen, it’s easier and faster to watch videos than to read text.
Video is a great enhancer. Have you noticed that when you click on a news story, the page often has both the written article and the video from the newscast? Not only does it offer two different options for content consumption, it adds a perception of depth and authority to the story.
Video content is particularly useful for educational topics, especially “how-to” tutorials and telling stories. Demonstrations, interviews, personal testimonies, time-lapses...some things are just better presented via video.
When it comes to YouTube, this platform has created its own niche of search engine optimization. YouTube’s search algorithms rely heavily on keywords, titles, tags, thumbnail images, and microcontent such as video descriptions and channel descriptions.
YouTube also measures “watch time,” or how long a viewer watches before clicking away or going back to search results. The more of a video that gets watched, the better that video must be, so YouTube ranks it higher in its search results. Longer videos, especially if frequently watched until the end, get even more of a boost (on other social media platforms, however, it is still generally recommended to keep videos short, around three to five minutes or less).
With livestreaming, longer videos are always acceptable, regardless of platform. Livestreaming your events, whether on Facebook Live, YouTube, or your website, can widen your audience, further engage your existing audience, and provide an archivable piece of evergreen content that can be repurposed later. This is great for church services, special performances, programs at a school or university, conference sessions, and more.
When it comes to SEO, livestreams can have a sizeable effect. Facebook announced that its ranking algorithm favors live videos in its searches. YouTube promotes YouTube Live videos. And even if your organization’s livestreams are hosted off-site, it’s another link to your content that could show up in search results—especially if you’re live often!
Webinars (Online training or Bible studies)
Taking video up another notch, webinars are exclusive, live, educational presentations. Like its name suggests, it’s a seminar broadcast over the web using tools such as GoToMeeting, Zoom, or Lifesize. Participants are typically invited to webinars and provided with a private link.
While the webinar itself would not be indexed by search engines, its power to engage audiences boosts SEO through lead generation and by increasing engagement, trust, and loyalty to your ministry. Webinars can provide a valuable service to your constituents when used to teach useful information (such as tips to improve your marriage), provide background on a popular issue, or facilitate live online discussions. They can also be an effective and convenient way to host digital Bible studies for small groups, allowing face-to-face interaction and relationship building regardless of location.
While the right pictures can elicit emotion, the right designs can inspire action and highlight strategic details. Careful planning is necessary to make sure the images you’ve chosen indeed emphasize the intended emotion. It must be clear what the picture is portraying, and it should look genuine, as opposed to a cliché corporate stock photo.
Used sparingly, stock photography can be a great resource to enhance your ministry’s brand online, and it’s easy to find free stock images at pixabay, pexels, unsplash, and free-images.com. Click here for more free or low-cost stock photography and design resources.
For websites, hero images (the large, single images that dominate the top area of a website) continue to be trending. These pictures must be high enough resolution to avoid appearing pixelated (approx. 1600 pixels wide), but low enough resolution to avoid slowing down the site’s load time.
For other images that appear on your website, stick to file sizes under 250 kilobytes if possible. Learn more about image best practices for church websites.
For each image on your website, blog, or Instagram profile, make sure to apply ALT text, which is indexed by search engines to determine what the picture is about. It also acts as text that can be read by screen readers to tell visually-impaired internet users what pictures are on a page.
When explaining a process in text, an accompanying visual is a must.
If, when talking about your topic, you find yourself saying, “Here, let me show you…” or, “Why don’t I just draw this out,” an infographic would probably come in handy.
Infographics illustrate each step or point of a process and include short and straightforward text to accompany the imagery—making complicated information easier to understand.
Designers and writers must work closely to create an infographic with a clear direction so the eye knows what to read first and where to go next.
If you’re short a graphic designer, some free tools like Canva can help you create simple infographics, which add a splash of color to your page, post, or feed while informing and engaging your audience in a creative way.
As the below infographic explains, infographics don’t just make your page more pleasant to look at—people actually search for infographics on certain topics. They’re also shared frequently on social media. Think of creative ways to use infographics for ministry, such as mapping out “How to Study the Bible for Beginners.”
Audio content can include interviews, sermons, vocal essays, monologues, presentations, seminars, and more. Podcasts created from this audio content should be distributed as widely as possible, including on your website, iTunes, and other hosting platforms so users can subscribe. Even if you’re already hosting through a provider such as SoundCloud, Blubrry, Google Drive, or archive.org, it’s worth uploading to other hosting platforms in addition. These simple audio files are a highly shareable piece of content people can listen to while driving, walking, exercising, or cleaning their garage.
Having podcasts with your ministry’s name in the title, or hosted by a prominent personality associated with your ministry, can do wonders for brand awareness, which ultimately benefits overall SEO.
Interactive content (quizzes, polls, calculators, etc.)
This type of content requires audience participation, making their interaction with your ministry far more memorable.
You’ve probably seen various character quizzes on Facebook or Twitter. They are highly shareable because, to the audience, it feels like they’re sharing information about themselves, not about the organization that designed the quiz.
Interactive content that strives to be helpful or practical might include assessment-type quizzes, calculators, interactive graphs or charts, or polls and surveys. They can also help you with demographic info-gathering for your ministry’s strategic planning. Remember, anything that deepens engagement also boosts SEO! It’s always beneficial to keep people on your website longer.
There are many tools that can help you create interactive content, including qzzr, SurveyMonkey, Doodle, Vizia, and more.
This type of content can be important for building what Google refers to as an organization’s E-A-T (Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness). At the same time, courses provide yet another way for your audience to consume your content. If your organization is qualified to teach even a simple skill that has value in your audience’s life (healthy cooking or practical discipleship tips), creating courses can bolster your content marketing and SEO, and become a relevant resource for your site visitors. Not only can this type of content boost your credibility, it can empower your audience for positive change.
Beginning Content Strategy Worksheet
Filling out this structural worksheet can guide your brainstorming process and help you solidify your content strategy.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist, Social Media + Big Data, North American Division
People value content that helps them make better decisions, answers their questions, and speaks to their core values or interests. Optimizing your content based on search engine queries (what people are searching for) helps you best match your products and resources to the needs and interests of your audience. We previously took a bird’s-eye look at using search results to find relevant content ideas. This section will go into greater depth for those ministries who want to focus more on creating digital content related to their mission and themes. If you’re a digital missionary looking to develop a content creation strategy that will reach beyond a geographical location, bookmark this section. This type of digital evangelism helps expand your messaging to new audiences who are hungry for the resources you can provide.
Writer’s block? Find out what people are searching for.
Keyword research is the core of what is known as SEO copywriting: writing content based on search engine optimization principles. Search engine optimization is a set of strategies that help organizations reach more of their online target audience. A website’s visibility in search engine results can be elevated by utilizing certain content development techniques. The higher a website ranks when a person googles search terms related to it, the more web traffic it receives. Visit SDAdata.org/SEO to learn more about SEO.
Researching keywords removes much of the guesswork when trying to figure out which topics (related to your ministry and mission) make the most sense to explore for your content. It bridges the gap between your hunches, the data, and what information people need or want.
This technique uses search query data from Google and other search engines to determine what kind of topics interest people. Creating content focused on commonly searched topics improves the visibility of your content in search results, which helps users find your ministry and increases the impact of your message.
Use the following framework as a guide to creating content based on keywords.
1) Define the main topic of your online ministry.
For example, you decide you want to start a blog to help Pathfinder leaders. “Pathfinders,” of course, is the topic. But if you title your blog, “Pathfinders,” it’s not specific enough to get search traffic. You have to differentiate from Nissan Pathfinders, Pathfinder International, and the Pathfinder role-playing game.
