Captivating your audience

February 26, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 5
Dan Dyck |
Dan Dyck

“Let’s make this go viral!”

I’ve heard this phrase too many times in my work as communications director at Mennonite Church Canada, usually from dear colleagues who dream of their particular message captivating a mass audience.

The fact is, audiences make messages go viral, not messengers. When hundreds, thousands and even millions of people share a message with their respective networks, the multiplier effect becomes very powerful.

So just what prompts an audience—like your congregation, perhaps—to share a message? In the early 2000s, that question prompted Stanford grad Jonah Berger to begin clipping The Wall Street Journal’s daily list of the five most-read and the five most-shared articles. He noticed that the items read most often differed from the items most shared.

Fast forward to 2008, when Berger, now a marketing prof at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, teamed up with a colleague to dig deeper. From Aug. 30 to Nov. 30, 2008, they analyzed 7,000 articles published in the Times to find out which items were shared the most, and why. A Jan. 21, 2014, story in The New Yorker summarized the two surfacing features: how emotive the message was, and how much the message excited its readers.

This research has all kinds of implications for the church because the Internet has changed everything about communication. A growing number of seniors are spending spare time online. A recent PEW study revealed that 56 percent of people over age 65 are online; in the under $30,000 income bracket, 76 percent are online; and 80 percent of rural residents are online. Another study of those using social media reveals very similar statistics for each of these categories. Want to alert families that your church exists? PEW research points out that 92 percent of people under age 50 are online, and 78 percent use social media.

So, if you want to optimize your reach, what’s the take away?

  • If your congregation does not have an Internet presence or use e-communication, you may be missing out on an important communication channel with the people already sitting in your very own pews.
  • Regardless of your mode of communication, it is important to find ways of delivering your message in a compelling way, so that it begs to be shared—kind of like Jesus did. Even the 44 percent of those over age 65 who are not online will appreciate compelling communiqués.
  • Content rules—but so does brevity. In a 140-character Twitter world, less is often more.

So in a day and age when many seekers turn first to the Internet to find a church, communicating electronically and having an online presence is very nearly a necessity.

At MC Canada’s 2014 assembly in Winnipeg from July 3 to 6, there will be two seminars related to this topic: “Communicating with those born digital,” and, “Church newsletters: Building community one word at a time.”

Dan Dyck is Mennonite Church Canada’s communications director.

--Posted Feb. 26, 2014

Dan Dyck

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