Undoubtedly, community engagement has always been a big part of what spiritual communities are about. In many ways, it is the local community that provides the life force for any spiritual institution. Without it, services, classes, programs, and the many volunteer efforts lack an important ingredient for spiritual growth and well-being: the harmonizing aspect of human diversity and support.
Community Engagement with Social Media
In recent years, social media has become a major factor providing a platform for community engagement—a virtual community, that is. In combination with the introduction of smartphones, many have embraced the accessibility of customized information and inspiration at their fingertips and aligned with their interests in real-time. Social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, serve this demand by providing features that make it easy to filter out unwanted content and allow active engagement by encouraging discussion. Another advantage is information is delivered to the users without them having to visit websites, forums, or search engines, which is often the preferred method of staying engaged among those using social media. Further, the ability to interact asynchronously, that is to communicate with two or more people over sometimes days rather than at the same time, suits busy schedules and the growing interest in on-demand content of many.
The challenge for spiritual communities is to provide interaction and engagement within the social media environment. Many use emails or printed newsletters to communicate with congregants and members other than the personal contact on Sundays or weekdays. However, overflowing inboxes and mailboxes make it difficult for the carefully prepared message not to fall victim to the delete button or trash bin. Another difficulty is to keep up with the demands of providing regular interaction and content. In general, users lose interest in Facebook pages or Twitter accounts that are not regularly updated.
This is the challenge we faced at Unity Lake Houston, Humble, Texas, realizing that our Facebook page as well as website were not visited as often as we would have liked. With only a part-time spiritual leader and no supporting staff in place, it was difficult to justify the allocation of resources to the maintenance of social media and web content that required a regular and valuable update. The only way to make this possible was to streamline content output and to find an efficient way for its publication.
Streamlining Content Creation
One way of keeping time investment in line is streamlining the content and its creation process. It usually takes less time to prepare content ahead of time and in clusters rather than be concerned with it individually. Let’s consider the following scenario:
It may be that you decide to provide a mid-week message as a blog post to bridge the week from Sunday to Sunday. However, you may not always have the time to prepare the message and publish it in time. With 52 weeks in a year, this could become a weekly challenge that may not always be welcomed and turn into a chore rather than an inspiration. In order to streamline the process of content creation, you would instead dedicate a larger block of time to write more than one message, which in many cases turns out to take considerably less time to produce. This way, it is possible to prepare a few months worth of content while spending less time doing so.
Another example may be a desire to publish a daily morning prayer for the congregation to take with them into their day. Such an endeavor can be even more challenging, because it requires our daily attention within a very short time window. Again, by dedicating a block of time to write several prayers in succession, the time spent can be significantly reduced, especially when finding ways to reuse parts or repeat certain prayers at an interval.
At Unity Lake Houston, we decided to start a pilot project on January 1, 2015, by providing what we call “Daily Inspirations,” which are published every day as the name suggests. Those inspirations are based on the DailyWord and are intended to take the provided topic deeper with an inspiration to action at the conclusion of the post. With the printed version of the DailyWord coming out every two months, we were able to prepare the posts accordingly. Rather than writing every day, content creation was organized in advance reducing the time effort considerably.
Once the content is created, it is time to think about publication. An effective way to use the Internet and social media tools is by linking those different avenues of entry points together. All content should always find its way back to the community’s website. Depending on the type of content, it may be appropriate to use your website’s blog tool to manage it, or it may require a dedicated section on the homepage to be visible and easily accessible. Wherever the content ends up, it should be easily accessible with as few clicks as possible; usually, linking a teaser or summary on the homepage to the actual content is ideal.
For example, in order to provide easy access to our Daily Inspirations, we decided to repurpose the podcast block content (a section of our homepage) that came with our standard website installation to serve as our entry point to the Daily Inspirations. The advantage of the repurposing was to keep the functionality of being able to publish content that is linked to a time and date, which made maintaining the inspirations much easier.
We asked OneEach Technologies (our web service provider. *See Tips below) to provide a scheduling function that allowed us to enter content ahead of time and schedule its publication. This added feature enabled us to take our Daily Inspirations and enter them into the database, defining which content will be published on which day without having to remember to do it every morning. Without the possibility to plan publications ahead of time, it would be hard to maintain a regular schedule to which our congregants already have become accustomed.
The second step is to make the content accessible through social media, e.g. Facebook or Twitter. Again, it may not be possible or feasible to publish the entire content, but a teaser with link is usually sufficient. Even if you could publish the entire content on social media, you should consider only providing some limited content in order to encourage users to access your website and be exposed to what else you have to offer.