Familiarity with your audience allows you to feature relevant keywords in your titles, headlines, and posts, such as:
While definitely more specific than “Pathfinder” alone, these are also considered broad-match keywords, as they can still have a wide variety of subtopics. They’re certainly good ideas, and posts on these topics can be helpful for your audience. However, they’re harder to rank for in Google search results without further specificity.
Let’s say there is a burgeoning trend to create Pathfinder blogs. The broad topic of Pathfinder leadership is now a highly competitive arena. How do you get your blog to stand out? Considering the clear, central purpose of your ministry is a useful exercise for most types of digital content, but you’ll quickly need to distinguish how you’ll be providing something different from the competition.
2) Refine your topic.
You have to get more specialized in your focus, so start brainstorming “niche topics”—subtopics within the broad subjects of Pathfinders and meetings and honors and campouts that people might be searching for information about. Some of these might be:
You can also start brainstorming possible blog, social media, and video posts for these subtopics and long-tail keywords:
Start by googling your topics, exploring related words or phrases, and come up with some post ideas.
Then ask yourself the following questions:
Maybe you find that the knot-tying honor already has several articles that are well-written and popular. There are lots of positive comments on those posts. Therefore, another topic would be more effective in making your content stand out in search results.
However, maybe there’s one particular knot you don’t feel the other writers have explained very well, even though the rest of the post is good. Maybe you’ve found a couple comments on other blogs about how they’d like more information on the hunter’s bend. You might then decide to write a post titled “How to teach the hunter’s bend knot.”
This is a simple example of how research and testing can help shape meaningful content creation.
4) Test some more.
Here’s where dedicated keyword research tools come in.
These tools access data that tells how many people are searching for a certain keyword or keyphrase (search volume), as well as how much content already exists about that keyword (competition). The sweet spot is when you find a word or phrase that has high search volume and low competition.
Here’s an example from Google Keyword Planner:
Many keyword research tools provide a ratio of search volume and competition. Some tools do require a paid subscription, but some are completely free and offer similar data. These free keyword tools may also show related keywords or phrases, which can be helpful for coming up with good content ideas. Overall, you’ll get a general idea of what people are searching for, enabling you to create content that will connect your ministry with the needs and interests of your audience.
Here are some recommended free or low-cost tools for keyword research or keyword ideas:
The tools below differ from true keyword research but can be very helpful for “informed brainstorming.”
5) Create content from keyword research.
Once you’ve utilized these tactics and tools, it’s time to use this knowledge for your content planning. Keyword research does more than just tell you which words to use. It tells you which topics are popular, which topics are competitive, and what your best content opportunities may be.
This is good news! This means that the organizational methods you learned for writing essays and research papers in school will now pay off in a practical way. For blogs and websites, begin by writing an introduction to a topic (one webpage), then cover the topic (another webpage), then cover related topics (more separate webpages) or background information (another separate webpage or two). It’s essentially writing an outline, and each section of the outline is a webpage. Blogs organized like this score highly in both search engine visibility and user-friendliness. For good examples of this, visit sdadata.org/seo and SDAdata.blog/DDandE. From a visitor’s perspective, this streamlines navigation within a specific topic. But, be careful not to take this concept to the extreme, creating a confusing maze of short pages.
Remember that relevant topics and strong topic coverage have a stronger influence on search engine ranking than using individual words or phrases repetitively. The algorithm rewards quality writing and presentation.
However, keywords do still matter!
Keyword research helps us know what words and phrases people are using. We still want to use those words and phrases as often as we can on a page—naturally. If it sounds hokey to keep repeating a phrase, find another way to say it that means the same thing. Overall, you still want the content to read as naturally and conversationally as possible, as if you were telling this information to a friend. Click here for tips on how to write conversationally.
Here are some tips for thorough topic coverage in natural language that can be adapted for a variety of content types:
Work your way through a topic, creating as much applicable content as possible over multiple digital media posts and platforms. Content organization techniques that may help you include outlines, topic trees, bubble graphs, etc. Using these as your foundation for content creation helps you determine topical goals, objectives, and key takeaways, and makes the whole writing process easier.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist, Social Media + Big Data, North American Division
Social media is the ultimate equalizer. It gives a voice and a platform to anyone willing to engage. ―Amy Jo Martin
Before we get started, we must first answer the question, “Who is a content creator?” The ultimate source of creative content and inspiration will always be the Bible and God. Therefore, those of us who answer the call to share the gospel online must always look first to Jesus Christ and His word for guidance.
Social media and modern technologies have eased entry into the world of telling stories, sharing ideas, and expressing thoughts through creative visual content to a wide audience. We can all be writers, creatives, and publishers now. This means that when it comes to creating content for evangelism and discipleship, the role is no longer restricted to pastors, theologians, and other trained professionals. Church leaders can organize teams of content creators within their churches and ministries by empowering professionals or aspiring young people with expertise in design, video, communications, writing, technology, etc. Many congregations have yet to tap into the potential of tech savvy members and their modern-day spiritual gifts. Greater collaboration across multiple generations can be fostered by investing in young people and giving them space to utilize their skills in this area for the Church.
Organize Your Team
There’s no single way to organize your team(s), given that every ministry is unique. Start by taking an inventory of your church’s human resources and individuals’ personal interests and skills. Then organize accordingly to best accomplish your goals and utilize your church body’s strengths and talents. Determine roles and responsibilities, set up a multi-channel content calendar that can be shared with everyone on the team, and map out your content strategy, being sure to take an integrative approach that incorporates both traditional and digital methods of communication.
Download a content calendar template (be sure to customize it to reflect your channels). We recommend using Google Docs for sharing the content planning calendar with your team.
Remember the “Rule of 7”
If you recall from the “Strong Foundations” section, the “Rule of 7” states that a person needs to be exposed to a message at least seven times before they’ll take a desired action. Develop a comprehensive content strategy that incorporates both traditional media and digital, working together to maximize impact. In most cases, digital media is not used in place of traditional forms of communication, but in addition, as a means of amplifying your message to a larger community. Implementing an effective content strategy requires repeated, consistent messaging from multiple communication channels. Plan to repackage your content for different platforms and channels. If we view evangelism holistically, every touchpoint matters, as your target audience is likely to come in contact with several.
These touchpoints may include, but are not limited to:
The 20/80 Rule
Whether you realize it or not, your communications and content (or lack thereof) are telling a story, and that story is key to giving your audience a sense of why your ministry is valuable. When your audience values what you’re doing, they are more likely to respond to your call-to-actions and actively participate in other ways. Social media is popular because it speaks to a basic human need: to connect and share. We must use digital media to tell our “story” all day, every day, and build a connection with our community that ultimately motivates them to draw closer to Christ.
Along with the “Rule of 7,” you’ll want to incorporate the 20/80 principle in your content planning. The ideal ratio of posts on an organization’s digital media should be 20% direct appeals (calls-to-action to get involved, donate, register, etc.), 80% engagement. In other words, 80% of the content posted by your ministry should:
The same principle is true for an organization’s social media channels. If you spend most of your efforts telling the story behind your ministry and creating value, your followers will gradually become more emotionally invested. Then, when you make direct appeals for action (the 20%), you will have better results because your supporters feel like they understand the importance of your mission, know what to expect, and know how the money will be used. This is especially important for millennial givers, who demand transparency and accountability when it comes to use of funds.
Social media can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. For most Adventist entities, social media manager is just one of many hats an employee or volunteer might wear. If you happen to be a full-time digital strategist, you’re likely managing multiple campaigns and projects at once. Regardless of your level of expertise, there never seems to be enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to do in order to stay on top of the ever-growing evangelistic influence of digital media. Streamlining your approach will help you and your team tackle a large workload.
