More churches are on Twitter, but are they listening?

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, more and more churches are hopping onto Twitter and it’s becoming quite common to see the blue [T] icon in the corner of church home pages.  But with all of those churches on Twitter, are they really listening? Or are they treating it as simply another way to push information out to people?

There’s only one good way to find out for sure — test them!  I searched for churches in the Atlanta area that met two simple criteria:

  • I didn’t include any churches that I work with. I consult with a handful of area churches on their website and/or social media, so I excluded those.
  • They had to have a link to their Twitter account on their home page. I know a lot of churches have probably dabbled with Twitter a bit, but I figure if you’re going to put a link to it on your home page, you’re probably pretty serious about it.

With that in mind, I found 11 churches in the Atlanta area that fit the bill.  All had tweeted at some point in the past month, and most had tweeted within the last day or two.

The Test

I have a handful of Twitter accounts that I’ve used for various things over the years (old websites, testing, etc), so I used a different account for each church so that they wouldn’t see the same message posted to 10 other churches.  The message was simply:

@ChurchName What time are your services this Sunday?

I posted it around 2:20pm on Thursday, giving them plenty of time to respond before the Sunday services. Easy enough.  If they’re paying attention, it’ll take them about 10 seconds to respond.  So were they listening?

The Results

There were a few categories of results.

First, you had the churches that failed to reply, and in fact never even tweeted in the few days since I tried to reach them:

Next, you had the churches that failed to reply, even though they posted a few times since I tried to reach them:

Next, you had the churches that failed to reply, even though they posted a few times since I tried to reach them and there were multiple tweets which mentioned them that they failed to respond to:

Finally, we have our one winner.  It’s shocking and pathetic that only one out of eleven churches even bothered to reply, but they did a great job:

Roughly two hours after I sent the tweet, I received an excellent response from them:

@CelebNewsNet This Sunday we’ll have service at 9:00, 10:30 am, & 5:00 pm. You can even watch live online at http://apostles.org.

Not only did they reply promptly and with accurate information, they told me how I could watch online.  Excellent job!

Conclusion

So there you have it.  Pretty pitiful, huh?  Remember, these weren’t just any churches; they were churches that were actively promoting their Twitter account on their home page.

Resolving this isn’t too difficult.  I’m guessing most of those churches didn’t intentionally ignore my tweet; they simply never saw it.  There are hundreds of ways you can track this kind of thing, but here are a few to get you started:

  • Tweetdeck: Keep it running on your system all the time.  You can follow people you want to watch, add your Facebook stream, etc, but you can also view your mentions.  That’s key, and it’s built-it.
  • Social Oomph: If you don’t have screen space or enough memory to run Tweetdeck 24/7, then sign up for a service like Social Oomph.  They’ll send you a daily report when someone mentions your account (or even simply your church name) so you’ll know you need to log on and respond.

What about your church? If a tweet like this came your way, would you see it?

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Mickey Mellen

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Comments

  1. Good test. Would be nice to see with more churches, but I bet the stats. would be pretty similar. It’s the reason I don’t have a twitter account for the church that I’m part of. I know the expectation is for immediacy on twitter, and with just one of me, I don’t think I can provide it. I also see it as a problem of self-examination. One church in my area tweets throughout the day, but it’s just bible quotes, over and over. They obviously aren’t interested in conversation.

    • Gary — I agree that a wider test would be helpful; I’ve gotta think that more than 9% (1 of 11) would actually respond, especially when the list of churches all showcase their Twitter account on their home page.

      Time is certainly a factor, which is where a service like Social Oomph could be useful — daily reports (and therefore daily responses) would be far better than most churches.

  2. Thanks for this work.

    Yes, the stats are small. But this turns out not to be all that different than when studies were done a few years ago on whether churches responded to phone calls “after hours.” In that study, a great number of the churches had no answering device at all, and for the majority of those that did, calls were rarely followed up on.

    I think Gary is right about part of the problem. Time. While the meme for decades has been that pastors only work one hour a week, that’s of course not the case– and much of the work of pastors is out in the field in face to face conversations, away from social media. And when they’re “in” the office, much of that work requires more solitary time than interaction.

    At least that’s the case for the way most pastors I know in my denomination (United Methodist) are expected to organize their time…

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • Taylor — Thanks for your input.

      Regarding time, at least with most of these churches, they have tons of staff. This isn’t an issue of the pastor being out in the field (which is great, of course) — these are big churches with staff specifically dedicated to the website.

