Social Media Spotlight On: The Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota

Recently, I have been wanting to work on a series of posts highlighting the efforts of United Methodist annual conferences, Episcopal dioceses, and their affiliated organizations on social media. Today, I’m happy to announce that I’m kicking off this series, with a post on the social media presences of the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota!

I have two big reasons for wanting to highlight this particular group first, namely:

  1. They’ve experienced considerable recent growth not just in the number of people reached, but in the number of platforms they use
  2. They have used their social media presences in some creative ways, including ecumenical engagement and sharing content from a variety of sources

And so I’ve been in touch with the person responsible for social media for the Diocese, Dr. Chris Corbin, who has kindly answered several questions regarding the usage of social media in the Diocese.

Jacob: Over the past year, the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota has grown from a single page on Facebook with a little over 100 followers to now over 300, plus growing Twitter and Instagram presences as well. What has been driving the growth not just in size, but in the number of platforms being used?
Chris: Until February of this year I had nothing to do with social media for the Diocese, but I’ve become the de-facto communications director through a strange series of events. It started with redesigning our website because I have some design intuition and thought we could have a better looking and performing website for less money. I can code a little, but I’m not a trained web designer, and I think teaching myself to do our website gave me the confidence to tackle our larger electronic communications infrastructure.

One of the main responsibilities for my position is overseeing our local ministerial formation and continuing education program (Niobrara School for Ministry), and I finally got tired of getting really weak email responses and low engagement for our ministry weekends. I’m big into surveys through Google forms, so I put together a ‘communications preferences survey’ for the Diocese that looked at people’s ways of communicating, the connotations each form of communication has for them, and design preferences, and I broke it down by demographic. I was surprised to learn that two groups were largely unreached by email, but accessible easily on Facebook: college-aged folks and those over 65. This made me reevaluate my reluctance to engage significantly with social media. I’ll admit I was wary of undue social media usage – and still can be cautious about oversharing or overusing – and I still harbor some prejudices against using Messenger in lieu of email. But I came to realize that those were my problems and that “sticking to my guns” about an arbitrary digital code of etiquette would not get me connected to people I was missing. So I asked to take on the Facebook account as my project and just started getting as much quality content on as I could.

I set the Twitter account up as the first-line external face of the Diocese. Twitter is not at all popular in South Dakota among any age group or ethnicity, so I have almost no South Dakota followers. But I wanted to do a better job of spreading the news of our particular way of being the church to the larger Episcopal Church and really to the larger church in general. I’m also hedging my bets that Twitter may catch on here at some point so I wanted to already have a presence when it does.

Finally, I went with Instagram on the suggestion of some of the counselors who work at Thunderhead Episcopal Center, our summer youth camp. They pointed out that they saw people in the 18-25 demographic (in SD at least) much more likely to see Instagram posts than any other form of communication.

J: What challenges have you faced with using social media to spread both the Gospel and the news of the Diocese, and how have you responded to them?
C: I’ll say I’ve had two main challenges, one perceptional and one logistical. The perception problem has to do with ideas people have about social media demographics. There are folks who assume it’s only a “young person’s” thing. This drives me nuts because not only do I have data from our Diocese to show that people of all ages are on social media (and with a bell curve distribution of usage where the most active social media users are the youngest AND oldest in the Diocese), but more often than not these misconceptions come from people over 50 who are on Facebook all the time. My logistical problem has been in getting clergy and other church leaders to “share” the social media capital they have already established. Many of our local churches and faith communities already had well established social media presences with plenty of followers, but it’s been slow going getting them to buy-in to the Diocesan project. Now, there are some communities and individuals who have been awesome about re-posting our original content, engaging with us, sharing things they want to be posted, and asking people to follow or like our accounts, but there are just as many (or more) that inconsistently or only with much reminding will do these things to help promote our content.