Here are our top three tried-and-true time-saving tips for developing your content and/or campaign strategy:
Repurpose What You Already Produce
No need to start from scratch; your team is probably already doing a good job generating content related to newsworthy events or outreach. Packaging it for the digital space and publishing online enables you to grow your potential audience exponentially beyond the worship service. A great amount of what your team may already produce for your local church ministries is content, for example: sermons and live-streams each week, studies for small groups, messages from the pastor in newsletters, videos, pictures from events, testimonials, etc. Always look for content you are already creating, then consider how it can be repackaged and weaved into your overall digital content strategy. This can be inexpensive and have long-term value as the content stays in place and is relevant for people to discover far into the future. Prioritize content that will help your audience in a tangible way, either emotionally, physically, spiritually, or psychologically.
Finding Relevant Content Ideas For Your Target Audience
If you’re like many content creators, you’ve hit a creative roadblock at some point. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, Christian vlogger, or a digital disciple; we have all run out of content ideas and sat staring at our laptops at some point. As digital evangelists, we want to create relevant content, but may not always be sure what people are searching for online. Our purpose is to meet the needs of people in the digital space, and luckily, the inspiration we need lies in tools many of us use every day. Being strategic and intentional with the content we create, can help us provide people with the answers and connection they are searching for.
I’ve said this before: people are literally Googling for God, and I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
Each year there are millions of Google searches for answers to questions like:
There is a great need for our message of hope and wholeness. Additionally, many people are hurting emotionally, entertaining suicidal thoughts, or feel there is no hope for their situation. They turn to the internet for companionship, understanding, information, anonymity, and more. It’s easier for them to pour out their heartfelt searching to Google or on social media than it is to talk to a friend, neighbor, co-worker, or family member. Consequently, this is where we, as disciples, need to cast our net. We need to provide the kind of spiritual food the fish are looking to feed on.
Here is an easy tip for a wealth of content ideas:
Find content, write content, and curate content related to top Google searches. Frame your posts to pique curiosity and answer people’s questions, addressing their deepest longings. You can get top search data from any search engine, YouTube, and other social media trend tracking sites. Try it. Start typing in a question and let the search engine auto-finish. The top results represent the most popular search queries. In other words, you will see what large numbers of people are searching for online. It gives you a sneak peek into their needs, worries, nagging questions, and often hidden yearnings.
These trends allow us to predict what topics audiences may find interesting, and we can use this predictability to speak to the masses in a relevant way. When we make content that speaks to people’s spiritual needs and seeks to address their deepest longings, we can change lives through digital evangelism. Being strategic and intentional with the content we create allows us to provide people with the answers and connection they are looking for online.
Jesus Spent Time with People
You must come close to those for whom you labor, that they may not only hear your voice, but shake your hand, learn your principles, feel your sympathy.
I cannot stress this enough: while data and research can be a huge asset when trying to find relevant content to create and issues to address, nothing replaces quality time with those you are seeking to reach. The best thing you can do in order to understand the needs and interests of your audience is to engage with them in person. Talk to them, ask questions, show them you care, and dig deep into their perspectives and challenges. This kind of relationship-building can also take place in the digital space when necessary.
Additional Content Tips & Ideas:
Content Tips for Personal Digital Discipleship:
The Purpose of Content
Digital media grants the community the immediate ability to sense what your church is about by seeing its:
Your digital strategy must go beyond “content out, bodies in.” Strive to create content that moves people through their spiritual journey. Find ways to feed your community’s spiritual needs beyond the few hours they spend in a church service each week. Provide spiritual guidance to those people who may never come to a church service. Afterall, the kingdom of God is an all-day, every-day pursuit. His Church and teachings should be available 24/7.
Done is Better Than Perfect
People are drawn to authenticity in communications, not perfection. This trend is likely to hold true over the next decade, and this is good news for content creators. There is a place for highly produced professional content, but don’t let resource or skill-set limitations prevent you from attempting to create valuable content. Remember:
God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the called.
Keep learning and keep trying. You and your team will improve with time and practice. Your videos and content do not always have to be produced pieces, nor should they be, in order to optimize relatability and impact. In fact, overly produced content can turn people away. That doesn’t mean be sloppy or allow for typos, but understand that you’re not competing with Fortune 500 advertising campaigns or mega-church branding. Local churches and ministries have the advantage when it comes to showcasing real people, authenticity, and community in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. Don’t hesitate to go live on your mission trip, post your event pictures, and share your in-the-moment thoughts online.
It’s fine to fail, just make sure you learn. Not every idea will be a winner, but each piece of content you produce enables you and your team to see in real-time what resonates with people and what doesn’t. Your team, through trial and error, can steer toward content that is most impactful to your target audience. Digital media allows us to test, change, and update our content and messages until we get it right, without the burden of high costs. Remember, you’re not in this alone. The Holy Spirit is working alongside you. Your message might only reach a limited number of eyes at first, but it could be the exact message those people needed to hear. Small impact doesn’t necessarily mean no impact.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist, Social Media + Big Data, North American Division
People search online for answers to their problems. What better place for the Church to share its message of hope and wholeness?
Our message is the gospel. It’s the role of creatives to package it in ways that connect with our audiences by using the platforms, tools, language, and media that are culturally relevant and accessible to them. Today, that means presenting the gospel message and teachings of Jesus via various digital friendly formats such as video, blogs, images, podcasts, etc. Remember, good communication is when you communicate in a way your audience understands. That requires adaption, whether it’s the physical mission field or the digital one.
Content As Mission: Think Differently
Before we get into the practical application of content creation, I want to challenge the status quo for a moment. Only 20% of Americans regularly attend church, and only 2 in 10 millennials consider regular church attendance important. What if your digital content is the only exposure to the gospel a person receives? How important it is, then, to post consistently! The predominant way the Church uses digital communications currently is to promote events. Promoting events is okay, and we should continue doing that as part of a comprehensive communication strategy. However, we can and should go beyond promoting events to create content that is meaningful and relevant to people’s daily lives and challenges. After all, our message is the gospel, not “Come to our next event!”
The truth is, some people may never come to church, but we can still touch their lives. How would you witness if your local church service, events, and Bible studies did not exist? What would you want your community to know about Jesus? We’re called to preach the gospel, especially to those outside the church body. What ways can you accomplish that? Strategize, find solutions, and fulfill them intentionally.
Put Jesus/God on Display
The life, character, and gift of Jesus Christ should be on display in your digital content and interactions. Jesus came not to uplift Himself, but to reveal an accurate picture of God’s character. It’s not about how many followers you have on your digital platforms, but how people can and do discover Jesus through you. It’s about portraying the truth of God’s character in all aspects of our lives, including in the digital space.
Jesus sought first to fulfill people’s needs; He then invited them to follow.
We’ve been going about digital missions backwards. We’re spending most of our time and energy promoting events, resources, or products, when we should be ministering first to the needs of our community, just like Jesus demonstrated.
During His three-and-a-half-year ministry, Jesus:
Christianity is a Lifestyle
Creatives can use their talents online to encourage Christian lifestyles in their community. When asked:
“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31, ESV).
True Christianity is about helping those in need and seeking ways to elevate the well-being of others, all while reflecting the character of Christ. One way to do that is to create sharable content. But what is shareable content? In other words, what kind of online content do people tend to interact with and share with their friends? What makes content relevant or worthy of sharing?
Hootsuite reported on an extensive study conducted by the New York Times to uncover the top reasons people share content online.
The top five reasons why people share online are:
The number one reason people share content is that they feel it will improve the lives of their followers/friends. Amazingly, this is a core Christian value and could be developed in coordination with digital media for the gospel message. As digital evangelists and disciples, it’s an essential part of our mission to share and create content that will uplift, help, and/or improve the lives of your audience (and their audiences). Eighty-four percent of participants in the NYT study also said that they share information “because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about” (New York Times), which directly relates to the first reason. Think about how your mission aligns with the core values of your target audience and create content that supports these values. In fact, the Church should be the clear leader in using its digital influence to create media content that improves the lives of others and advocates for meaningful causes.
