If you’ve got your finger on the church tech pulse, you might have been hearing about the latest craze, private social networks for churches.
Well, they’re not actually the latest craze.
Turns out churches have been trying to get private social networks to work for years, and without a ton of success. One study from 2009 that surveyed churchgoers showed at least 80% of them were not aware of any private social networks for churches.
Why can’t churches successfully implement their private networks? And just to be clear, what is a private social network? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Lucky for you, I’ve compiled this survival guide to private social networks for churches so you can decide if your church needs one, how to shop for it, and how to get past lift-off.
First of all, do you need a private social network?
It’s not a no-brainer. There’s no specific amount of congregants that guarantees you need a network, and they don’t have to all be under 30 either. However, networks tend to be great for mid to large churches that have a budget for technology and want to foster a strong sense of community in their church.
The reason private social networks were invented in the first place is similar to the reason Facebook was initially invented- to create an online space for a specific group of people to connect and share resources. Now that Facebook has become an incredibly open social network, some people are finding the need for smaller social networks that make group members feel secure, in more ways than one.
One of the good things about church social networks is that they can make your congregants feel safe, not only by providing the privacy Facebook often lacks, but by providing a space where they can share church-related content with church members specifically. Though some of your congregants might feel comfortable tweeting a prayer request, others might want prayer just as much but feel strange posting a request to non-Christian followers. There is no guarantee that a network will magically make your congregants more social or more tech savvy, but it will provide a place that has one purpose- connecting as members of one church body.
Additionally, church social networks can help keep all your event and small group information in one place designed specifically for that information. My mom, who works in her church’s office and uses their church social network every day, has explained to me that posting the same content on Facebook is just not as efficient or easy to keep track of, though there are certainly effective ways to use Facebook for your church. There is another reason the social network she uses is so handy, but I’ll get to that later. Basically, the functionality of church social networks tends to be more robust than that of Facebook, since there are often multiple pages for discussion, and a special page for events, rather than the timeline-based layout of a Facebook page.
However, even with all these perks, church social networks can easily fall into obscurity after implementation. They’re up against some stiff competition: the lives of many of your congregants are so saturated with social media, it’s hard to make them log in to another account, much less check it frequently. And the congregants who aren’t keeping up with our fast-moving internet lifestyles have the opposite problem: they don’t want to create a login to anything! That’s why, after you’ve decided to invest time and resources in a social network for your church, you have to shop wisely.
Questions to ask when shopping for a private social network for your church
1. Has it worked well for other churches?
As when shopping for any kind of software, make sure to check out their reviews and testimonials! A lot of social network options have been popping up recently, like The Table Project and Church.IO which is great, since you want to make sure your network is up to date, but make sure to seek out customers who have used those products for at least a few years as that will prove they can really be used for the long-term.
3. Should you go open source?
Another question you need to ask yourself when purchasing software, and especially relevant in this case since a number of options in the market are free and open source. However, it’s important to note that “free” doesn’t always mean free. But if you are looking to foster community and provide privacy in a church that doesn’t have a huge budget, testing out an open source solution can be a great place to start.
3. Can it go mobile?
And if it can, does it work for at least the Android and iOS operating systems? For a church social network to even come close to competing with Facebook and Twitter in your congregants’ lives, it definitely has to have at least a responsive site if not a native mobile app version. Thankfully, only more dated solutions tend to lack a responsive site, which is probably enough to strike them off your list anyway.
4. Does it integrate with other social networks?
The importance of this answer depends on your needs, but it is good to think about. You might find that the point of your network is its separation from Facebook, but on the other hand, you might want the efficiency of being able to share posts and events from your church network directly to Facebook. Both have their upsides.
5. Does it integrate with your church management system (ChMS)?
This is such an important question, I’m going to ask again: does it integrate with your church management system? As I mentioned above, my mom works with her church’s social network solution on a day-to-day basis, and when I asked her more about why Facebook isn’t good enough for what she does, her answer had a lot to do with its integration with their church’s ChMS.
One example she cited was making an event that church small group leaders had to RSVP to. Though this could be done on Facebook, with her private social network she was able to create a post for the small group leaders (who were already in the church’s membership database) and as they responded to the event, their responses were automatically stored in the ChMS so she didn’t have to keep checking the post for RSVPs and logging them into the ChMS manually.
Additionally, this type of integration allows for adding members to the network straight from your membership database, saving a lot of time.
