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CommsCon 19: How the church went digital

5 days ago

The Church of England might not strike you as the most modern of institutions, but that’s not holding them back from embracing a clear and powerful digital presence.

At Cision’s CommsCon 2019 conference for PR professionals, we were treated to a great presentation from Adrian Harris – the church’s first ever head of digital – about how he’s helped the CofE to connect with people like never before.

How the Church of England transformed its digital presence

“You might be surprised that the words ‘church’ and ‘digital’ go together”, Adrian began before explaining how he’d joined the church in 2016 after previously been the head of digital at Bupa and at Tesco.

With 16,500 churches and 1.14 million regular worshipers, the Church of England is an enormous organisation, but the digital team has a three pronged approach for helping the church to reach out to people in the digital realm.

  • The team trains churches in the use of websites and social media, with 2,000 churches having been trained so far.
  • They run the church’s national social media accounts
  • They run the church’s national website

So far, so unremarkable: They’ve identified four different types of worshipper (young fathers, brides to be, irregular churchgoers, those exploring faith and regular churchgoers) and, like many other marketing companies would, they’re basing their digital strategy around their needs.

Importantly, Adrian explained that digital isn’t an end in itself; they want people to make a physical connection with the church. Their goal is to get people to attend church, attend regularly, and, ultimately, to have the confidence to invite others to do the same.

To do this, they’re working root and branch to remove the barriers which prevent or dissuade people from taking each of these steps, and the way they use their social media and website is key.

“Like a bad intranet from the 90s”

When Adrian started, the Church of England’s website was bad. Adrian explained that it looked “like a bad intranet from the 90s”, as if they’d “vomited everything about the church onto the page and hoped it would stick”.

Now, their website is clear, simple, easy to navigate and it shows the church in a much more favourable light. Adrian explained that people were confused by the old site, visiting it, leaving it and then finding what they wanted through Google instead.

The new site is far more image focused and it visibly represents the diversity of the church with entirely rewritten text and a totally rebuilt system. The new site was Plain English accredited too and all staff receive Plain English training as well as website training before their handed the log in details. Incidentally, Adrian explained, staff appreciate this level of caution as it helps them to see control over the website as a privilege that has to be earned after training.

An extensive collection of new photography and video content was created for the new site, and also to create a bank of resources which can be used by local churches. These can be used to help individual churches publicise their own campaigns and activities – far better than the low res, copyright infringing or tacky images which we might expect a small church group to rely on.

“Alexa, say a prayer”

One of the more surprising things the church has done recently is to create and Alexa smart speaker skill.

Stemming from an idea raised during a 24 hour hackathon the church hosted, Adrian and his team saw this as a massive opportunity, which wasn’t particularly difficult to create. The team digitised prayers and hymns and developed the skill which has proved very popular with Echo users: In just one year, the skill has been asked 100,000 questions, some of the most popular being:

  • “Read today’s ‘Easter pilgrim reflection’”
  • “Say a prayer”
  • “Explore the Christian faith”
  • “Say grace”
  • “Where is my local church?”

Needless to say, this fits in perfectly with Adrian’s goal of removing the barriers and making it easier for people to connect with religion. Adrian is confident that the skill has great potential for sharing faith within communities and they’ll be building on this in future. The skill will also be launched on Google Home very soon, enabling more smart speaker and smart home users to use it in the same way.

The skill also proved to be great PR for the church. Starting with videos of Archbishop of York, John Sentamu or Gogglebox vicar, Kate Bottley asking faith-related questions, the story secured widespread media coverage: BBC News, Daily Mail, Loose Women, The Times and even Fox & Friends in the US reported on the skill, provoking a discussion in the role that technology can play in faith as well as reaching out to new and different audiences.



Empowering digital churches

Obviously, the Church of England is large and diverse, but the clergy aren’t always the most technologically savvy and conversations about faith and religion can quickly turn vicious on social media.

To help maintain an appropriate voice and style across all churches and to help worshipers to do the same, Adrian’s team created a new digital charter. This is a set of voluntary guidelines and standards for people of all faiths and no faith what behaviour and language the church expects of them.

This might sound draconian, but the basic goals are simply to make social media a more positive place for conversations to happen without slipping into insults and falsehoods. The church asked people to make a pledge to, basically, not be rude and to engage in discussion in a respectful way. The team also created guidelines for blog content and social media posted by churches and church groups, helping them to communicate clearly, appropriately and effectively. As with the smart speaker skill, this too generated national news coverage and it was also debated in parliament.

One of the most transformational changes the digital team brought about was the reinvention of AChurchNearYou.com. This site, which asks as a directory and platform for every Church of England church around the country, was originally built by just one – very dedicated- person, so the team set about rebuilding it on a truly national scale.

The website now acts as a clear and easy to use point of entry for people who are seeking out ways of connecting with the church, making the whole process inviting and informative.

Working like a cross between Facebook and Wikipedia, each church can build and maintain their own page on the website using a template. It’s simple and easy to use and update, and it helps churches to make the information about them uncomplicated and easy to navigate.

The site also has the advantage of letting the team make use of Google Analytics to find out more about people access their service. In the last year, for instance, the site had 38 million pageviews and with 81% being new users. Interestingly, their busiest time was always on Sundays at 8am – just before the regular weekly service. Based on this, they decided to encourage churches to share more content on their social media channels before each service to further break down barriers and bring people into the church at a key time of the week.

Learning from faith

When we think of institutions like the Church of England, it’s easy to overlook the fact that they share many similarities with the businesses we work with in PR and marketing.

Many companies have their offices just as spread out as churches and it’s common for people in these offices to feel bamboozled by social media and digital communications platforms which often get overlooked or neglected. 

Whether it’s a faith, business, charity or other organisation, breaking down the barriers to entry and helping people to connect is an important goal for PR and marketing. Just as we seek to help our clients draw their target customers to their website, social profiles, or physical shop or location, the Church does the same with potential worshippers.

The steps that the Church of England has taken are a great example of how even the most traditional and low-tech organisation can make tremendous steps forward in improving their digital presence to reach and connect with people.