How Might Religious Leaders Leverage the Web?

While recording a podcast yesterday (WebBeet no. 2) I surprised everyone, including myself, by flying into a technicolor rant. Religion, politics and the web. It’s heady stuff. Specifically I was venting about the websites for the two candidates currently running for the office of President of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Association of Congregations: Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales.

Unlike like most UU websites, these are both somewhat attractive and attempt to use the new media, with hat tips to blogging, YouTube and even Facebook. But the bar for candidates on the Web was set by Obama some time ago, and by this measure they both fall far short.

First, I’ll run through three quick and simple changes both could make to their sites, and then I’ll get to the more serious issues.

Quick Fixes

1. Stop the non-stop slideshows on the home pages. Most web users dislike endless animations. The photos on both sites are fine, but I’d strongly recommend adding a stop command after about three or four photos. Then I’d switch some or all of the photos out every few weeks.

2. Improve the contact forms. Hallman has a good big “Contact” button in her main menu, but the text box for actual comments is very small, suggesting she doesn’t really want to hear much from you. Moreover, when you fill it out, you don’t get clear acknowledgement that your message has been received. Morales has a “Contact us” email in the footer of all pages. The footer is where people will often look, so that’s good, but it’s in a small font, suggesting they too would just as soon not hear from you either. That said, the Morales campaign replied promptly when my church used this email recently.

3. Shrink the photos of the candidates. Did you ever notice how small the photos of Obama and Biden were on their site during the campaign? At first I was surprised, and then realized it was brilliant. It meant the focus of the site wasn’t really Obama – it was you, the site visitor, the person who might vote or donate. Plus it made room for other content in that prime real estate. On UU campaign sites, what do the visitors most want and need to see? Clear position statements are essential, and both have that, but might it not also be comfort and hope? Might it not be ministry?

A Shift in Understanding

Those are the easy things to talk about. The hard part, of course, is what’s more important. To oversimplify, neither candidate really knows how to use Web 2.0, in particular social media. They both talk growth, but they aren’t communicating effectively to the base that swelled Obama’s ranks – the younger generations. And it’s not just the 20 and 30-somethings they are missing. It’s anyone who gets the Web.

UUs can be proud that our faith attracts the technoscenti in unusually large numbers. But that said, do we live up to it? We can attract such people sometimes, but can we engage them? Neither of these candidates does – yet. The funny thing is, nor should they. I learned long ago that there is, roughly speaking, an inverse correlation between first-rate ministry and technological-know-how.

Rather, what they need is to find someone they each can trust in this arena – and work with that person. I would advise both candidates to put a technological visionary on their team and turn not just this aspect of their campaign over to him or her, but once elected, be sure to channel that vision into the denomination. UUism needs it. Desperately. To quote a recent (and excellent) presentation I went to, “The Internet is Our Parish.”

Here are some Web 2.0 things I hope for.

  • A UU podcast that speaks to me. I don’t mean yet another sermon-cast. Ho hum. That’s trying to mold the ‘net to old faith models rather than molding faith to the new models. All I’m asking for is a five minute podcast, perhaps every-other-day, with a meditation or thought for the day. We have roughly a bazillion brilliant orators in UUism. Can’t one of them do this?
  • Twitter feeds from UU leadership.
  • Targeted, informative, ministerial email newsletters that are easy to subscribe to.
  • Websites that collect feedback in meaningful ways and build new, virtual UU communities.
  • And of course, the Obama signature technology — highly selective blast texting — at just the right moment.

Were I to see such things I would know the future for my faith is bright.

7 Responses

  1. I don’t understand the web the way you do, but I think you are on to something important. Thanks so much.

  2. brilliant observations and insights, anna belle ~ thank you! i’m not too swift a user either, but i do recognize good ideas when i see them. amazingly few of us realize that uu (sir) tim berners-lee got the www going in the first place…. odd, isn’t it?

  3. Thanks so much, Suzanne and Theadora.

    Tim B-L is wonderful. I was just reading that his organization (the W3C) is starting something called the Social Web Incubator Group. I picture amazing 2.0 ruminations emanating from them.

  4. I appreciate your insight, but I have some questions.

    Have the presidential candidate web sites changed since this evaluation?

    I see Laurel is using and rss feed, YouTube and Facebook, which are prominately displayed. She also has a listserv. I think her header could be much smaller – when I scrolled down to see only the top links at the top, it seemed like the right look – I happen to like the slideshow.

    Peter’s site is quite different and, though I prefer his big banner (there’s more information & less blank space, though not too busy), the rest of his home page is pretty busy, making harder to find important information. A blog (though the rss feed is not available at the top of the page) & videos are fairly prominent, but I don’t see Facebook or podcasts.

    Apparently neither are using Twitter, or at least it’s not obvious on a quick browse of their pages. I lot of younger folks and busy people are using it now. Though many will not be the delegates, it’s good to keep everyone informed, because they can be influential & it might help increase their interest in Unitarian Universalism overall.

    A question about your blog: You don’t use link targets to give me a new page, so I lose your page and have to find it again by back-clicking. Do you think this is the best way to present links that go off the site and if so, why?

  5. Joyce — From a quick look I’d say both sites have changed a bit, but not a lot.

    For link targets, there is much debate in the web community about which practice is better. Both have their pros and cons. I make the choice in context. This particular blog is mostly for people interested in technology, and I figure such folks know to ctrl-click to open a new window/tab if that’s their preference. Hope that helps.