Sharing content online is also a means by which many maintain and create relationships. This is an incentive for us to create content that helps foster connections between members of our community, our brand, and Christ. Encourage engagement and conversation as much as possible. Additionally, people use their social influence to help create an “idealized online persona” of themselves. Evaluate your audience’s interests and develop content that fits with their goals or identity. Ask: “How can our organization’s content demonstrate what it means to be a follower of Christ?” or, “How can our ministry’s content create value for those already invested in supporting our mission and interested in becoming more involved in our community?”
Finally, the same research found that “consumers enjoy content more when they share it, and that they enjoy content more when it is shared with them.” When we create audience-focused content that facilitates this sense of positive community and interactions, we can help encourage our audience’s natural desire to share our content for perceived personal and social value.
These five key motivations clearly show that your audience’s main reasons for sharing are their relationships with other people—not your brand. Keep this in mind as you continue creating and sharing audience-focused content.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a solid message that can easily meet the top motivations for sharing content online, but presentation is everything. It’s up to content creators to package our messages so that they clearly align with the type of content people want to share. The tools and technologies will continue to change, but people and their deepest desires and motivations generally remain the same.
Empathy: Think Like a Seeker
Always remember: empathy first. Put yourself in a prospective visitor/viewer/engager’s place and seek to understand their needs and/or experience. Figure out what their barriers to entry or barriers to faith are, and try to diminish or address them through the content you create, services you provide, and the relationships you build. Create an online space for community, love, support, and understanding through your content.
When creating, consider who might engage with your media.
Our goal as content creators is to reveal who God really is in a world that often views God, or religion in general, as vindictive, cruel, and uncaring.
Don’t just create content for content’s sake. Consider:
How will your audience change as a result of your [article/letter/post/video]? —Seth Godin, marketing guru
Or, more directly applicable to our mission, ask:
How will their attitude and perceptions of God change because of your [article/letter/post/video]?
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
Branding is the process of revealing a holistic picture of an organization to its audience by curating a perception, experience, and essence. Brands are communicated, not just created. A brand is based entirely on a person’s experience.
This process begins with one question:
How do you want your organization to be known? This is its brand. Once you understand your organization’s mission and purpose (as discussed in the previous section), you can then shape your brand around those goals.
Components of your brand strategy should cover three areas: marketing, public relations, and corporate communication. Think of marketing as evangelism (OUTREACH) and corporate communications as internal or member-focused messaging (INREACH). Public relations can be understood as what the general community knows, or thinks, about your church or organization. In other words, what are you known for in the community? Too often, our churches are simply “the building on the corner” and not perceived as a center for positive influence.
To help shape this process, ask: What can your church or ministry become known for? What is unique about what your organization has to offer the community?
If you don’t already have a ministry name, website domain, and social media handle, choose a name based on your organization’s mission or purpose that can be used across all channels. For established ministries, intentionally devising handles and constructing social media profiles can help you reshape or rebrand your image and voice for your online audiences. Base decisions on the vision you want to cast. Determine whether your primary goal falls into either the outreach, inreach, or public relations area. It’s possible that your mission may cross over into more than one area. Then brainstorm name/handle ideas with your team, board, or members that could fit into one, two, or all of the three categories below. Through a process of elimination, narrow down the options and come to a final decision. Make sure that, before you identify the top choices, you have first checked their availability on sites like knowem.com (social media platforms) and godaddy.com (for website domain names).
Refer to the chart below when brainstorming name/handle ideas for your organization.
Ideas for Developing Handles:
Your social media handle should reflect your brand and your purpose for being online or using the platform. A handle is a unique identifying username representing your organization. In other words, it’s your social media nickname. Keep your handle consistent across all platforms so potential followers can find you easily. It’s also a good idea to reserve your handle on a wide range of platforms, even if you aren’t able to consistently post on all of them right now, to prevent brand confusion and to save them for future use in case your social media strategy expands. We recommend also choosing a website domain that matches your ministry’s name and handle to further reinforce your brand across multiple channels and touchpoints. An example of a ministry with consistent branding is Gorgeous2God, whose mission primarily falls under outreach. Their social media handle across all their platforms is @gorgeous2god, and their domain is gorgeous2god.org. They even utilize a branded hashtag when relevant, #gorgeous2god.
Your branding should:
Your brand strategy and digital strategy work together and are part of an overarching grand communications strategy that includes, and does not replace, traditional means of outreach and marketing as well as in-person experience.
Redeveloping your brand and your overall communications strategy takes a lot of behind-the-scenes homework. Involve people in your team throughout the process so they could share in ownership and add new insights you may not have considered.
Brand: represented by its logo, its color, its typefaces, its images, its designs, its tone of voice, and its customer service
Brand strategy: defines the organization’s central message and how to say it
Brand guidelines: a system of managing the brand visually
The biggest problem I see with ministries using social media is that they have no clear objectives. You must determine your purpose and shape your online communications and brand accordingly. In addition, determine your target audience, goals and key performance indicators as discussed in the previous section on strong foundations, and conduct a thorough communications and social media audit (examining all touchpoints). Then, based on all your findings, conduct a thorough branding audit, establishing where you currently are and deciding where you want to go. This process helps you to evaluate your overall communication strategies and can direct your rebranding. Once you’ve defined your purpose(s), shape your brand name, design, and messaging style in a way that will help you steer toward the desired perception and achieve your mission goals.
Next, develop your identity across all platforms and channels as part of your overall brand. Social media does not work in a silo; it should be integrated in your broader communications, both digital and traditional.
Establish Branding Consistency
Make sure all your social media profiles look consistent and use the same name.
Your digital presence is an extension of your church brand and voice into the online world. Your brand is how your church or ministry is perceived.
How we feel about a brand ultimately stems from our experiences with it. Put yourself in the shoes of a person experiencing your brand for the first time, and view your ministry through an outsider’s perspective. Evaluate their experience objectively and make changes based on your communication objectives. Develop a clear brand promise (what your organization has to offer) and make sure all aspects of your organization deliver on that promise.
Strong digital brands create connections with real people and take a comprehensive approach to the member experience. Have guidelines for every part of an audience member’s journey (case study example: Dan Serns, Evangelism Coordinator, Texas Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), including in-person, on-site interactions. Remember every experience—physical or digital—says something about your brand. Utilize all your possible brand touchpoints (see graphic below) to tell one consistent story. Remember to view all of your touchpoints as part of a holistic experience, as a seeker does not experience their journey in silos.
How your online followers and community perceive your ministry influences their perception of not only the Church corporately, but God, even if you haven’t put any effort into creating or managing your brand. In the absence of your story, people will fill in the blanks themselves. Your digital voice may be the only opportunity your followers have to see Christ’s love demonstrated in their life.
People search online for answers to their problems; what better place for the Church to engage them?
But first, we must have a clear understanding of who we are and be able to clearly demonstrate our mission, vision, and value. Create a brand that your target audience can recognize and connect with in a meaningful and positive way.
Having a strong brand and digital communications strategy won’t cost a lot of money but will involve a lot of time. Consider this an opportunity to build a team of digital disciples and brand ambassadors within your church or ministry. These people will become the human face and voice of your brand 24/7. Investing in their talent can also positively influence their level of investment in the Church long-term.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
I occasionally receive criticism online from believers who think I need to be reminded that Jesus is our rock, not worldly marketing best practices. However, understanding that any missionary effort must have its foundation in Christ does not negate our responsibility to educate ourselves in the most effective ways to reach people with the tools available. I have witnessed far too many situations where well-meaning people fly by the seat of their pants, don’t plan appropriately, leave all the details to Jesus, and pray everything works out okay. As a result, the impact of the event or campaign is not what it could have been. Think how much more effective we could be if we practiced good stewardship through proper organization, planning, and communication best practices. The Bible teaches us that a strong foundation is important, both for personal spiritual health as well as for effective witnessing. We should take this wisdom seriously and do everything we can to share the gospel effectively, leaving what we cannot do to the Holy Spirit. A wise person once said:
Don’t pray for the things you can or should do yourself. Ask God for the things only He can do.
