Virtual Community

I find some people tend to think of digital media as an advertising tool, but it’s shaping the way we connect to each other too.  I’ve been thinking about online connections this week, and how they allow us to connect, share, support and encourage one another.

I ran my first 5K in a long time this last weekend, and when I posted it on Facebook and Twitter, there was lots of encouragement before and celebration after when I did well.  That felt great!  The messages came not only from people I see face-to-face around town, and long-time friends from afar, but also from some folks whom I’ve only “met” through online networking.

Today, I’m thinking about my friend Adam and his wife.  Adam and I have never met face-to-face, but we share a number of interests and some friends in common.  A couple of months ago, I joined in with many others in celebrating and congratulating when Adam shared online that they were pregnant for the first time, and with twins!  Today, I’m joining with many all around the country offering our prayers and support to Adam and his wife as the boys were born way too early and died this morning.

I’m a little amazed at how much sorrow and sadness I feel for their loss, even when we’ve never met– not the same sort of sadness-from-a-long-distance I might feel for someone I don’t know and heard about on the news, but the sadness of something awful happening to a friend.  I know there are people who will just not be able to “get” how Adam can be my friend when we’ve never met in person, but my experience (and that of many others) says that it not only happens, but it’s happening much more frequently and easily.

Digital media is changing the way we connect and communicate.  It will never take the place of face-to-face engagement, but it certainly lets us be in one another’s lives in some positive ways (and of course, sometimes in negative ways).

Pastors & church folks might want to read this adapted excerpt from Carol Howard Merritt’s book Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation where she reflects on these changes in virtual community for churches.

In the comments, I’d love to hear about how social media or email has helped you find support, encouragement, comfort, or community.  How is your organization or community using these medias to build community?


Tell How to Connect

When you use digital media to promote an event or group, don’t forget to provide a way for readers to connect.

It’s a good practice to skew your communications efforts toward newcomers or “outsiders”, inviting wider participation.  Explain the event or group in a brief, easy-to-understand way, without assuming that “everyone” knows what that event/group is all about.  And always, always, provide some way to connect.  Telling readers how to connect is a call to action and an invitation to participation.

That can be as simple as:  “To join the choir, simply show up at the Thursday, 7 pm rehearsal.”  It can be an email address, as in: “To volunteer, email Suzy”  (embed Suzy’s email address as a link when possible to avoid spam for her).  Since you’re using digital media, the preference would be to let people respond by digital media (ie. an email or on social media like Facebook) instead of having them make a phone call.

Do you make an invitation to connect a part of your promotions?  What’s been most effective for you?

Tips for Online Communities

A couple of weeks back, I blogged about using private online communities for your organization.  This week, I ran across a great post giving some tips for using this platform. Geoff Livingston at Mashable offers 5 Tips for Creating Online Communities.  I especially appreciated these tips:
Listening to your community remains a core social media principle.
The classic community mistake is to use a network to drive information out into the public as opposed to creating a compelling experience for members.
This is SO important!  I find that organizations that are just getting started in social media tend to think of their Facebook page or Twitter account as a bulletin board “driving information out into the public.”  Social media is about relationships, and relationships involve two-way communication.  Listen more often to what people are saying, both about their questions and concerns, and what they are saying about your organization. And, did you catch the last half of that second quote: “creating a compelling experience for members.”  That’s what you want to be thinking about in creating an online community: connecting your online members in a compelling way.  What can they experience in your online community that they cannot experience anywhere else– even when they are face-to-face? I also appreciated Geoff’s last tip, which has to do with inter-connecting all your various communication platforms.  This kind of interconnection is not a one-way connection, but moves communication in both directions.  Facebook can serve as a “beachhead” to steer folks toward your online community, but you also want to have your members communicating about your organization’s activities back in the wider online community. What do you think?  Might some kind of private online community become a part of your organization?  I’d love to hear about your thoughts! .

Tell a Good Story

More than facts, it’s stories that shape us and shape our thinking.  Especially in an information-overload culture, promoting your organization and its mission is about telling good stories. Andy Goodman focuses much of his work on the power of storytelling in public interest communications.  His article “Change the Story, Change the World” is one of the best summaries I’ve read of why non-profits need to tell good stories as they seek to transform and change people and the world (and motivate others to join them in that work). The article concludes:

“People will believe what they want to believe,” said H.L. Mencken. The examples above tell me that people rely on the stories in their head to tell them what to believe. So if you’re in the business of changing beliefs (and the behavior that follows), it’s worth asking two questions about your audience: What story is already in their heads, and is your story strong enough to replace it?

Get Flexible with Communication

Everyone has a preferred communication mode.  Get flexible in how you communicate with others. There are so many ways now to communicate: face-to-face,  phone (landline & cell), email, Facebook, Twitter are just a few. It’s a combination of our personalities (are you an introvert?), our experience (have you used Twitter?), and our available tools (have a smartphone to get emails on the go?) that blends to create our personal preferences about how we receive and respond to information.  Often, we unconsciously assume that others will adapt to our preferences. If you want to more effectively communicate with your members/constituents and co-workers, it might be helpful to consciously assess their preferred modes of communication, and while you can’t always accommodate them, when a timely response is crucial, you know how to connect more effectively.  Lots of us do this intuitively. For instance: I prefer email, but I have a client who, because of the sheer volume of emails in his inbox, just doesn’t reply in a timely way (but I’ve also dealt with people who just don’t check their email!).  So I know that most of the time, when I need a response from him soon, I need to call his cell (not his office).  Many people have probably experienced this. I have another client who responds slowly to emails (2-3 days), almost never answers the phone in person, and seems to be hit-and-miss in responding to voicemails.  But if I SMS text message her, I get a reply fairly quickly. Youth pastors I talk to say that SMS text messaging is currently a preferred mode for many youth. Youth may have email, FB & Twitter accounts, but they just don’t check or access them regularly (or don’t see the messages there when they do). Of course, these preferences in communication modes are always shifting and changing.  It doesn’t hurt to ask people how they prefer to connect with you, and then ask again in six months if things seem like they are changing. One of the latest shifts I’ve seen is that people who used to email with me now send me private messages through Facebook. I’m interested in hearing from you in comments about how you manage or decide which communication modes to use.  Do you tailor to individuals?  Do you find yourself having to use multiple modes to get the word out, and how do you prioritize that?

Constant Contact

Constant Contact


Christian churches may be interested in the resource Spiritual Formation Newsletter Content, and online resource that makes available short articles on spiritual formation appropriate for email newsletters.