      Using Johnson Ferry as an example, they’ve got two people in “web services” and two more in “technology” (as per their directory: http://www.johnsonferry.org/directory.aspx). I assume this would fall to the web services people, but I can’t say for sure. Granted, I’ve worked in a church on a small team of web people — I know there’s a LOT to do and it can get quite busy. However, it seems that this would be pretty important for a team in that role.

      I know of some pastors that have used social media to greatly enhance their face-to-face conversations by keeping in touch with the congregation online throughout the week. However, that becomes a pretty substantial time investment for sure and I wouldn’t expect most small churches to be too active on Twitter. In that case, they probably wouldn’t promote their Twitter account on the church home page either. 🙂

      • Mickey,

        Congregations with that level of staffing are, of course, the exception, something like “The 1%.” For “The 99%” of congregations that cannot afford such staffing, including (in my denomination) the 74% in the US with an average weekly worship attendance less than 100, typically the most staff available are a full or part-time pastor and perhaps a part time church secretary. For many of these congregations, as well, the salary is fairly low and reimbursements may not cover the cost of a smartphone or a text messaging plan for the pastor.

        So this sort of leads to another question– might the capacity to access social media be creating or exacerbating a “have versus have-not” kind of divide among congregations?

        • Taylor — That’s a great point. Like many other aspects of a church (sound system, computers, etc), bigger churches are typically able to do more because they have more money. Social media is a bit of an equalizer because it doesn’t cost any real money, but time is certainly a factor.

          The cool thing about Twitter is that you don’t need a smart phone to manage it. The smartphone apps certainly make it easier, but Twitter was started as a text message-based service, and still supports all of that functionality. You’d have to use it differently, but for putting your message out and responding to replies, texting works just fine.

          Another point is that this test only included churches that advertised their Twitter account on their home page. If you put it there, you’d better be equipped to respond to inquiries.

          • I agree that if a congregation posts a Twitter account on its website, it better be ready to use it.

            As for Twitter via SMS– even texting plans are often not reimbursed to pastors in many churches. $10-$20/month may not sound like much of an expense for a pastor to accrue to have a texting plan, but on the low salaries of many of these pastors, it actually can become a burden. And when the church WILL reimburse the phone service but will NOT reimburse a texting plan, it becomes harder for the pastor to justify that cost as a business expense for tax purposes, either.

            I raise this simply to bring a sense of economic realities of many pastors to this conversation.

            And perhaps also economic realities of many folks in the pews.

            Participating in the “social media-ted” world is not free. The digital divide is real. While social media may give those who can use it some boosts up among each others, it remains important for churches, especially, to engage in practices that keep those on the other side of that divide fully in the loop as much as possible.

          • Taylor — I thought about that after I posted it. While most people have texting plans on their phones, not everyone does.

            To go another angle, I rarely use Twitter on my phone at all — I do most everything via the web. That eliminates costs, assuming the pastor has a computer with web access, but still doesn’t help with the time management piece of it. From there, it’s simply a matter of priorities, which is different for every church.

          • You may be presuming all pastors have Internet access if their congregations have a website. Internet access remains problematic or prohibitively expensive in a lot of rural areas of the US. Meanwhile, many judicatories will provide free hosting for congregational websites.

            Meanwhile, we still have places where the choices are dialup, satellite or smartphone. Of these, smartphone may be the cheapest– but still out of reach of the pastor in terms of cost. There are still places (and we have congregations there!) where even dialup access requires long distance charges. (Yes, VOIP typically provides free long distance, but that presumes broadband and that’s what goes missing!).

            No matter what, this is pay to play. If you don’t have the pay, you can’t play. Or at least you can’t play much, or easily.

            It really may be better for congregations that cannot afford to enable at least their staff to participate fully in web-based and mobile communications not to accept free website offers. Perhaps even having a website communicates some expectation of “on demand response” that these congregations, and perhaps a good number of people in them. may not be able to afford to provide.

            I do realize the digital divide is not the subject of this post– so I apologize for the degree I may be diverting from that with my responses today.

            But I do think there is reason for significant theological and pastoral attention by churches and our leaders to the actual costs involved, and in the process being sure not to leave folks out or leave folks behind who cannot or should not responsibly take these costs on.

            Perhaps access to the Internet and mobile communications has become the new “pew rent” of the 21st century.

      • Ha ha, no doubt!

        I think it’s an opportunity for education. You don’t need to check back on twitter obsessively…but if people made it a part of their daily workflow, they’d catch it.

        Beyond that, you can get @mentions pushed via twitter clients to the phone of whoever manages the account.