A Strong Foundation Begins with Leadership.
Whether you’re a ministry, church, conference, or independent missionary, here is what leaders can start doing today to build a strong strategic foundation for sharing your ministry message:
Strategic planning is simply the process of being intentional and thoughtful with your digital communications.
Social Media & Digital Communications Audit
Begin by evaluating your existing accounts and platforms. Ask: “Are we using the right ones for our audience and mission?” and “Are there opportunities for consolidation?” Less is more. When you streamline your communication efforts, you will achieve greater impact.
Look at your data to determine who you are reaching, the effectiveness of your current strategy, and areas for best practice implementation. Look for issues with your foundation and start thinking about digital strategy goals, target audiences, and key metrics.
Define your purpose for being on social media and utilizing digital tools. Then frame your strategy accordingly, identifying key performance indicators for success. Many ministries and churches fall into the trap of reactive digital communications versus proactive. Reshape your strategy so that you are ahead of the ball. Develop and implement branding guidelines for all your digital communications (which should be an extension of your traditional media, like print) and make sure your team follows best practices.
The auditing process should help you evaluate your current system of communication and develop clear objectives for your digital communications, such as: to advance the gospel and positively influence your community. You and your team can then develop an ongoing approach that aims to achieve some of the key areas listed above.
Once you have a purpose, you can set goals. When you know what you are trying to achieve, you can set benchmarks for measurement. Then came up with a strategy and budget.
Examples of some goals may include, but are not limited to:
Performance Metrics (aka Key Performance Indicators)
Once you’ve identified why you’ll be using digital media and who you’re trying to reach, it’s important to implement measures for success. Identify the metrics that are the most important for your goals and decide how to track them. If you don’t have a lot of time, set benchmarks and track high-level numbers.
Types of Digital/Social Media Metrics:
For example, key performance indicators for ministry could include, but are not limited to:
Choosing the Right Platforms/Channels
Remember, to reach your target audience, you must go to where they spend their time online and use the language they use. Refer back to the “Understanding Your Target Audience” section to help identify the best platforms for your chosen target audience(s). It’s very easy to become overwhelmed by all the possibilities. To avoid that, start with just a few platforms that make the most sense for your ministry, your messages, your available human resources, and your goals. It’s best to pick a few platforms and do them well! A strategy that is stretched too thin will not get the results you’re hoping for.
Remember the “Rule of 7”
The “Rule of 7” states that a person needs to be exposed to a message at least seven times before they’ll take a desired action, such as register, RSVP, attend an event, request a resource, send a message, read an article, or participate in some other meaningful way.
Everyone, including our audience, experiences marketing messaging and content overload. It’s estimated that the average adult is exposed to over 3,000 marketing messages a day! Therein lies the challenge. To cut through the clutter, we must utilize a multi-channel, multi-platform approach. Also, consistency with your branding, as well a regular messaging schedule, will maximize effectiveness. Channel typically refers to the communication medium, such as radio, print, TV, or social media. Platform refers to different kinds of social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram. Truly effective communication strategies work across all channels and platforms to reach people where they are, conveying one consistent goal or message.
This is often referred to as integrated marketing and may utilize the following channels:
Social media should be part of a comprehensive communication strategy that incorporates both traditional media and digital, working together to maximize impact. In most cases, social media is not used in place of traditional forms of communication, but in addition, as a means of amplifying your message to a larger community.
For churches, you’ll most likely want to leverage in-person interactions and conversations, website updates, text messages, flyers, group messaging tools, podium announcements, emails, and your social media profiles. Together, all these efforts help communicate your church brand, and it’s important to consider how each of these communication tools reflects your message, mission, and, ultimately, Christ, following His example for drawing people to the gospel. Being strategic is just being intentional with how you orchestrate all the different ways to distribute information, and making sure to use effective methods of presenting that information. If you find yourself struggling to make your members informed about events and opportunities, understanding and implementing this multi-channel principle will help improve awareness amongst your congregation.
But with the busyness of life, how can you ensure that your audience prioritizes your messages? Your content must be read before it can have any kind of life-changing effect. It’s not enough to communicate often and in different ways. To stand out and be effective, your messages should communicate directly to the reader in a way that is relevant to their life or situation, framed in a way that meets their needs. Messaging like: “This will make your life easier/help you with a problem,” or “Here’s a chance to learn how to eat healthier/help the community,” or “Here’s an opportunity to gain some insight on that nagging question you have,” is strong, engaging content.
Another way to think about this is to seek to understand the motivating desires and core values of your community. Refer back to the “Understanding Your Target Audience” section of this guide for more information on this topic. Then create programs, ministries, and content that serves them. Too often we create the programs and content that we assume our audience wants, and don’t end up with the results we were hoping for. When we combine a strong communications strategy with careful research about our target audience prior to creating programs and messages, we can increase our chances of being successful. We’ll unpack messaging and content more under the “Content Creators” section of this guide.
Implementing an effective strategy requires repeated, consistent messaging from multiple communication channels to have an informed audience or membership. In addition, those messages must serve your target audiences in a meaningful way. We now have more resources than ever before to reach audiences and reinforce our message. But with all the digital clutter, it might take up to a thousand tries to reach someone just seven times! Therefore, it’s important to keep at it and develop relationships with those you are trying to serve.
Social media can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. For most Adventist entities, communications manager is just one of many hats an employee might wear—especially if you are a small team or just a team of one. If you happen to be a full-time digital strategist, you’re likely managing multiple campaigns and projects at once. Regardless of your level of expertise and available resources, there never seems to be enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to do in order to stay on top of the ever-growing evangelistic influence of digital media. A streamlined approach allows you and your team to tackle multiple projects that must integrate an ever-growing list of communication channels.
We’ll unpack the details of a content strategy within the “Content Creators” section of this guidebook. For now, here are some fundamental tips for getting organized:
Schedule Content in Batches
Scheduling your content (and ads) in advance helps you focus on big picture items without the urgency of consistent posting. Plan out regular content in advance and make time to schedule it in monthly or two-week chunks. Then you can focus your attention on engagement, community building, data analysis, strategic planning, and other projects. This also empowers you to be more proactive in your digital strategy, as opposed to reactive—freeing you up to respond quickly to comments or address any unexpected issues or changes.
What’s appropriate to spend?
People often ask, “How much does it cost to promote online?” Well, it depends. The beauty of social advertising and other digital promotions is that it the investment is adjustable based on what you can spend. Digital channels (specifically social media) work very well for small budgets and non-profits. A little can go a long way, but it’s important to spend at least a little. As your confidence and familiarity with your target audience grows, you can increase your budget gradually. Often, your budget depends on the size of your goals and your purpose. A small local ministry may only need to spend $300 a year to reach the surrounding community, whereas a nationwide campaign would need at least $3,000 to create impact within a targeted audience. Before setting a budget, develop a strategy, strong messaging, and a clear objective. Then start with a small ad budget directed at your target audience. Track and analyze results. Evaluate your results against your ministry’s key performance indicators and optimize accordingly. Remember, if you’re going to take the time to put together a campaign strategy, take the time to track your performance. Otherwise you can’t build on what you’ve learned or improve for the next campaign, because you didn’t learn from the last one. Under the “Distributors” section of this guidebook, we’ll discuss advertising in more detail.
Don’t Give Up Too Soon!
