Parish Online Communities – Private vs. Public

Public vs PrivateAmong the top questions I’m asked when speaking with parishes about private social networks is “Why not just use Facebook”. Public networks like Facebook are extremely popular to say the least. Setting up a company or personal page is easy and free. The ability to reach people and share information is direct and simple. Parishes should use these tools but view them within the perspective of an overall plan, likening social sites like Facebook as free billboards for information sharing and to promote campaigns or causes.

Private networks today are less familiar to parishes but from my experience more valuable. When I list the merits of private social communities the list is considerably longer than that of the public options. Public networks have their benefits but are limited. Some of the key elements that private online communities have over their public counterparts are significant and should be well understood by parishes. Although not nearly an exhaustive list, here’s some top reasons to consider or start a private community.

1.    Database Integration

Private: In many cases a parish has already invested time and money in a parishioner database, whether it’s something custom-built or off-the-shelf like ParishSOFT. The database has information about each parishioner. The data includes basic contact information, sacramental history, school information, family connections, ministry participation, event information, and more. Some private community solutions can integrate with this existing data and use it to pre-populate a private online community, including secure profile data, ministry data, and more. As data is updated in the parish system the information is synchronized with the community data. The net outcome here is that the parish ends up managing only one database, something that is very attractive given the time and resources it can take to manage multiple databases.

Public: With public sites you usually build your membership one person at a time and any personal member data collected is not often exportable. Without the ability to export this unique member data you end up building pockets of data about your members in various networks.

2.    Custom Demographics

Private: In addition to the basic information that is contained in the parish database, parishes are beginning to see the value of knowing more specific information about their parishioners, e.g. profession, personal interest, volunteer interest, hobbies, and other activities. Private tools more often than not allow administrators to create custom demographics that are very specific and particular to the organization, even offering specific choices.

Public: With public tools the profile demographics exist but are mostly broad and based on free text inputs. Again, this information is not normally exportable, and leaves potentially valuable parishioner information in various data pockets around the web. With disparate data  its difficult to get a full profile picture of any one parishioner and places limits on more personalized communications and outreach.

3.    Custom Branding

Private: Parishes, and for that matter the Catholic Church, is not a brand per se, but each organization within the church does have a type of brandscape. By brandscape I mean specific colors, logos, and style preferences. In some case this brandscape can be applied to a private online community, giving members of the community a feeling of the familiar and a greater sense of community.

Public: Although there are exceptions, most public networks do not allow company or personal pages to be uniquely branded. They might offer space for a unique logo but beyond that the brandscape is typically that of the service provider, e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.

4.    Child Protection & Policy Alignment

Private: In June 2010 the Department of Communications United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) provided some high-level guidelines about the use and administration of social media. Among the guidelines were recommendations on social networking with minors. Since private networks tend to be more configurable than public tools, organizational requirements/guidelines, like those provided by the USCCB, can often times be incorporated into how the site functions.

Public: Public tools typically cater to a very large and diverse audience; when considering how their sites will function they rely on generally acceptable guidelines, federal regulations, and industry best practices. It’s uncommon for public social networking sites to align their software to meet niche requirements or custom configurations; this reality limits their usefulness for parishes.

5.    Control of Advertising

Private: Advertising is often used to cover the cost of offering services to parishioners. The cost of offering the bulletin for example is normally covered by selling advertising. The same can be achieved within a private network. Advertisers can buy advertisements that display on the site, these advertisements, like those found in the bulletin, can go a long way in covering the cost of the service and/or offer a new revenue stream for the parish. The key with private placement advertising is it provides control over which ads to display. Because advertising is controlled, ads meet standards set by the parish and do not expose parishioners to offensive messages or images.

Public: It should be no surprise that public networks cover the cost of offering their service by selling ads, this is their business model. Making these sites easy to use and feature rich is driven from a need to continually add more members which drives up advertising rates and increases the company’s revenue. Since ads on public sites are only marginally controlled by the users of the service, the displayed ads can often times be in conflict with personal or organizational standards.

The list of advantages that private communities have over public tools is extensive, the awareness that they exist and the value they offer are largely unknown to parishes. Given the unique needs of a parish and the desire to increase our communication and engagement with parishioners, I would highly encourage taking a look into these valuable resources.