        They can also be pushed to SMS.

        Or save the search for “@whateverchurchname” as a google alert to monitor.

        Turn the feed for that google alert into email notifications through google alerts.

        Save the twitter search for “@whateverchurchname” as an RSS feed, burn it with feedburner, and then subscribe the email address of whoever should be monitoring that account.

        But in the end, people have to want to learn. And want to listen.

  3. Great and interesting post. Yeah, sad results. I was thinking of myself and my church. We have a Facebook and Twitter account and their synced together. So I update from our facebook page, and it gets automatically updated to our twitter. I rarely log on directly to the church twitter page. So I wonder if those churches are using a similar setup. After reading this, though, I wanted to take a step to make sure and address it. I’m going to experiment with adding my church twitter to Google alerts to see if that will work.

    Don’t know too much about social oomph, but it sounds like it might work well also for those purposes.

    Thanks!

    • Rodlie — I think that’s the main problem for most churches; they auto-post to Twitter, so they never check for mentions.

      Google Alerts is probably a good idea. If you do that, let me know how it works out because it might be a good suggestion to give to others.

      The new notification system in the Twitter iPhone app could be helpful too, as I think it now includes @ mentions along with other alerts.

  4. I’m going to take issue with the “if they were paying attention it would take them 10 seconds to respond” comment. I think they can still be “paying attention” and reply after more than 10 seconds have gone by. 10 seconds means they are glued to their computer/mobile device allll the time, and that’s not good either. Realistically, I’d say that if the person who takes care of the church’s Twitter account (probably *not* the senior pastor, btw) checks it at least once a day, they’re good.

    (Of course, 10 out of your 11 churches still failed in this, too- which is pretty bad.)

    • Lisa — I agree completely. I didn’t mean to imply that they should respond WITHIN 10 seconds; most Twitter clients don’t even refresh that quickly. I simply meant that WHEN they have time to respond, it’ll only take about 10 seconds of their time to do so. I think a response within a day or two would be acceptable.

      In whatever manner they check Twitter (web, Tweetdeck, etc), they could just click [reply], type “9:30 and 11am. Hope to see you there!” and click [send]. 10 seconds! 🙂

  5. Thanks for the clarification, mickey- I did misunderstand.

    I was really interested in this little “test” you did- sheds some light on some good things that we need to pay attention to in ministry!

  6. Could the problem be a simple one of education for some of these churches?

    I only use Twitter a bit and it’s a personal account, so I’ve never thought about someone I’m not following trying to reach me. Until I read this post today, I hadn’t recognized that the @name at the beginning of the tweet is just like any other “mention” and directs the tweet into the “@mentions” tab instead of the “timeline” tab.

    • Mary — Yes, it’s very much a problem of education. However, that’s why I only chose churches that featured their Twitter account on the home page of their site. If you’re going to be doing that, I fully expect you to understand at least the basics of the service.

      All of these businesses want reach more people, so they need to be ready for that reach to happen. In the case of churches, I’m guessing their get a lot more “mentions” than they expect. I manage help manage the Twitter account for our church, and we get a few random mentions each week from people saying things like “great sermon” or “loved the music”. Missing those would be missing a great opportunity to connect, especially if they’re a first time visitor.

  7. Mickey–
    Thanks for this great (if sad) post. In my forthcoming book with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012), we talk about digital ministry as “networked, relational, and incarnational.” This trinity is expressed in practices of Listening, Attending, Connecting, and Engaging (LACE–a middle I developed for Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, 2011). You’ve hit the nail right on the head here, and your own attempt at “lace-ing” with churches in your community is admirable. It’s wonderful that one church DID listen and respond in the direction of connecting. However, inviting you to listen to the webcast is inviting you to NOT attend the church. And, it’s still a broadcast message–there’s no acknowledgement of you as a person (e.g., Hey, we love your blog! Tx for following!). But, it’s a start.

    It’s important to move in the direction of incarnation–to encourage the relationships we’re cultivating online to extend to offline engagement. It’s also great to get a personal rather than institutional response. I wonder how your study would work out with individual ministers (lay and clergy) and self-identified Christians in general. How much are any of us really oriented toward meaningful connection versus marketing-style messaging?

    Again, really great post! I’m grateful to @JustinWise for sharing it, and will certainly pass it along.

  8. I liken it to answering the phone at the church. I know my church values having someone personally answer the phone, so I believe we should have the same view of Twitter and FB. We have done well the few times someone has reached out to us using social media, but this is a great reminder to not get complacent about it.

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