Post reach and interaction will ebb and flow based on your audience’s personal preferences, attitude of the day, the news, that evening’s supper, or just the busyness of life. Keep posting. Keep interacting. Keep adapting.
When you initially revamp your digital strategy, the changes in post engagement should show immediate and positive results. But over time things may plateau or even dip, especially during the holidays. You’ll learn to see and anticipate yearly patterns. Keep pressing forward. Often efforts fail because people give up too early.
Social Media Best Practices Checklist for Ministries
As previously discussed, a strong digital strategy begins with a good foundation of planning. Social media represents a bold new frontier for mission and is a powerful communications tool. In order to fully realize the untapped potential of the digital mission field, each denominational entity, ministry, or local church is encouraged to download the latest version of the NAD Social Media Guidelines for an in-depth manual with resources and guidance regarding best practices for professional social media communication.
Whether you’re just getting started or conducting a social media audit, this checklist is designed to help you make sure your organization or ministry is maintaining basic best practices for social media.
Ideally, organizations should conduct a basic social media audit every six months as part of a larger digital communications strategy review. The digital mission field is dynamic and ever-changing, and the North American Division office of Big Data + Social Media is here to help you stay informed. Once you can check off everything on this list, visit SDAdata.org for more resources, tips, and tutorials to continue to enhance your digital evangelism and discipleship strategies.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
In terms of who makes up the digital discipleship and evangelism team, our philosophy includes everyone. The integrated model utilizes every active member in a holistic approach that aims to scale up the traditional friend/community evangelism and discipleship models, not replace them.
What does this mean practically?
It’s not a digital approach attempting to subvert a traditional approach, but, rather, the entire church body using all its human resources, diversity of spiritual gifts, and available tools to work together for a common goal. Church growth is a product of promotion, experience, and personal connections. Digital technology is a powerful tool to guide more people into your church, but the on-site experience and personal connections is what will keep them coming. After all, it’s one challenge to attract new people; it’s another to get them to keep returning. To encourage people to remain in your community, whether online or in person, they must not only have a good experience, but also connect with the members on a personal level and become integrated as a participating member of the community.
If we understand the local church to be a community of believers, we must seek to create meaningful connections, reaching out to seekers whose experience often starts online, as well as to those already in our house of worship. Your church’s online interactions with potential visitors should make them want to experience your faith and mission in person. Then, when they do come for that on-site experience, it should be a continuation of the positive relationship you’ve built with them online. The same is true in reverse.
To achieve a continuity of experience and relationship building, everyone is part of the process. This means the 84-year-old greeter at the door is part of your digital discipleship and evangelism team just as much as the tech savvy youths who create video snippets and content for your social media. It includes the passionate and knowledgeable worship leaders who answer questions and host online bible studies. Remember, what starts in the digital space is not confined to the digital space. It may take weeks, months, or years, but eventually those people who have been touched by your digital voice may be moved by the Holy Spirit to walk in the door. From their perspective, it’s all one spiritual journey and experience, not digital versus traditional. They don’t view their experience in silos; therefore, we must break down the silos of how we go about discipleship and evangelism.
Every touchpoint matters and must tell a consistent story!
Look at this process of evangelism holistically. Consider all possible touchpoints in the list below and ask, “Where does the experience decelerate? Where is the breakdown in communication?”
Touchpoints by role groupings include but are not limited to:
With the digital discipleship and evangelism model shown above as a foundational concept, we can understand how the roles of creators, distributors, and engagers can fit into the overall seeker/visitor experience.
There may be an overlapping of functions that can occur at multiple touchpoints. Every church is different and has different human resources, and spiritual gifts to draw from. This concept is scalable and adaptable to your situation.
Make room for digital discipleship and evangelism.
Change can be difficult, especially for institutions grounded in tradition. However, the Adventist Church is also rooted in a movement that was led by young people. We must again empower talented youths in our churches to take the lead in areas where they naturally excel, such as digital communications and community building. In addition, we have not done a good job of recognizing and utilizing the spiritual gifts of tech savvy and creative members. These gifted individuals have a wealth of talent to offer mission work and should be encouraged to use their skills in service. We can change the culture in our faith communities to make them feel that the Church truly values their time and talents just as much as Bible workers, nurses, Bible study leaders, and speakers.
Form teams of content creators, distributors, and engagers. Each church likely has various members who could specialize or lead in certain areas. These can be powerful personal ministry opportunities, especially for empathetic persons who can facilitate positive conversations online and share stories of faith. Seek to create a culture of sharing and engaging with church social media content as a means for individuals to help fulfill the church’s mission and expand the reach of messages. Anyone who is on social media, has an email address, or is connected to the internet can share content.
It doesn’t matter if a person has four friends or 40,000, they have influence.
Find ways to leverage social influence. If people are connected to others through digital technologies, they have digital influence. Each impression/message received represents a person touched by your message and mission. “Social butterflies” can learn to use their online and offline influence to engage in practical mission work. There is a place for all skill levels.
Influencer groups in your church may include, but are not limited to:
Organize multi-generational training and mentorship opportunities. This will only strengthen your church body and improve cross-generational relationships. Young people yearn for mentorship, and the older generations can learn a lot form the natural skills of the youth. The church should be the ideal example of two-way mentorship in action. Ultimately technologies change, but people and their needs largely remain the same. Healthy communities involve multiple generations coexisting in a collaborative and supportive manner.
In summary, to make room for digital discipleship and evangelism in your church:
Utilize Digital Bible Workers.
If you are lucky enough to have a Bible worker, empower them to expand their efforts digitally. Social media and other digital technologies can be leveraged as lead generating tools. Remember, young people spend upwards of 9-18 hours a day behind a screen, and that affords the church a lot of opportunities to reach them with relevant content and conversations facilitated for seekers. Ideally this is someone who can ultimately lead a focused evangelistic effort, train others, build a dedicated team, and work with other groups and initiatives within your church.
Digital technologies allow a Bible worker to enter a person's life at the convenience and comfort level of the recipient by providing relevant online content, a degree of anonymity, a simple platform for question and answers, and opportunities to engage and form relationships.
What does a Digital Bible Worker Do?
Digital Bible workers utilize digital technologies to share the gospel and stimulate religious thought by creating and packaging content that addresses relevant needs/questions and encourages people to advance in their spiritual journey. Digital Bible workers build relationships with those in the broader community, online and offline, and usually within a specific geographic territory in order to create opportunities for one-on-one or small group Bibles studies held in person or via digital tools. They work in partnership with a local church and pastor to evaluate the needs of a community and determine relevant opportunities for outreach and service. They mentor converts in their development of Christian character and commitment to faith as well as train and equip new members for active discipleship roles. This role encompasses a mix of digital discipleship and evangelism to bridge the gap between working in the digital mission field and achieving real-world impact.
The following is sample of what a job description could look like for local churches and conferences looking to hire a Bible worker to lead online evangelistic campaigns. This position can also be adapted to more appropriately reflect the role of a digital pastor. Feel free to adapt to your specific needs and HR requirements. View this template as a type of menu to guide you in the creation of a position that makes sense for your organization’s structure. These positions can be adapted for paid or volunteer workers based on the level of time commitment needed and budget available.
The Digital Bible Worker will implement a comprehensive, multi-channel digital evangelism strategy designed to meet the spiritual and social needs of teen, 18– to 35-year-old, collegiate, career-focused, single or married seekers (may include other target audiences based on the goals of the conference or church) in the local community. While engagement and relationship building will start in the digital space, the intent is to bring the target audience to an in-person experience. A secondary goal of this position is to mentor young people already in the church towards a deeper relationship with Jesus and greater community involvement—empowering them to also be effective digital disciples.
