Religious Organizations & Non-profits Share Overlapping Social Media Practices

My name is Samantha Cart, and I am privileged to guest post on Whitney’s blog this week. Whitney and I are both in the Masters of Journalism program at West Virginia University, as well as an Interactive Media & Blogging class. 

Religious organizations and non-profits often times work closely together and sometimes they are even one in the same.  For example, a church building might be used to host traditional services on Sunday but be home to a local non-profit food bank or clothing pantry throughout the rest of the week.

While researching the social media habits of religious organizations and comparing my results to Whitney’s, we found that because of their close ties and symbiotic relationship, religious organizations and non-profits have incredibly similar social media practices, problems and approaches.

As I have discussed repeatedly on my personal blog, religious organizations are steeped in tradition and rich in history, and sometimes tradition can get in the way of innovation and change.  And because religious organizations are often financial backers or a source of volunteers and employees for non-profits, these customs can potentially effect the non-profits’ social media effectiveness as well.

As part of my original research project, I surveyed 40 religious organizations in the Morgantown area to determine their overall social media usage, as well as how often and ultimately why they use social media.

Of the 35 organizations that responded to my survey, 85 percent use social media, which is consistent with national trends.

Facebook is the most common social media network for religious organizations, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that several organizations are using multiple platforms.

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Just like with Whitney’s non-profit survey, Facebook had the overwhelming majority.  On this question you could choose more than one, so some organizations are actually using multiple platforms.

The responses suggested that Facebook is the most popular medium because it was the site with which the most congregation members were familiar.  While I suspect there is a correlation between this and the average age of the congregation— that is only speculation.

Many responders also said that Facebook best served their needs in creating event pages and gaging attendance.

An interesting commonality that Whitney and I found between our research was that while religious organizations and non-profits alike have designated people to update and manage their social media accounts, this is not its own unique position nor is it a paid endeavor.  This responsibility is usually given to the person within the congregation or office with the most social media savvy.

In the interest of time and resources, I was not able to look into this trend further, but future research could certainly explore the creation of a social media position, which is becoming an increasingly popular development in the business world.

On a personal level and as someone of faith who is interested in new ideas for outreach, the most important aspect of this research was to survey the organizations on their primary reason for using social media.

I am looking at the results of the survey I conducted through the theoretical lens of the social media marketing theory.  In other words, I believe that a church can function as a business in terms of marketing.

This theory says that for years marketing consisted of talking at your audience with mediums such as brochures, commercials and advertisements.  However, social media allows businesses to talk with their customers, and that conversation is valuable in creating products and attracting and engaging new audiences.

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Because the survey suggested that Facebook is the most used site due to its widespread audience, I was not surprised to find that the main reason churches use social media is to keep the congregation connected and updated on church activities.  However, it is the outreach bar that I am most concerned with, because I truly feel that if the social media marketing theory were applied to religious organizations, they could flourish in terms of membership (and in turn, financially).

I think this concept has been demonstrated by non-profits to some degree.  Over the past four months, Whitney has blogged about how social media helps non-profits recruit volunteers, raise money, advertise special events and encourage donations (whether they be physical or monetary).

With the similarities driving non-profits and religious organizations, social media has found a place in their day to day operations.  With the creation of specific social media positions, as well as an openness to expanding its use and embracing multiple platforms— non-profits and churches have the potential to use social media to drive engagement.

Perhaps the most uplifting parts of this research were the responses to the question, “Have any positive outcomes resulted from you organizations’ use of social media?”

Answers ranged from “new contacts and improved communication” to “many of the younger members of our congregation stay more in tune with what is happening at our church” to “greater donations from visitors to the site from outside the immediate constituency.”

In contrast, I also asked how the organizations thought they could improve their social media use.

The few responses (and the lack thereof) prove that this will be the biggest road block to these institutions reaching their full social media potential.

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