Is your church atwitter?

(Part of an ongoing series on how churches can create an effective digital presence, on the web and in social media)

"Twitter - I know it's a social media thing ... but I don't know much about it, I don't understand it. And don't get me started on hashtags - whatever they are."That's the gist of what most church leaders tell me. But if you are a church leader who would say something like this, please give me a moment to try to explain briefly why your church should tweet. If it is already tweeting, allow me to offer suggestions on how to do it effectively.

My purpose here is not to explain the mechanics of Twitter, but to focus on how your congregation can be more effective in using it. If you are not familiar with Twitter, here's a video that does a good job of explaining the basics. Feel free to skip to the 9:55 mark and start watching at that point.

When I ask someone if his or her congregation tweets, I usually get a blank stare. If your church does tweet, what sort of things does it tweet about? 

If your congregation doesn't tweet, it should consider it. A recent Pew Research Center report shows that in 2014, nearly a quarter of Americans who are online use Twitter. Thirty-seven percent of 18-24 year-olds use it. Ten percent of those 65 and older who are online used it in 2014, double 2013's number. While it may not be surprising that 25% of urban online adults use it, it may surprise you that 17% of rural adults use it too, up from 11%. The chart has more stats, and in nearly every case, usage is climbing.

If your congregation is or plans to tweet, here are some tips to do it effectively.

Know and tweet to your audience(s)

Marketers are taught from the time they're in college that they must identify their target audience, the kind of person they are trying to reach with their advertising and social media efforts. If they don't know their audience, then they have no idea which web sites, TV shows and magazines are best to advertise on or in, and how to determine the best way to present their messages, but there's no way to measure the success of those efforts.

Your congregation must do the same thing. Do you want to reach your members or potential visitors? Or perhaps you want to target people who might visit or that your congregation wants to help. Your choice should have a significant impact on what you tweet. 

Encourage your members who tweet to share your posts

Especially if your church is just starting out on Twitter, encourage your members to follow you and to share your tweets. That expands your potential audience from your followers to include their followers as well.

Make your content shareable

Of course, if you want your content shared, make it shareable. Tweet relevant content ... relevant to your audience. It may be nice (and easy) for you to post "insider" content, but then you're likely to reach only insiders. 

By "insider" content I mean content written for members, such as a daily scripture reference, lofty truisms, devotional statements that use church buzzwords, and committee meeting schedules. The first three assumes you're trying to reach Christians and the fourth suggests you're targeting members. While that can be good content for those audiences, and good content to post, if that's all your Twitter feed offers, how likely do you think it will draw non-members and non-Christians to follow you?

If you are trying to reach potential visitors, include posts that link to articles they might find interesting, useful or valuable. And don't limit it to religious sources. I have recommended to clients articles like this from the Huffington Post, this from Business Insider, and even something humorous, like this from tickld. Don't avoid religious sources, but keep in mind whether the discussion has appeal outside your faith, such as this one, which is good because it ties current events to a religious context.

Also, try to avoid building a mutual admiration society. Often, when I look at a congregation's follower/following list, it is apparent that it is preaching to the choir full time: the lists consists largely of sister congregations, church professionals, and Christian authors and bloggers, and the content is consistent with that.

Use hashtags effectively

Don't forget to use hashtags, and not just hashtags, effective hashtags. Hashtags that others are using and that relate to your message. Why? Because when a Twitter user clicks on a hashtag in a tweet, Twitter brings up a page of other tweets that use the same hashtag. He or she can also search Twitter for tweets using a specific hashtag. Plus, if you search for a hashtag on a search engine such as Google, the results include matches on other social media site.

Often, I'll see tweets (not just church tweets) that hashtag-ify generic words like #water, #new, and #first. Your hashtags should relate to the content, such as #vbs for a vacation bible school tweet, the name of your community or metro area, such as #DFW, or a common hashtag used in the tweets by others about local news or events.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you use hashtags that are unique to your tweets - that is, they don't appear in any other tweets - they are not going to expand your reach. 

A tool like hashtagify.me can help you see how popular (or not) a given hashtag is. Set up a free account to be able to compare the popularity of different hashtags before you choose one.

Push them to your web site

Include links back to specific pages of your web site. If you're promoting a specific event, such as a seminar, guest speaker or fundraising car wash, make sure the details are on your web site, then include a link to that specific page. There's probably no way to include all the important information in the space of 140 characters, so promote it as a headline and include the link.

Interact

Don't make the mistake of thinking "If we build it, they will come". Reach out. One client of mine does a great job of building relationships with community organizations (outside of Twitter), following each other, and sharing each other's content. This included the local Better Business Bureau, schools and businesses.

Twitter can be a significant asset as part of your social media efforts. It takes a focus and dedication to get the most out of it, but it can be well worth it.