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Author:Ryan Foley

Ryan Foley is the CEO & Founder of Faith Interactive. As a former executive director of a large faith-based organization, he has a passion for supporting organizations in their efforts to become more effective in the areas of evangelization, communication, and engagement. He has successfully coupled his understanding of faith-based organizational requirements with advanced technological strategies & solutions. Faith Interactive, founded in January 2010, uses it Connected Community software to help churches and other faith-based organizations connect and engage their members.
  • Jonathan F. Sullivan

    Looking at your list, I’m struck that all the benefits listed are benefits for the parish. What if we looked at the benefits of public vs private for parishioners/users?

    As a user I’m very aware that every time I sign up for a private social network I’m signing up for either a) another web site to check in to on a regular basis, or b) more email notifications filling my inbox. Neither of those is a particularly appetizing prospect, so I have pretty high expectations for the content such private networks will bring to me.

    Our diocese’s Facebook page has 865 followers — a pretty remarkable number for a small, rural diocese. I doubt that we could get as many people to sign up for a social network on our web site. That’s the reason I prefer going to where the people already are: it eliminates friction between the message and the user.

    • Joe Luedtke


      I agree with your setting of high expectations for any private network.  The high expectations I’m hoping for in a private social network (in the Catholic space that’s Ryan’s Faith Interactive, Flocknote, WeGather, and others) is centered around engagement.  A church’s public website, their Facebook page, Twitter feed primarily serves a marketing function spreading the word on what they’re doing.  You typically see some level of engagement on Facebook and Twitter, but it tends to be parish driven.  Whereas, a Private Social Network has the ability to engage the parishioners with the church and almost as importantly with other parishioners directly.  Their vision is to extend both the church’s message and the feeling and sense of community one has with the church and fellow parishioners to the online world.

      I’ve seen some very cool implementations of these tools where you have parishioner to parishioner engagement and parishioner to church engagement occurring on a daily basis.  If these systems can create the mechanism for that level of engagement online they just may fullfill both of our high expectations.

  • Ryan Foley

    Jonathan, you’re right, that’s where database integration comes in to play. Take a recent parish we’re working with in Rockville Center Diocese. The parish has nearly 14,000 members, excluding kids under the age of 13 you still end up with over 8,000 parishioners. Using web services we integrate with the ParishSOFT database, pre-populate member data and provide up to date member information and data synchronization. We don’t require people to sign up one-by-one, the parishioners, the ministries, and the members of the ministries are all synchronized. Members only have to accept the code of conduct and then they are in. Profile information for parishioners is limited at first until the member modifies his/her privacy settings, essentially deciding how much information to share or to keep private.

    In the case of a Diocese using Facebook is a great approach, at least when it comes to the general public and friends of the Diocese that want to follow their post. Internally at the Diocese a private network would be the better approach. In most cases the Diocese already has a database of their staff members, parish staff members, and active volunteers. Integrating with this database, or at the minimum importing the data, would be a better approach. In this scenario each office of the (arch) diocese would have their own community and each community would have its own members.

    • Caroline Cerveny, SSJ

      Ryan, Thanks for the overall information about private and public networks.  Just yesterday I began to attend the Facebook 2011 Summit where major business leaders are highlighting what can be done with FB in business settings.  As I listened to these presentations, I’m realizing that there is more to FB than meets our simple eyes.  I wonder, if ministers really understood this tool, what an evangelizing tool we would have. I’m wondering – what if you compared FB to the private tools.  What is the comparison? What are the strengths and limitations of each?

      • Ryan Foley

        Hello Caroline thanks for your comment. I agree that
        Facebook has, and will continue to add, tools that are specific to companies
        and/or organizations. Facebook realizes that private communities for
        organizations, especially nonprofits, is the next frontier, and as such will
        add greater functionality with every passing year.

        You’ve asked some very valid questions in your post, in my original blog I
        offered some obvious differences, of these the biggest are database
        integration. The parish already has its members in a database and adds new ones
        each year, integrating to this database makes the most sense and is something
        that even if Facebook offered it a parish would not do.