One way you can ensure this kind of efficiency is to use a social network developed by the same people who developed your ChMS (in my mom’s case, The City by ACS Technologies). Other networks, like The Table, have been developed independently, but still offer integration with leading ChMS solutions. Unfortunately, there are not a ton of solutions currently available that integrate with ChMS so stay on the lookout!
6. Have you considered alternatives?
Though I would advocate for a church-specific social network, since there’s a better chance it will integrate with your ChMS, there are a lot more options out there if you are looking for private social networking software in general. Businesses have been trying to foster internal connections with software for even longer than churches, and because there’s more profit in that market, there are a lot more options. If you’re not satisfied with what you see in the church social network arena, try the Capterra social networking software directory.
7. Who’s going to implement it?
It’s a church office volunteer’s nightmare: juggling accounting, emails, and event planning, all on a part-time basis, when in walks the beaming pastor: “We just bought some new social networking software for the church! Can you get it up and running?”
Implementing a social network is a substantial task that requires patience and teamwork. Before you even think about clicking that download button, be sure you have the resources not only to implement your network but keep it rolling for the next few years.
What exactly does that look like?
Glad you asked!
It’s Time to Rock
Ok, you found it. Your dream network. The features, the design, the mission statement: it’s exactly what you asked for this Christmas. But you’ve heard some scary stories while shopping around: even leading products in the market have failed churches, and you wonder if that could happen to you. Does it take more than a fabulous product to foster community in your church?
Well, if you’ve had any experience with churches OR software, you know it does. Community doesn’t spring up when you snap your fingers, and even the best software is useless if you’re not ready to devote a little time to understanding it and using it as it was designed. Even cool church apps require some work to sustain the congregation’s interest.
Here’s what you need to do to make sure your church social network is a survivor.
- Listen to what your software providers are telling you. At the very least, your vendor has tips for how to implement their software, and some of them have very detailed implementation guides. The City has a great step-by-step plan on their site for how to implement their software over the course of several weeks, which is helpful to check out whether or not you buy their product.
- Have someone in charge. As I mentioned earlier, you need to at least have someone to help out with the implementation process, but you also need someone to continue to administrate after the network is off the ground. This article on why private social networks don’t work is pretty interesting, especially because one commenter talks about their own experience with why private social networks fail. The biggest reason? No one is taking ownership of them. Leaving your network completely up to your members is like holding youth group without a youth pastor- don’t expect a whole lot of participation.
- Get your leadership team involved. This is crucial, since if the product doesn’t work for the leadership team, it won’t work for anyone. Don’t get discouraged if your team doesn’t start posting furiously, just remind them to do their “homework” and switch activity over from channels like Facebook or email to the network. Having the support of experienced leaders will go a long way in creating hype for the network once you are ready to launch.
- Figure out your social network content policy. Unlike Facebook, your network exists for a specific community and for a specific goal: the church. Because of that, your guidelines for content should be hashed out during implementation, so you know how staff should present themselves and whether you want to monitor member content. Additionally, if your church has other social media accounts, decide how you want to share content on those respective platforms. Migrating a lot of your activity to the network is great, but your public social media is still the face of your church to the outside world, and that deserves some thought too.
- Promote it within the church after a soft launch. According to The City’s implementation guide, a soft launch should involve about 20% of your members. Once you’ve got plenty of activity going within that group, promote, promote, promote! Include links to the network on social media, put handouts in your church bulletin, have church leaders discuss their experience with the product, and send out emails with member information. Even after all your members are officially “online,” continue to mention the network in your weekly announcements and remind congregants to check there for more information. These things will help you hit “critical mass” with your social network.
- Have available support. Remember, not everyone is as tech savvy as you are. And the software providers may offer troubleshooting information, but they can’t help congregants with your content posting policy or finding a small group. Have someone set aside to help members use the network effectively.
- Make it indispensable. Ultimately if congregants don’t need to use your network, most of them won’t. Some of them might get excited about sharing resources with their small groups, but a lot of them need that extra shove. That means small group announcements go on the network, RSVPs happen on the network, and videos get shared on the network. Don’t forget about keeping the content on your website up to date of course, but for week-to-week activity, keep it on that network and don’t let anyone forget it’s there!
Ultimately there’s no special trick to implementing a private social network successfully in your church. It depends on available resources, the dynamics of your congregation, and the software you can find. However, these are some good pointers to help you on your quest for better community engagement. To check out some private social network options, check out the Capterra ChMS directory and search “social networking.” Happy hunting!
Header by Abby Kahler