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Welcome to the Twittersphere: How your church can use this new technology

By Chris Bonney

Just when Facebook thought it had become the go-to social network for our techno-hungry culture, along came Twitter (www.twitter.com). While Facebook touts more than 200 million users, half of whom return to the site daily, Nielsen has recently reported Twitter as the fastest growing social networking site on the Internet, posting 1,382 percent growth from early 2008 to early 2009.

With mainstream coverage on network television shows like “Brothers and Sisters” and even “Oprah,” it’s no wonder Twitter has grown so quickly.

Popularity aside, you may still be asking: What is Twitter exactly? Let’s take a look at Twitter top to bottom and, more importantly, explore ways that your church can leverage Twitter to help deliver your message and improve overall communications online.

What Is Twitter?

Twitter does one simple thing. It asks the question: What are you doing? It is then your job to type — in 140 characters or less — your answer to that question. Your message is then posted on Twitter.com for the world to see. Keeping messages short is the unique appeal for users of Twitter versus other forms of online communication and collaboration like blogs and wikis. Say what you want, but say it succinctly. It’s a perfect fit for our ever-evolving Internet society that prefers to snack on information rather than feast.

One of Twitter’s most cherished features is that it allows you to send a message from your cell phone. By insisting the message length be under the 160 character text limit on cell phones, Twitter enables users to post from virtually anywhere in the world. You don’t have to be in front of a computer screen to participate on Twitter (unless, of course, you choose to be) and that’s what people love about it.

A message posted on Twitter is called a “tweet.” The more useful and valuable your tweets, the more likely you are to get “followers.” Followers are like “friends” on Facebook. They are the people you know (or don’t know) that find value in your response to that What are you doing? question.

Celebrities, of course, tend to have the most followers on Twitter. Ashton Kutcher recently won an ad hoc competition against the news channel CNN, beating them to the water mark of one million followers. Kutcher won without breaking a sweat and CNN later reported that 94 percent of CNN viewers are not Twitter users — yet. No contest in the end for Kutcher.

So, does your church need one million followers to reap the benefits of Twitter? Of course not. The goal for your church on Twitter is to earn the members of your congregation as followers, along with anyone else who might be interested in joining your church. You may also get followers from the press, other local churches or people that simply find great value in what your church tweets.

Who should actually tweet?

Okay, you get the idea behind Twitter and it’s something you might like to try. So, who is actually going to be writing the tweets for your church? Short answer: it depends. It’s crucial, just as it is before embarking on any marketing endeavor, to first have some goals and objectives in mind. Why do you want to tweet in the first place? To create an alternative means to reach out and engage your parishioners online? Not bad. To create a platform to communicate about and report on events in real-time so that those who can’t attend can still get a flavor of the event?

In his popular E-book, The Reason Your Church Must Twitter, author Anthony D. Coppedge states, “By it’s very definition, Twitter will allow churches to give quick updates, drive traffic to websites and remind people of events more efficiently than ever — and, best of all, to the right demographic every time.”

How much of my time will this take?

Keep in mind, the most challenging part of Twitter is sustaining your presence. Nielsen reports that 60 percent of Twitter users don’t come back after one month. Why? Well, how many times can one person answer the question, “What are you doing?” The truth is the rapid exposure and growth of Twitter no doubt has people joining to simply kick the tires. They had no real interest, purpose or strategy behind joining Twitter. You, on the other hand, do. So, how much of your time will it take to stay on Twitter and make it work for your church? Again, it depends.

Are you going to be tweeting news updates once a week? Or maybe tweeting memorable quotes in real-time during a Sunday sermon? Or maybe you as a church leader want to give people a glimpse into your personal life and tweet from your cell phone at regular intervals during the day. Your strategy dictates your usage. For those organizations that anticipate heavy usage, there are some tools that can help. For organizations that intend to use Twitter as a broadcast tool, for example, TweetLater (www.tweetlater.com) is a service that provides you a great option for Twitter management. As the name implies, you can queue up pre-written tweets and deliver them to the Twittersphere on your own schedule.

Can our followers tweet back to us?

Twitter offers more than broadcasting one-way communications to your congregation. Your followers also have the option of tweeting you back. Imagine a chat room or instant messenger. After you post your 140 character (or fewer) tweet, Twitter gives all of your followers the option to respond. Did you just tweet about your recent arrival in Chicago for a retreat? Maybe a follower will tweet you back with a great downtown restaurant.

You’ll know a tweet reply when you see one because it will begin with the “@” sign.

Give Twitter a spin. Go to Twitter.com and click the “Get Started” button. Fill out a very short form and your account will be set up. Twitter then instantly gives you the opportunity to see if any of your friends are already on Twitter. You can choose to query your Gmail, Yahoo!, AOL, Hotmail and MSN e-mail accounts. For example, if you have many contacts in your Yahoo! account, you simply supply your Yahoo! username and password and Twitter does the rest. The system will automatically tell you which of your Yahoo! contacts are already on Twitter. You can officially “follow” them on Twitter with the click of a button.

Okay, so you have friends. What’s next? My advice: simply listen. Sure, post a couple innocuous messages to get the feel, but begin analyzing how other people (maybe even your competition) are using Twitter. Are they using it as a conversation starter? A one-way communication tool? See what styles and methods resonate with you and then emulate them. Again, having a grand plan is vital, but to really understand the potential of Twitter it’s best to get your feet wet first. It provides context for your future Twitter strategy planning.

Twitter is not a fad. Its proliferation is too wide and too deep for it to be usurped by the next bright shiny technology next year. Twitter has changed the paradigm for online communication forever. Today holds an opportunity for your church to explore new territory and expand your reach. It’s time to take a “what’s possible” attitude and jump into the deep end of technology.

The only question now is: What are you doing?

Chris Bonney is director of Business Development, Vanguard Technologies, Chicago, IL. [www.vanguardtechnologies.com]

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