J: One of the ways that I’ve seen the diocese use social media, specifically on Twitter, is by both retweeting and engaging with accounts both inside and out of the Episcopal Church as a whole. What drives this sort of engagement on social media?
C: You’re right to notice that Twitter is mainly where I share other folks’ stuff. This is in part an intentional strategy because of how I use the platforms differently. Facebook is mainly for our people, so it gets mostly original, tailored-for-the-Diocese content. I do cross-post on there, but Twitter is our outward-looking presence, so I want to engage as much as possible with that larger context, whether that be other denominations that we would normally work with and their affiliated institutions (ELCA, Roman Catholic, UMC), South Dakota or Native American advocacy groups, and particular individuals whom I find worth engaging. Then there’s just the practical dimension: we have so few of our own folks on Twitter that if I did only original content, I would be having a monologue rather than a dialogue, and that’s a bad use of the medium. This goes to a certain extent with intra-Episcopal sharing and engagement; we’re a small denomination and limiting engagement to only Episcopal related accounts is squandering a great opportunity to work with a much larger network of folks committed to our same project of making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.
I’ll touch on my Methodist engagement specifically. In some ways this is partly strategy; Methodists have a much larger and often a very well developed communications apparatus. But I don’t mean this to sound exploitative; I’m a former United Methodist who wants to see much closer work between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church. We have much to learn from each other, and I hope I’m helping do part of my ecumenical part with our Twitter presence.

J: What advice would you give to someone doing diocesan communication, either practical, encouraging, or cautionary?
C: It may be easiest to list the things I’ve learned in snippet form:

  • Don’t assume that because someone is young, they’re social media savvy. Don’t assume because they’re older that they’re not.
  • Do the work of finding out how your specific demographics (and those you want to attract) communicate and use social media. Don’t rely on anecdotal or uninformed assumptions or generalizations based on national trends that may not reflect your local reality.
  • Find the social media power users in your local communities. Create a Messenger or text group for them and give them a heads up before you’re going to post something big you want to share widely.
  • Be wary of trusting “best practices” that you find on Pinterest or with Google searches. Sometimes you’ll find good tips, but often you’ll just end up with a bland, generic, and predictable social media account.
  • Use lots of pictures. Good ones.
  • Develop a good (and social media friendly) visual identity.
  • Respond to people, respond personally, and respond quickly.
  • Know the middle ground politically/socially for your group and try to stick to it. This does NOT mean don’t take political stand; just avoid being hyper-partisan (in the context of your demographics and the people you want to attract).
  • Try to stick to the 1-5-15 rule when possible (1 post/day on Instagram, 5 on Facebook, and 15 on Twitter). Don’t under post. That’s worse than not having an account.
  • Find something you can offer that other folks in your niche don’t; conversely, if someone else already does something that can help your people, share it rather than reduplicating efforts.
  • Develop content and use platforms for people you want to attract, not just the ones already in your churches.
  • When possible, put people with expertise in other fields than graphic design or communications in charge of your social media (as long as they can teach themselves how to use those tools effectively). I create good content when I draw on my background in theology, philosophy politics, art, music, and languages have helped me create good content more than anything else; I create vapid, unhelpful content when I go on design principles alone.
  • Pay for Adobe Spark. It’s worth the investment.
  • Have your folks blog regularly (but appropriately) to round out your social media profile.
  • Use Facebook’s scheduling features for content that you post on a schedule. I use it for the daily Lectionary readings and our Diocesan Cycle of Prayer.
  • Don’t be afraid to occasionally throw in esoteric content that you think only appeals to you. That might just be the time you gain a follower who you wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

I want to thank Chris again for our email conversation, and I look forward to seeing what the Diocese does with their social media in the future! You can find them at episcopalchurchsd.org, on Facebook @episcopaldioceseofsouthdakota, on Twitter @DioceseSD, and on Instagram @episcopalchurchsd.

As with all of my posts, I hope this ends up being of some benefit to someone, and as always I appreciate any comments or questions.

Until next time,
Jacob

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