Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

A ‘social’ papacy

Published in Mar-Apr 2013
Social media lessons that can be taught by the Catholic Church.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

With the advent of social media and the age of digital, many marketing conventions have been turned on their head. For brands trying to differentiate themselves, pedigree doesn’t really matter that much and can in fact be a bit of a disadvantage. Many marketers, when faced with consumers who are more assertive and vocal than ever before, are finding it hard to adjust to the changes being forced on them. They say it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but any elderly canine would fail in a contest of stubbornness with these reluctant digital immigrants.

The general rule of thumb is that younger brands have a better chance at comprehending and using the IT age we live in. Older brands and companies which have fallen into a state of inertia when it comes to innovation, fail to realise that things have changed. This is why it is surprising that one of the oldest institutions around, the Catholic Church has embraced new media with all its advantages and pitfalls.

It may come as a surprise to find out that those eminent marketers, Ries and Trout, included a chapter on the Church in their seminal work Positioning. The Church they proposed could easily differentiate itself as the keeper of the Word of God. The reason to believe according to Ries and Trout was the Church’s long existence which gave it a stamp of authenticity. However I am sure even they would be surprised at the speed with which it has started using social media for its objectives.

Experiment, don’t discredit

What exactly can marketers learn from the Church about how to effectively use the plethora of new communication mediums that have arisen in the last 20 years? For one thing they can learn the importance of experimenting. Instead of discrediting social channels as a waste of time and effort, marketers need to experiment and try them out. For any entity to adapt and evolve, the push has to come from the top man. The now retired Pope had warned his Church leaders that “social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are not a virtual world they can ignore, but rather a very real world they must engage with if they want to spread the faith to the next generation.”

Don’t lose your voice

Many marketers while engaging in social media get caught up in fads and jump on the bandwagon of every meme or news item. The Pope’s Twitter page did not contain tweets about the Super Bowl or Psy. Any brand that wants to stand out needs to remember this in order to maintain its own voice and identity at all times. I came across an excellent example of a brand knowing how to leverage a meme and still maintain its originality. The 12-12-12 phenomenon was all over social media and many brands were trying to cash in on it; the one that succeeded was Sesame Street.

On the long anticipated day among the millions of tweets about triple 12, theirs stood out by miles.

They simply tweeted: “This day has definitely been brought to you by the number 12!”

Have clearly defined goals

Although some people may joke that the Church’s goal is obviously conversion, it has in fact, prepared a strategy, as a roadmap for the social media usage. The document is meant as a guide for worldwide Catholic organisations which are using social media and digital to spread the Gospel. The main objective is to engage with the young who are the main users of the new channels or the ‘digital continent’ as the Pope called the new culture of communications. The Pope also had a proper social media team that posted and tweeted on his behalf, yet many marketers try to save costs by asking regular employees to manage their social media channels, although experience has shown that it is better to hire a dedicated team to perform this job.

Choose where to engage

Although the Church is open to social media, the Pope had only recently joined Twitter and unlike many brands which equate being on social media with having a Facebook page, he was not on Facebook. Instead, a special networking site called Pope2you was launched in 2009. It is meant as a platform for direct interaction with the young; it has a Facebook and an iPhone application and runs on Silverlight. A look at Alexa stats for the site shows that more people in the 18-24 and 35-44 age groups visit the site than people in the of 25-34 age group. Brands need to look at different options; the general perception that Facebook as the number one social site globally automatically makes it the best choice for each region is erroneous.

The importance of speaking the same language

The Church’s social media sites are not only in English but also in other major languages. Pope2you for example has Dutch, English, French, Italian and Spanish versions. The Pope’s Twitter account posted in a number of languages, including Arabic, German and Polish. Any brand that wants to interact on social media needs to be present in the same languages the people are speaking.

Overall in Pakistan, Urdu advertising is present but the presence of brands in Urdu content online is probably at a minimum. The need for local content requires a lot of effort and any brand that makes the investment to develop this field will surely reap the rewards.

Don’t preach and beware of vanity metrics

The Pope had an impressive 800,000 plus followers before he started tweeting. Most brands would do anything to acquire that sort of mileage, but there is a disadvantage. Of the over 1.4 million followers the Pope had in January 2013, a sizeable number are there to attack him on a variety of issues. Also, digital experts often warn marketers against counting vanity metrics like Facebook likes or Twitter followers as a sign of social media success. The fact is that a vast majority of the people on a brand’s social media channel are not very active and do not promote the brand.

Another mistake made by the Church is that the Pope was not following anyone except his own Twitter accounts in languages other than English. The point of being on social media is to engage and by not engaging with the audience, then like many brands, he could have faced criticism or worse be labelled as only there to preach.

According to Martin Lindstrom’s research, successful brands activate the same areas of the brain as religion does. He spoke about how strong brands and religions share common traits. The Church’s foray into social media is only one aspect of its overall marketing journey. Perhaps in the future research will be done on its ability to attract the young around the world. For the moment it still has a lot to teach modern day marketers about how to use and misuse the digital age.

Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. tyrone.tellis@gmail.com

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