Objectives and Responsibilities:
Essential Job Functions:
Education and Experience:
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
If you feel that you have a solid grasp of what modern communication tools and technologies are, you may want to skip down to the second part of this section. However, we felt it appropriate to include a general description to ensure a common understanding among a diverse audience. For the purposes of digital discipleship and evangelism, let’s define digital tools and technologies as: devices, web-based platforms, applications, and software that process and use information (videos, text, images etc. in numerical form known as binary code) to communicate or connect with other devices and software through the internet or with cellular data. More simply put, these are devices and web-based tools that enable individuals to share ideas, communicate to a global audience, and connect with people anywhere almost instantaneously.
These tools encompass a wide variety of technologies that many people interact with daily and include, but are not limited to:
Connecting with the Local Community
Digital tools have become an integral part of the fabric of modern living, but as a Church, we have yet to fully tap into their potential for sharing the gospel and directly serving our communities. As discussed previously, people spend significantly more time socializing online than they do in person. Social media and other digital communication tools allow us to not only go global, but effectively reach and permeate our local communities with positive messages and mission projects.
When we think of missionaries, we usually think of traveling to far away lands and learning new languages in order to communicate. However, what is becoming ever clearer for the Church in North America is that our biggest challenge is reaching our local neighbors in an increasingly post-modern, secular society.
The mission field is right next door, and it’s just as legitimate.
Digital technologies have made it easier than ever to:
The most meaningful expression of our mission of hope and wholeness is in the context of the local church.
The potential of digital evangelism and discipleship must be realized at the individual church level. A top-down approach cannot meet the needs of your neighbors, but you and your congregation can. The Adventist Church began as a grassroots movement, and we can re-embrace this mentality to reach the modern seeker next door. With over 1.2 million Adventists in the North American Division and over 5,500 churches, there is a lot of untapped potential.
The true power of the local church is in its unique ability to create and sustain meaningful relationships with people. Social media and other digital technologies are merely tools that can be used to scale up these efforts beyond who we physically meet. They can also assist us in being more targeted and relevant in our approach to evangelism, by revealing the felt needs and demonstrated behaviors of our community. I believe that the next great awakening in North America will be a digital one, but we must work intentionally where we are, in order to more effectively reach people where they are in their spiritual journey. In the following sections we’ll expound upon this principle, mapping out practical ways to leverage digital discipleship and evangelism.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. —Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 NIV
To gain insight into the drivers behind the collective shifts in society, read Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, by Roy H. Williams and Michael R. Drew. These shifts impact communication and often drive technology and social change. I recommend that, as part of your efforts to understand how to communicate more effectively to your target audiences and fulfill their needs, you not only read and study this book, but also invest the time in reading Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Good communication requires speaking in a way our audience can appreciate. As a religious organization, we should be using digital technologies to fulfill our audiences’ needs, but to do that, we must first understand what those needs are (as discussed in the previous section), their unspoken expectations, and the forces for change that influence a generation. This section takes the 30,000-foot-view of broader trends that may also be acting upon your target audiences.
Generation Z and the Millennials have been leaving the Church at alarming rates; could it be that we simply don’t understand them? We know that people of any given cultural group are always the best suited to reach out and evangelize to their peers. I contend that the same is true with generations. Now, empowering and training members of the youth to reach their own does not permit us to abdicate our function as guides and mentors. We too must seek to understand and cultivate these relationships if we are to bridge the gap and secure the future of the Church in North America and promote the salvation of souls. Pendulum provides an analysis of the current shifts in society and their impact on marketing, technology, and communication. The Social Media + Big Data department of the North American Division has repeatedly used these techniques across a broad range of messaging campaigns, consistently yielding successful results. Even if you don’t have time to read the 200-page book, what follows is a summary of what you need to know to understand and utilize these communication techniques.
Pendulum takes Strauss and Howe’s four “generations” (Idealist, Reactive, Civic, Adaptive) and reduces it to two generations covering forty years that oscillate between the “Me” philosophy of individuality, freedom, uniqueness, and potential (peaked in 1983) to the collective “We,” working together for the common good, fixing society’s greatest problems, and adopting a philosophy of authenticity and transparency. Sound familiar? According to this model, we are currently in the upswing of the “We” that should reach its zenith in 2023. Both ideals are always present in society but shifts in dominance occur. Optimal balance is found between the two extremes, and either extreme has negative consequences.
The main point is that group behavior is predictable, and we can use this predictability to speak to the masses in a relevant way.
There will always be exceptions, and as the authors point out:
For deeper insight into the pros and cons of each swing of the “pendulum,” read the book.
To communicate, we must ask, “What is driving the actions and attitudes of the group?”
Determine how your mission, programs, product and/or message fits or can be positioned into this paradigm. You may need to reevaluate what your ministry offers to better align with what is relevant to your target audience. See the previous section on understanding your target audience.
Figure: 2.3 Values and beliefs that motivate society in “WE” and “ME” cycles (Williams 17)
Drivers of a “WE” vs. drivers of a “ME”
This shift can be seen in successful advertising campaigns that target a worldview/attitude instead of an age group.
In other words, instead of targeting people based on surface level demographics, they are speaking to a shared value that transcends age and race as discussed in the previous section.
In Pendulum, the authors point out a well-known example. “Remember L’Oréal’s famous ‘Me’ slogan, ‘Because I’m worth it?’ As society passed the tipping point of 2003 and the ‘Me’ became fully unwound, the old slogan was replaced with, ‘Because you’re worth it’” (Williams 172).
During this same period, the successful Army slogan “Be All You Can Be” (1980-2001) changed to “Army of One” (2001-2006) but didn’t perform well because it was “contrary to the idea of teamwork” said Frank Luntz, American political consultant, pollster, and public opinion guru (Ball). The current, more “WE” focused, slogan is “Army Strong.”
Figure 16.3 Mindset and values in society during a “WE” cycle (Williams 168)
Social media is a powerful tool for member care and service. Never before has “truth in advertising” been so important. The younger generations are the most connected, more than any before them, and they naturally turn to social media to voice their displeasure with a brand or experience.
“Your advertising [messaging] may fool one of us. But that one will tell the rest of us,” says Roy H. Williams (172).
Figure 16.5 Tips to create a serious Internet presence during a “WE” cycle (Williams 172)
Self-effacing transparency is utterly disarming.
“We want the truth, even if it’s ugly. Shrink-wrapped, sugar-coated, phony posing [of the 80’s through mid-90’s] is no longer acceptable” (Williams 163). Humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view is what the Adventist Church and its ministries need to embrace; we see the effectiveness of this strategy in the success of initiatives like Gorgeous2God. Gorgeous2God is a community of young Christian women tackling real issues from a godly perspective. True stories from the experiences of real girls are shared and communicated in a candid way that the Church has not embraced previously. Topics include rape, self-harm, sex before marriage, depression, abuse, and other “uncomfortable” topics. Recognizing the underlying cultural principles in a “WE” generation provides guidance and strengthens our abilities to reach our target audience with relevant content, increasing meaningful impact. As a result of continued audience-focused messaging and content development, Gorgeous2God has grown to over 45K followers on social media, with over 20K visitors to the website a year, countless interactions and hundreds of direct messages (as of July 2019).
Analyze your audience; consider the factors discussed in this section and the previous section to then shape your communications in a way that aligns with the drivers behind the current (broad) shifts in society. Position your ministry for success. You will always have outliers within your target audience, but utilizing this knowledge allows your ministry to fish more effectively and increases the potential for a larger catch.
Ball, Molly (January 6, 2014) “The Agony of Frank Luntz.” The Atlantic.
Williams, R.H., & Drew, M. R. (2012). Pendulum: how past generations shape our present and predict our future. New York: Vanguard Press.
Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
Good communication is when you communicate in a way your audience understands.
