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Teens! Can they hear you now?

By Poonam Patodia

SUMMARY: While the rest of us have finally caught up with Web sites and would not know how to survive without e-mails, generally speaking, most teens have already moved on.

Simply setting up a Web site for youth groups is no longer sufficient. Unless you give teens and their leaders and parents reasons for returning, they will visit the site once and leave. In e-mail, they see a lot of junk: spam, marketers, phishers, scams, authorities, adults, random forwards and, most importantly, no friends. It also is too slow. They want communication that is like hitting the “Fire” button when they play a video game.

If you are from a church that uses a Web site and mass e-mail messages as your primary means of sharing news and announcements with your youth and if that works for your group, great! Keep it up! If it does not work and you are beginning to feel a little frustrated, here are a couple of ideas about how to be where the teens are. Today's North American online young consumers, 12 to 17, communicate in a wide variety of ways:

  • Eighty-seven percent of U.S. youth (12-17) use the Internet, and 75 percent of online teens — or about two-thirds of all teenagers — use instant messaging1
  • Four out of five teens (17 million) carry a wireless device2, and 72 percent of U.S. teens use their cell phones for text messaging3
  • More than half (55 percent) of all online North American youth (12-17) use online social networking sites4

Remembering these statistics, here are my ideas for mass youth-group communication:

Mass Text Messaging
Since almost every student carries a cell phone with a text-messaging plan, this is one of the best ways to communicate quick messages. Suppose you must cancel a meeting at the last minute or ask the kids to wear old clothes for a messy game an hour before it starts. There is no way an e-mail will reach everyone in time, but a mass text message will solve your problem instantly. You can even use text messaging to point teens to the youth group Web site for more information. 

Instant Messaging
Students often use instant messaging, and you can use it to get instant access to them. Consider creating a special youth-group screen name and invite your teens to join. Another nifty idea is to use “away” messages to your advantage. When youth are online, they often check the “away” messages of friends who are not at a computer. You can use the “away” message for youth group news and announcements and provide a link to your Web site for more information. You even can create contests to motivate teens to check your “away” messages frequently. Perhaps add an audio/video clip or a picture at the end of your message and tell youth that the first person who instant messages the correct identification to you gets a prize (perhaps a one-pound chocolate bar or an iTunes download).

Facebook Groups
Since teens regularly visit this site anyway, placing your youth group information there can be quite effective. You can create a group for your youth group and use it to message information, post pictures, discuss ideas and stay in touch.

How do you do it? It is easy! Just login to Facebook and click on “Groups” in the right mini-sidebar. In the upper-right of the screen, you will see a button titled “Create a New Group.” Click it, complete the group information, upload your youth group logo and select the participants you already have added as friends to invite to join the group. It becomes a great centralized place for your group to stay in touch throughout the week, and for you to create event sign-ups, post videos and send a mass “private” message to everyone in the group. When looking at the group page, under your logo you will see a link titled “Message All Members.” Click it, type whatever you need to share and send it.

YouTube Videos
We all know that for teenagers, online video is growing in exponential leaps and bounds, so if they will not take two minutes to read an e-mail, maybe they will take 10 minutes to watch a video. That is why it is important to experiment with youth group video episodes. Try it for a couple of weeks while keeping an eye on the video traffic stats; then evaluate its effectiveness against other ways you communicate.

However, the key to success in communicating with teens in general, but especially through these videos, is giving the episodes more value than just news and announcements. Consider including a giveaway of some sort, perhaps a devotional thought that serves as a preview to next week’s lesson, a YouTube video of the week and so forth. You also can make these available in iTunes as a podcast so teenagers can easily transfer the episodes to their iPods and watch later on the bus, in the gym or whenever they wish.

Depending upon your area of service, you may have to adjust your approach a little. In a rural area with dial-up still running rampant, you may hit cell phones a little harder. Our urban members probably can use more of the online technologies.

1 Pew/Internet Research, Teens and Technology: Youth are Leading the Transition to a Fully Wired and Mobile Nation, 2005
2 Harris Interactive research, Cell Phones Key to Teens' Social Lives, 47% Can Text with Eyes Closed, 2008
3 Online Testing eXchange and eCRUSH Research, Teens' Practicality with Mobile, 2007
4 Pew/Internet Research, Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview, 2007