It is not unlikely to have people following your social media pages or accounts who are not otherwise affiliated with your community. Encouraging them to visit your website provides more exposure opportunities that could possibly lead to more engagement. At Unity Lake Houston, we suspect that about half of those that regularly read the Daily Inspirations are in fact not attending our services. However, they are regularly exposed to our community, our events and services, and the Unity message. And that is a good start.
Once the social media tools are linked to your original content and you are clear as to how to create and present your teasers, it is time to organize the automatic publication to social media. Unfortunately, OneEach’s content management system (CMS) does not have the capability to directly and automatically publish to Facebook or Twitter, which is why we looked for a third-party solution that ideally offered this service for free. We decided to use the web service PostCron, (*See Tips below) which is simple to use and was able to provide what we needed with their free account option.
Once set up, we were able to post our teasers for the Daily Inspirations and schedule them in accordance with the original content. Due to OneEach’s scheduling system being set to hourly updates, the original content had to be published at least one hour before anything else, if they link to the original content. For example, if you set the publication of your original content to 12:00 a.m. on any given day, PostCron should not be set to publish before 1:01 a.m. on that same day.
Missing Community Engagement
Having organized our content creation to be streamlined by clustering several posts together and scheduling their publication in advance, we have been able to maintain a regular schedule since its inception on January 1, 2015, while spending significantly less time than it would otherwise take to provide our Daily Inspirations.
As for the community engagement, we had only very limited success online. So far, followers only rarely commented on Facebook and not much has happened on Twitter. However, some discussions were raised before and after Sunday service, which suggests that the inspirations are received and inspire further contemplation and discussion.
We can only speculate about the reasons why online engagement has not been thriving:
- There might be hesitancy to publicly share one’s opinion around the addressed topics.
- It is difficult to type elaborate comments on a smartphone or tablet.
- Our online community is still too small for engagement to take place.
- It simply takes more time.
Patience seems to be key, and we will further monitor our progress. However, we noticed a significant jump in new and returning visitors on our website with the daily inspiration page being the most accessed page by far. Even though we haven’t seen a growth in attendance that we would be able to link to the introduction of the Daily Inspirations, we can safely assume that we are impacting our community by reaching out and sharing our views with our greater social media community.
An Affirmation for Online Goodness
Whether or not we continue our pilot project, providing inspirations on a daily basis, it seems valuable to continue to be regularly engaged on the website, in social media, and online in general. We are also expecting to eventually attract a younger crowd as our social media presence grows. And we are planning to create a number of volunteer opportunities that encourage online community engagement by starting discussions around our outreach efforts. All in all, we are happy with our progress and affirm online Goodness.
Tips—Working with OneEach Websites
Unity Branded Website CMS by OneEach
As part of joining the Unity branding program, Unity Lake Houston signed up with OneEach, who hosts and maintains the Unity branded website content management system (CMS). OneEach offers support and other services that allow us to focus on content creation rather than dealing with the technical aspects of a running a website. Find out more by visiting: www.unity.org/branding.
Setting Up Scheduling with OneEach’s CMS
1. For those in the Unity Identity Program, and enrolled with OneEach, go to your OneEach support portal and open a ticket.
2. Ask OneEach to provide the scheduling function for your blog or any other block already in place.
3. If you want to repurpose the podcast block, briefly explain what you are trying to achieve and how you would like to name the block.
4. Make sure you understand how to use the scheduling function and ask for help if necessary.
Tips—Working with PostCron
Automate Social Media Publications with PostCron
1. Log in to PostCron using your Facebook, Twitter or Google Account.
2. You can add your social media pages or groups with the appropriate buttons. You must have account privileges in order to publish as your ministry.
3. Once set up, select those social media portals you would like to publish to, e.g. Facebook and Twitter.
4. Copy and paste your teaser content into the “Share Status” field. If you are publishing to Twitter, PostCron will automatically limit your teaser to 140 characters.
5. Provide a link to your original content on your website (use a shortened URL if necessary).
6. Post by pressing the “Schedule” button. Enter time and date and press “Done.”
Shorten your URL with Goo.gl
1. Go to your original content on your website.
2. Copy the entire URL (e.g. http://www.unitylakehouston.org/1-1-2015-new-beginnings) in your address bar.
3. Go to goo.gl.
4. Paste your URL into the appropriate field.
5. Check the “I’m not a robot” box.
6. Click the “Shorten URL” button. A shortened URL will appear on the right (e.g. http://goo.gl/y3BRhG).
7. Copy the shortened URL.
8. Go to PostCron and paste it after your teaser test, e.g. within parentheses.