You may feel like you know how to use social media platforms for personal sharing, but writing to achieve a marketing/evangelism goal requires much more thought and strategic planning. This section is designed to give you a framework for successfully defining your target audience and determining how to speak to them in a way that is relevant, encouraging meaningful engagements. It is essential that we not only communicate clearly, but that we also take the time to deeply understand our audience. It doesn’t matter if you know what you mean. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and speak to them accordingly. Speak to your audience in a way and with the words that enable them to understand and connect with your message. REMEMBER, EMPATHY FIRST.
This means that when we communicate in the digital space, we must speak the language of the platform and recognize the “cultural expectations” and “norms” prevalent in the space, as well as within the culture(s) of the people we are communicating to. Without careful research, our words and intentions can easily be taken the wrong way, inadvertently offending and pushing away the very people we are trying to reach.
As Christians, we want to reach and include everyone. This is our ultimate goal as disciples. However, from a specific ministry standpoint, this approach ends up reducing the relevancy of the message and spreads efforts too thin for significant impact. Afterall, a standard marketing rule of thumb states:
If you try to reach everyone all the time, you’ll end up
Each person, ministry, and local church is uniquely equipped and positioned to reach different types of people. Therefore, it is vital to understand who your audience is before you create content, write a single social media post, or spend any money on social advertisements. This section will help you learn how to effectively shape your messages and content to match your audience’s needs and reach them effectively, no matter their age, gender, ethnicity, location, or situation.
Determine Your Target Audience
The first step in reaching your audience is to develop a clear picture of who you are talking to. Begin with surface-level demographic information. Use the criteria below and fill in the information for your ministry’s target audience.
Surface-Level Demographic Information:
Once you’ve determined the surface-level characteristics of your target audience, work down to a deeper level which will help shape your messaging and the kind of content you’ll create.
Create deep connections by identifying with
People no longer fit into neat categories, so we must connect with them on a more profound level, transcending the standard marketing demographics of age, ethnicity, gender, language, location, and interests. If you can dig deeper, your audience will be loyal to your brand because you resonate with them at their core.
The best way to do that is to investigate their needs, experiences, values, and perceptions. Conducting surveys and interviews is one key way to collect more information. Then start asking yourself questions that will help you to get inside the minds of your audience members. What motivates their actions? What makes them who they are? What do they have in common? How can I speak and write in a way that my audience will find relatable? What do they value? What do they actually need?
Examples of needs may include: a spiritually supportive community, affordable education, employment, affordable medical care, safe spaces for their children, mentorship opportunities, a better future, healthier relationships, self-improvement, Christian guidance on real-life issues, food security, or practical life-skills training.
Use the criteria below and write down possible answers for your target audience.
Deep Level Characteristics:
”Cultural Empathy” in the Digital Mission Field
As discussed in the previous section, the concept of “cultural empathy” is well known in the physical mission field and its principles should be applied to the digital mission field. We live in a world of intersecting cultures or communities, and, therefore, our definition of culture must expand. Many now find themselves between cultures and functioning in multiple communities simultaneously. In order to identify the unifying threads between seemingly dissimilar people, we need to first unpack their many cultural influences.
These cultures are potentially endless in variety, but can include:
Now take the time to consider the potential overlap in cultures found within your church, community, ministry, or target audience. How might they influence behavior and needs? What unifying factors can you identify?
Internal v. External
Are you speaking to Adventists or non-Adventists? Your language may change based on the answer to this question. We must modify the way we communicate in order to effectively reach different audiences without creating barriers. For example, when we are talking to our friends we use certain vernacular that tends to be more playful and friendlier, but when we are talking to our boss or elders, our persona is more serious and professional. The same is true with evangelism and discipleship. We may commonly use certain words such as “Sabbath” or “haystacks” that could seem foreign or confusing to non-Adventists. The list below offers some guidelines on how to distinguish between internal and external audiences.
Audience Personas 101
When communicating to your audiences, visualize actual people—their interests, culture, wants, needs, and expectations—to refine your voice. You will probably need to create unique personas to represent different target groups within your audience. According to The Guardian, personas can be simply defined as:
A fictional character that communicates the primary characteristics of a group or segment of your audience and takes into consideration needs, demographics, motivations, and environments.
Determining your audience personas can help you develop and write content that will be relevant and useful to your audience. The best personas are often created by simply talking to your audience, but social media insights, website analytics, and surveys can also prove very useful. Personas give a human face to a collection of information, and they allow you to classify groups for different messaging campaigns and programs. The best personas combine both quantitative and qualitative information.
Below is an example of a persona:
About Bryce: Adventist College Persona
Education: High school senior
Interests: Business, sports, camping, meeting other young people, discipleship training
Salary: $3,000 a year
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
Family: Adopted, married parents, no siblings, Hispanic
Goals: Finding a good paying and meaningful job, mentoring younger peers, finding a girlfriend, finding a Christian friend group
Challenges: Finding friends with similar morals, avoiding drugs/alcohol, food insecure, feels rejected by his biological parents and struggles to connect, struggles with religious doubt
Values: Fair justice system, the environment, good reputation, strong character, fairness, good citizenship, technology and flexibility, diversity, leadership training and experience
Fears: The unknown, poor work-life balance, affording college, student loan debt, getting a good job, rejection, finding purpose/meaning
Preferred platforms for Media: Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube
Messages applicable to Bryce: We are all adopted into God’s family. Our church/school/ministry is a place to belong and a place to grow. Connection to others, connection to God. Diversity and purpose. Mentorship opportunities and support for leadership training or education.
Social media personas are developed based on your target audience as defined earlier in this section. The key is finding out what those people want and need; the rest is simply compiling those qualities into a made-up person. As a Church, we need to constantly find ways to reach our audience for the kingdom in the best, most efficient way possible. Creating social media personas is a valuable exercise that enables us, as communicators, to step into others’ shoes and view life from their perspective. Personas help us develop empathy with our audience.
Use the following framework to develop your own personas:
Special Note about Generation Z
The Church and the wider Christian community has become increasingly concerned with reaching Generation Z, people born approximately 1997-2012 (Pew Research Center). However, the Church has not yet adapted to meet the needs of the generation before them, Millennials. We should be concerned, as these two age groups represent the largest divergence from traditional Christian values and lowest participation in faith institutions we’ve seen. To reach and retain these generations, we must reframe our approach based on their perspectives.
Generation Z lives in a totally different world and interacts in a totally different way than any generation before them. When asked what the most important historical event in the USA in the last 20 years was, they responded, “The release of the iPhone.” Most older people would say the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Adam Fenner, Director, Adventist Learning Community)
From Gen Z and Millenial perspectives, their answer makes sense given that technology and digital communications have completely reshaped society, how we connect with each other, how we shop, and how we live. They have grown up in an almost entirely digital world, and they relate to technology in a more integrated fashion than any other generation before them.
So who is Gen Z? What you should consider when targeting this age group:
What do Gen Z’s values mean for the Church? It means we must innovate for meaningful impact. If we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame for the continuous departures. Change is hard, and the Church is notoriously slow to adapt. Now is the time to act if we really are concerned for the salvation of the next generations. Institutions are not permanent. After all, in the words of W. Edwards Deming, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” The good news is that God never fails. He will always have a people, and He has called us to participate in His great work.
We must put our assumptions and judgements in the trash. Too often we create programs and content based on our own interests and passions or based on what we think people need, according to our own perspective and bias. Use the audience factors discussed in this section to make data-informed decisions about your audience, then create programs, messaging, and content based on what you discover. We’ll go into content creation in further detail later in the “Content Creators/Creatives” section of this guide. If you’re still not sure where to start, spend more time with your target audience and ask more questions. Find out directly from them what they need, what they feel will improve their lives, and what will inspire them to develop a closer relationship with God.
To reach people, we must become a student of their culture. No judgement, only acceptance and adaptation. No one should know more about your audience than you do. Strive to become an expert on the people you are trying to reach.