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Online communication: make strategy your foundation

SUMMARY: A good online communications strategy focuses on the "communications" part before it tackles the "online" component. Ask, "What does my church want to communicate?"

Then ask, "How can online tools help us communicate in a meaningful, effective way?" Online media success requires traditional marketing thinking-strategy first, then tactics. Many people take the opposite approach and are caught in the hype of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace.

Take a step backward (or forward, depending on your church's situation) and assess what you already are doing strategically and tactically.

Talk goals and objectives.
List all of the church goals on newsprint or electronically in a Word document. Without goals, you cannot have an effective communications strategy. Create or update the church's communications plan to reflect your current missions, goals and activities.

Identify targets.
What audiences do you want to reach? You may want to touch multiple audiences to fulfill the same goal (i.e. grow the congregation). While your goal may be the same, you should tailor the tactics to the audience. For example, reaching a low-income community through online media can be challenging because the target audience is less likely to have computers and access to the Internet at home. Yet, a more affluent, 20-something person usually is well versed in online media. List all tactics (traditional and online) available to the church.

Marry strategies and tactics.
Look at the lists (goals and tactics) to see what fits together. Are you using online tactics to achieve communications goals? Are you addressing all parts of your strategy? Are online tactics used to further goals not identified as priorities in the strategy? For example, if a strategic goal is to brand the church in the community, does its Facebook page use its logo and other identity components? If the church wants more people to participate in Sunday school, does it promote those activities on Facebook? Or does the Facebook page look like someone started, then ignored it?

Break goals into categories that relate to online opportunities.
Online media can maximize goals in such areas as networking, educational resources, promotion vehicles, and activism and motivational activities. Identify each church goal and see into which category (or categories) it fits.

For example, the goal to grow the congregation falls into multiple categories. If you place it under "networking," your strategy should detail how to use online media to grow congregations through networking. The result could be the creation of a Facebook group targeted to families with children, offering them a place to "meet" and encouraging congregation families to invite their "friends" to join too.

If you put the "grow the congregation" goal into the promotion vehicle category, then you can use online media to publicize activities to audiences who might not regularly attend the church. As an example, you could post a church-created class devoted to helping people with resumes and job searches on LinkedIn, an online community focused on business.

Perhaps the church believes passionately in social justice. An online communications strategy could be to host a page within the church's Web site to share news, activities and more. Congregation members and others could post that site link on their Web sites and social networking profiles.

Evaluate what works.
A critical component of any communications strategy (and one most frequently forgotten) is setting time to evaluate what works. Online media offer a wealth of measurable data so it is easier to understand if you are reaching your targeted audiences successfully. Set measurable expectations from the start (i.e. 1,000 unique visitors to our Web site in one month or 50 new "friends" on our Facebook page). That way it is much easier to see if you are achieving your goals.