Hi, this is a workshop called “Spreading UUism Using New Media.” I’ll quickly introduce myself. I’m Dan Harper, and I’m serving as the minister of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. We’re a small church that’s trying to grow, and using new media is important part of our growth strategy. Before I became a minister, I worked in sales, and I also have a background in visual arts, and half a degree in creative writing.
Peter Bowden was also supposed to be here as my co-presenter. Peter is an independent television producer and consultant. However, last month Peter got a job working on a project for public television which is requiring him to work seven days a week, so he was unable to attend General Assembly.
What we hope to do during this workshop is tell you how your congregation can use new media — like Web sites, video, recorded music, and so on — to spread the word about what your congregation is doing, and what you stand for.
And I do mean “we,” because although Peter isn’t here, he is here — not in spirit, but on video. Peter created a video introduction to new media, which gives much (but not all) of the information I’m about to present; and the video also includes information that I’m not going to cover today. So while Peter isn’t here, you’re going to get two workshops in one — this in-person workshop, and a video workshop. The video will be available online at Peter’s Web site, www.uuplanet.tv — not only that, but the text of this in-person presentation will be available on my blog, www.danielharper.org/blog — in other words, we are not only telling you how to use new media, we are using new media to tell you how to use new media!
[Link to the video version of the talk coming soon.]
2. What is “new media”?
Let’s begin by describing and defining some of the new media that you can use.
We’ll start with blogs. A blog is a form of content management system onto which contributors can easily post various kinds of content in reverse chronological order, and which is syndicated to allow subscriptions. Blogs typically (but not always) allow reader feedback through commenting and pingbacks.
OK, that definition is full of geek talk, solet me translate it into plain English so you can feel the true power of blogs. A blog allows users to easily post content, all kinds of content including text, photos, audio, and video — and when I say “easy,” I mean easier than using Microsoft Word. A blog is organized in reverse chronological order — that means the end-users always see the freshest content first. Blogs allow readers or viewers or listeners to subscribe — that means the reader or viewer or listener gives you permission to send your content directly to them on a regular basis. Blogs allow feedback and comments — that means that blogs are not a passive experience, they draw end-users in and engage them actively.
All this means that blogging is one of the best ways to get your message out to your intended audience.
In terms of spreading Unitarian Universalism, you need to know about three main types of blogs.
First, there are basic text-based blogs. This is where the blog owner writes some text and posts it on her or his blog. Right now, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist text-based blogs, ranging in quality from excellent to — meh.
Second, there are podcasts, or audio blogs. Here, the blog owner posts audio recordings which you can listen to online, or which you can download onto your portable mP3 player and listen to at your leisure. Right now, there are dozens of UU podcasts, most of which are audio recordings of sermons, and some of which are actually worth listening to.
Third, there are video blogs or vlogs. Most video blogs post short videos online, and by short I mean less than five minutes. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person with a UU-themed video blog.
2 B. Music
We’ve talked about blogs, now let’s talk about online music. Unitarian Universalists tend to be very word-oriented, and so when we think about new media there’s this tendency to focus on word-based new media such as text-based blogs, podcasts of sermons, and the like.
But music is one of the most powerful ways to get your message out. Music engages a whole different form of human intelligence than word-based new media. When someone listens to a song or other piece of music, they are engaging both heart and mind — and good music has the potential to actually change the way we think. We can talk a bout UU values all we want, but when you hear a song by Utah Phillips or Pete Seeger, both of whom are Unitarian Universalist singer-songwriters whose songs embody UU values, those UU values sink into your soul in a whole ‘nother way.
So I have become a big advocate of spreading our values through music. If you do sermon podcasts, why not add a choir podcast? — and I’ll bet more people will listen to your choir podcast than the sermon podcast.
The big issue around music is copyright. You may not record copyrighted music unless you pay a fee to or get permission from the copyright holder. Many of the songs in our hymnal are copyright-protected. But you can record music that’s in the public domain, generally including all music written before 1921 and other public domain music — that means you can record most classical music, spirituals, shape-note songs, and many old-favorite hymns. Or if you know a singer-songwriter who writes UU-friendly music, record some of their songs!
And you can distribute the music via your Web site — or better yet, on iTunes, or via MySpace or other musician-friendly sites.
2 C. Web sites
Another form of new media is the basic Web site. I’m not going to get into Web sites much — it’s a big topic, and there are plenty of resources out there on creating Web sites.
But I do want to make an obvious point. Web sites includes much more than official church Web sites. If our goal is to spread Unitarian Universalism, there’s no reason for us to limit ourselves to spreading UUism via official church Web sites. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is also a Unitarian Universalist. He has several personal Web pages on the Web site of the Wolrd Wide Web Consortium, the organization he works for, and one of the Web pages is titled WWW, UU, and I, where he tells why he believes the World Wide Web is just like Unitarian Universalism.
Yes, your church should have a good Web site. But don’t forget that you can also add Unitarian Universalist content to your own personal Web site.
D. Email lists
The email list is an old form of new media, and it is still useful today. But email lists are pretty limited, so you have to b e careful what you use them for.
