Yes, new technology is disruptive. But if we don't let it disrupt our ministries, we'll find ourselves out of the conversation.
We live in an age of tremendously disruptive innovation. Advances in digital technology are turning entire industries upside-down. The music industry, print journalism, publishing, film and television, higher education–these are just a few of the industries being forced to reinvent themselves in the face of digital technology’s exciting, yet unsettling, leaps of ingenuity.
But digital technology’s chief attributes–democratization, personalization, and effortlessly ubiquitous distribution–are not only making obsolete conventional patterns of making, marketing, and distributing products. They are more importantly changing the way communication occurs between human beings. More and more, we interact with one another through digital media, a phenomenon which, while bearing obvious dangers, also allows for an intimacy between peoples otherwise separated by oceans and continents.
A trip to Silicon Valley–which I enjoyed this past week while representing Aleteia at the Christian Leaders Technology Forum so generously sponsored by The Maclellan Foundation and the Crowell Trust–fills one with a sense of awe for human creativity. There is something in that clear, sunlit California air that is infectious. Though we might question some of the ends of the companies inside those glass-walled buildings with their rows of jazzy work stations and their piles of venture capital, still, there is much to be admired in a culture that makes so much room for the human intellect to play.
The Christian Leaders Technology Forum afforded a marvelous opportunity for leaders of a wide variety of Christian ministries to reflect upon the ways in which the new digital technologies can aid our missions. Over the course of two days a line-up of stellar speakers–featuring the former Apple engineer credited with the invention of the iPad, an “Evangelist” from Google, and the chief technology officer for the graduate school of education at Stanford–discussed the present successes and future prospects of Christian ministries who want to communicate the Word of God via digital media.
The New Evangelization is another disruptive force in our culture, powered not by digital technology but by the power of the Holy Spirit. When referring to the new digital culture, Pope Benedict used the analogy of a “digital sea.” Pope Francis speaks of it as the 21st-century “agora.” In the New Evangelization Catholics and all Christians must be daring in setting out into the deeps of this “sea” and letting our nets down for a catch. We must enter with joy and enthusiasm the digital agora of our times, eager to interact with the people we encounter there in order to proclaim the Gospel in friendship.
What can you and your apostolate take away from what was discussed at the Tech Forum? Here is my Top 10:
2. Connection. We live in a post-industrial economy. As Seth Godin argues, we now live in a “connection” economy, which means that the emphasis now is not so much on products and advertising, but on creating an emotional connection with a rabid fan base. Digital technology makes it easy as pie to put up a website, create an online course, or publish a book. The real challenge is in showing empathy, compassion, creating connection. This isn’t just a marketing technique. We’re not just talking about personalizing your emails so that you go from “Dear Valued Customer” to “Dear Mike.” It’s about being human and encouraging community.
3. Make It Personal. You create connection by making everyone’s encounter with your enterprise as personal as it can possibly be. If Netflix were a country, its population would make it number 35 in the world. Bigger than Canada. That’s because Netflix allows us to personalize in great detail our experience with its platform. So how are you trying to create an emotional, personal connection with your tribe?
4. Be Remarkable. This is another theme sounded by Seth Godin. Whatever you’re doing, chances are the market is either glutted with it or not (yet) rabidly interested in it. More advertising won’t necessarily turn the tide. The only way to break through is to be remarkable. To be, in a way, disruptive. Now, you can be “remarkable” like Miley Cyrus, or you can be remarkable by doing something truly outstanding for your fellow human beings. Real remarkability is service. Want to see a good example? Check out Scott Harrison’s project at charity: water. This charity itself is remarkable, but its web site is also a paragon of the species. Is your mission truly remarkable? How are you communicating your message so that people instantly want to share it with someone?
5. Millennials. These are the young people, the digital natives, so many of our apostolates are targeting. But want to know something? Millennials aren’t all about money. They’re about meaning. They’re aching to contribute to something larger than themselves. This is very good news for Christian ministries, for we have pretty nice access to Ultimate Meaning. The tough job is making this meaning relevant to millennials. Learning how to speak in a way they will hear. How are you addressing the millennial generation? Are you speaking analog while they’re speaking digital? How can you adjust?
6. Humor. Which Super Bowl commercials are you and your friends going to be talking about the morning after the game? Case closed. Humor is one of the best ways to create connection. In the field, on your site, on your social networks–are you bringing the funny (and thus encouraging friendship and trust), or are you just looking to sell us?
7. Content. In the 21st century all marketing, all communication, is about content. In the digital world, people expect to be given something of value (usually free), in exchange for which they give you their trust. And with trust, community builds. So what valuable content are you offering to your tribe? How does your content serve them? One good strategy for creating engaging content is to craft stories about the front-line workers in your ministry, or about one of the members of the community you’re trying to serve. (Looking for an easy way to curate content for your tribe? Try Flipboard.)
8. Stories. Speaking of which. Most everything in the digital sea now takes the form of a story. That’s because human beings are made to connect with stories and technology has made stories easier and easier to tell. We want to hear about heroes and heroines encountering obstacles and working hard to overcome them, even if they don’t succeed. So don’t give us “good copy.” We don’t want to hear a lecture or sermon (at least not right now). We want to hear a story. If you want to pitch us something afterwards, fine. But only if you captivate us with a story first. What stories do you have to tell? (Looking for a quick and easy way to create stories? Check out Storify.)
9. Radical Transparency. Here’s another lesson from charity: water. This organization spends 100% of grassroots contributions on its efforts to deliver clean water to the developing world (i.e., no grassroots contributions are spent on infrastructure). And every dollar you contribute to their efforts can be tracked via their site, so that you can confirm your dollar was actually used to deliver clean water. charity: water lets its community in to see how its sausage is made–and its sausage is pretty darn good. How can you let your community (your board, your donors, those you’re seeking to serve) inside your operation? How can you let them see what you’re doing so that they can see how remarkable it is?
10. Cloud. Keep it simple, keep it mobile, keep it safe. You’ve got no excuse today if your hard drive crashes and you can’t find your work. Or if you can’t access that important document from the drive-thru lane. Still attaching documents to emails? Still carrying around a ziplock bag of USB drives? Fuggetaboutit! Put all your digital content in the cloud and make your workflow more efficient.
Super special bonus extra:
Okay, what have I forgotten? What other digital strategies should be on this list?