From the cross to the coven, spiritual seekers are going high-tech.
‘The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow,” said Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft. If that’s true, then that town square is lined with all manner of churches, synagogues, mosques, shrines and temples.
And just as the Internet has allowed small mom-and-pop shops to compete with big retailers, so too have faiths with smaller followings been able to share their messages online by using the same tactics employed by larger, more established spiritual sects.
Following are a few of the strategies used by faiths of all shapes and sizes to communicate with their respective members and drive repeat traffic to their sites.
Because what’s worthwhile news to one person isn’t necessarily relevant to someone else, traditional news outlets don’t tend to focus on events affecting any one group of people. If you’re interested in news directly related to your faith, you might have to wait a while for the reporters to get around to it.
Realizing this gap in mainstream news media, some faiths have made news delivery an integral part of their Web sites’ missions.
For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the news section of its Web site serves two distinct purposes. Linked off the homepage (www.elca.org), the news mini site is foremost a resource for the media, with the latest ELCA press releases posted daily. But interest in Lutheran news isn’t limited to the media, says John Brooks, director of news services at Chicago-based ELCA. To address topics that aren’t necessarily newsworthy but are nonetheless relevant to clergy and members of the church, Brooks launched a news blog on the site last year.
“The blog was specifically designed as a way to tell institutional news, news about our colleges or a particular event that we know would have great meaning to members of the church, but not members of the press,” Brooks says. “It’s intended to be a supplement to the main news pieces, and we have a few hundred people who are reading that blog specifically each day.”
For faiths that serve an admittedly smaller niche, news delivery is even more important. Fritz Jung, Web and database developer for The Witches’ Voice, a Clearwater, Fla.-based online community for witches and other pagans (www.witchvox.com), notes, “Ten years ago, the community had been at the mercy of a half dozen magazines, but now we’re able to provide news and networking to the global neo-pagan community online.”
And for a site that updates its regular features just once a week like The Witches’ Voice, daily news updates keep site content fresh, which is important for search engine optimization, Jung says. At the time of this writing, Google searches for “witch,” “witch news” and “pagan news” return witchvox.com in the top five results.
It’s a subtle shift, but little orange boxes are popping up all over the Web. RSS, denoted by the orange rectangle circumscribing its eponymous logo, is an alternative content-delivery system. Individuals with RSS readers automatically are informed of whether their favorite sites have been updated and view the updates on the reader, rather than at the site providing the content.
Although use of the readers is growing, it’s important to realize RSS isn’t going to replace traditional delivery methods overnight. ELCA’s Brooks polled the 5,500
people on his news e-mail list to learn their views on RSS. As it turns out, 90 percent of those polled didn’t even know what RSS is. Even still, 3,000 users have signed up for a daily Bible verse RSS feed, and 1,000 users receive prayer requests the same way.
Jung points out that most witchvox.com users tend to be exceptionally Web savvy. For any given article or news update on the site, members viewing the content via RSS outnumber those viewing the content on the site nearly 10 to one, he notes.
But RSS isn’t the only way to syndicate Web content. Chabad.org, a site run by the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish movement based in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes its content available to more than 800 local Lubavitch Web sites using its proprietary content-management software.
These local sites, run by synagogues, Chabad offices or college groups, are able to customize which content is used and how it’s presented. Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of Chabad.org says, “We want to help Jews — wherever they are, whatever their station in life — discover the beauty of Judaism, so it fits perfectly with our mission to deliver content to these sister sites; it doesn’t matter if they visit our site, so long as they get access to the information.”
Not limited to news, Chabad.org syndicates an array of content, including lifestyle, parenting and spiritual topics.
But content syndication doesn’t necessarily require a complex content-management system. Brooks notes that ELCA offers a pared-down version of syndication, allowing 3,000 affiliated Lutheran Web sites to run recent headlines from the ELCA news site using a line of code inserted into the local sites’ HTML.
These days it’s not so much a question of whether you should be e-mailing the patrons of your site, but how often and what you should be sending.
The answer, according to Brooks, is to e-mail as often as you have something to say that matches what your users have asked for. Among its e-mails, ELCA sends
up-to-the-minute news releases, daily Bible readings, weekly or monthly newsletters on topics such as evangelism or outdoor ministries, and event-specific missives such as disaster-response letters.
Each e-mail is sent only to those members who have specifically subscribed to it. As such, ELCA currently maintains 18 different lists of e-mail addresses. Every newsletter collects e-mail addresses on its own section of the site, and each list is maintained separately.
Chabad.org offers more than 30 subscriptions, each addressing different aspects of Jewish life. Shmotkin notes that the site has simplified the e-mail address collection process by listing all of the subscriptions, as well as the frequency of each missive, on the same page that users submit their contact information. Users then select as many subscriptions as they like.
Regardless of the method they use to collect and maintain e-mail addresses, both Brooks and Shmotkin point out the importance of sending only relevant
content that their users have specifically requested.
“I can’t overstate the importance of having an assortment of ‘meaty’ content areas for an array of people coming from a variety of backgrounds,” Shmotkin says. “Our site has enormous staying power for that reason.”
In each issue of eM+C, MarketWatch will examine the online techniques marketers are using to reach consumers with specific interests, with the understanding that marketers of all types can learn from them.