Here’s what email lists do well:– email lists are very good at communicating short nuggets of emotion-free information. If you want to get a short reminder announcement out to lots of people very quickly, send that information via an email list — just be sure that what you send out is short, probably less than 125 words, and be sure that your subject line describes exactly what’s in the body of the email message. Remember that most of us who have email suffer from information overload — I will spend about one and one half seconds on a message from an email list. If you get permission to use someone’s email address to send out church announcements, use that email address as sparingly as possible — maybe once a month, or less frequently — so you don’t overload them!
The so-called listserv, an automated form of email list, used to be very popular. But recently, I’ve been seeing more and more people opting out of such automated email lists, with the unfortunate result that some of the automated email lists I used to enjoy now seem to be populated entirely by crackpots and cranks. I have to be honest with you — I don’t think email lists are a particularly good way to promote Unitarian Universalism any more.
2 E. Conventional video
Finally, although I’m mostly talking about new media based online, on the Internet, I want to be sure to mention conventional video. There are still lots more people who watch conventional television than who watch online video. Therefore, it is worth considering producing video programs for your local cable access channel. Some Unitarian Universalist churches videotape their worship services, and then edit it down to a 30 minute show including the sermon, some readings, and perhaps some copyright-free music. They then get this video aired on the local cable access channel. This can be a great way to reach certain demographic segments, and is worth considering.
The only downside to conventional video is that it tends to be more difficult to produce than other forms of new media. If you’re going to produce video worth watching on TV for 30 minutes, you should have good video production skills.
3. Case study of a church that has used new media to attract newcomers
Now that I’ve introduced you to different types of new media, let me give you a case study on how we have used new media to promote Unitarian Universalism at First Unitarian in New Bedford.
When I arrived at First Unitarian as their new minister in 2005, the congregation was quite clear that the church needed to grow. If we were going to grow, we knew that the first thing we needed to do was to attract visitors to come and check us out.
The congregation had a small budget for advertising. We decided that we would devote that ad budget to running weekly ads in the local daily newspaper. Additionally, we found a volunteer — a woman who had worked in marketing communications and as a writer before she retired — and this volunteer wrote up regular press releases for local newspapers and broadcast media. So we covered traditional media first.
Then I took a look at the church Web site. We didn’t have a volunteer to be the Webmaster, so I became the Webmaster. My first step was to commit to posting that week’s sermon title on the front page of the Web site each and every week, except when I went on vacation. I also spent one work day, eight hours, going over the site from top to bottom, to make sure all the information was up-to-date, and reflected who we really were at that time. Those simple steps caused traffic at our Web site to double in six months, and increase four-fold over two years. More to the point, the number of visitors coming on Sunday morning had increased dramatically, from not many, to an average of three a week this past year. How did those visitors hear about us? None of them had seen our ads in the newspaper. About half of them had looked at our Web site before coming to church — the younger the newcomer, the more likely that they found out about us through the Web. Even a crappy, home-made-looking Web site can accomplish a lot — if you just take the time to make sure the content is fresh and accurate.
Furthermore, I have my own personal blog, and there’s a link from the church Web site to my blog. Newcomers and visitors have told me that they checked out my blog before coming to church; and this is especially true of newcomers under the age of forty.
Not only that, but our music director has a personal Web site where he has posted audio recordings of music he has played at our church — I don’t know how many newcomers have checked out his online music, but my guess is that quite a few of them do. Next fall, we’ll probably ask his permission to post some of his audio files directly on the church Web site.
A final example of how we use new media to welcome newcomers: We bought something like fifty copies of the Voices of a Liberal Faith DVD that the UUA put out, and we give them out to newcomers. They cost us less than five bucks a disc. And if you think that sounds like a lot of money, you have to realize that one crummy tiny newspaper ad in the local paper costs over three hundred and fifty dollars a week, and gets absolutely no response for us. If you buy in bulk, those DVDs go for two bucks apiece. So all we have to do is stop advertising for one week, and we can use that money to buy nearly two hundred DVDs. Those DVDs work, too — newcomers look at them, and like what they see, and they come back.
4. Making an online video about UUism in the workshop
Now, to show you how easy it is to produce new media, and to encourage you do do some on your own, we’re going to film an online video right here and now. The title of this video is “My UU elevator speech.” I’m going to ask for some volunteers to come up here and be videotaped while you give your elevator speech.
And if you want to know more about making online videos — or more about podcasting, or just about any form of online new media — you should think about attending Podcamp. Held in many cities around the world, Podcamps are unconferences where you can learn about new media. Click here to learn about Podcamp.
5. Incorporating existing new media resources into current outreach efforts
Finally, if you feel intimidated by the thought of creating new media content yourself, I want to tell you that you don’t have to create anything yourself — yet you can still use new media to promote Unitarian Universalism.
I already told you how you can use the video “Voices of a Liberal Faith.” These DVDs are cheap. Why not buy half a dozen, and give them out to people whom you think might want to see them? For example, you could do what one person in our church did — she sent one of the DVDs home to her family to show what kind of church she had joined.
Or if you like to read other people’s blogs, why not take the plunge and start commenting on those blogs, and identifying yourself as a UU. For example, if you read a political blog, you could comment and talk about how equal marriage rights are important to you because of your religion.
Or when you find a cool online video about UUism, you could send a link to that video to your friends. So you could, for example, check out my blog and when I post this elevator speech video that we just taped, you can send the link to your friends and say, “Hey, check me out, I’m on this cool online video!”
In other words, you can promote UUism through new media in all kinds of fun and creative ways. Hey, what are you waiting for — go out and do it!