        You mention also evangelization. Although hundreds of millions of people are on
        Facebook, a parish’s real focus is evangelizing the people they have.
        Evangelizing the masses is great endeavor and a worthy apostolate but not
        necessarily for a parish. Fr. Barron, EWTN, National Catholic Register, and
        many other organizations do this very well, and do it broadly.  Parishes, unlike other organizations, have a
        distinct member database and given this fact have the ability to integrate with
        it and immediately provide a common and private online community that everyone
        can participate in, even parishioners that don’t have a Facebook account and don’t
        want one.

        In a coming blog I’m going to touch on how private networks
        also support engagement. When I refer to engagement I mean the sense of belonging
        that people have for their parish. Here also private online communites have a
        significant advantage over tools like Facebook and LinkedIn, at least when it
        comes to our parishes. This isn’t to say that Facebook and LinkedIn don’t have their
        place and can’t be leveraged to help evangelize society and help people to know
        Christ, they can and they do. My blog was specific to the challenges that
        parishes have.


  • brad1971

    Ryan, great article and topic.  When it comes to social networking solutions we tend to go straight to Facebook, but it’s better to always have more than one option.  I think it’s important to enter social networking for our communities with a clear idea of what it is we want to achieve in order to choose and utilize the best solution.  

    With either, as Sister Caroline points out, learning how to use the platform to the best of it’s abilities is important as well.  Facebook is a great example of many not knowing how to really take advantage of it’s features.  This is especially true for administrators of online communities.  Most Facebook users have basically signed up and think it’s simply about make some connections and post things.  There is a great deal more to it, but many do not take the time to learn.  We simply “dive right in”.  I’ll admit that I am one to do that too at times.  

    Great discussion.  

  • Matthew Warner

    Yes – great discussion here! And an important one! I’d be interested to hear what more people think, particularly more first-hand experience at the parish. I also wanted to point out that we don’t really consider a “private social network.” In fact, that’s one of its primary distinctions. It is specifically made to be able to easily PUSH information out to parishioners via bulk email, text message, phone calls, RSS, facebook and twitter. It’s a communication tool. And parishes/orgs can use it as a registration tool also if they like. But they don’t have to as admins can simply enter in phone numbers, parishioners can text in to a short code and keyword to subscribe or admins can import an email list.

    Yes, it does let subscribers respond, reply, vote and RSVP to things – so in that sense it is like a social network…in that it’s social and a network of people. But it does so more on the level of how Evite might do it (which nobody would put in the category of “private social network”). So it allows easy receiving of important organizational information and responding to it, but it does so by pushing info out to where people are already at first. So they don’t feel like it’s another place they have to go log in to or check out in order to be in community with their parish/org and participate. In other words, the primary place they engage flockNote is in their inboxes or on Facebook or in a text message…first.

    I think that’s why we’ve had so much success in the past year because it solves some of these challenges people are hitting on here and tries to work with tools like Facebook and email and texting, rather than apart from them, and does it in a simple, practical way.

    That said, I do think there are applications or online communities (whether it’s an organizations or parish or whatever) that may benefit from a private social network of their own. But I think it takes a particular kind of community that is ready and looking for it. And I think – at least when it comes to parishes – that they are more likely to be a great tool for helping people who are already engaged with the org (which is an important task, too), rather than something that engages the unengaged (one of our major challenges right now as a church). This is one of the primary driving factors that pushed me to fundamentally change our approach when we shifted from Catholic Outpost back in the day to the creation of

    Would be interested in what others think?

    As a side note, I’m loving CatholicTechTalk and the community building up here in both the writers and the commenters. It’s really blossomed into something special and important over the past couple years. So thank you for that and keep up the great work!

  • Jeff Geerling

    Coming from the perspective of having worked on a similar kind of project diocesan-wide (for priests), I have to say that creating an insular (parish-level, or even diocese-level) social networks is a serious undertaking.

    We’ve tried twice to create online spaces (private social networks) for a particular population of the diocese, but both times, after an initial push by a few people that were forced into being leaders, the experiment failed. The reasons were many, but mostly boiled down to:

    1. Not enough buy-in to make it worthwhile (the people who were most active were those who were already using other communications channels to keep in touch anyways).

    2. Not enough ‘space’ (a few people posted a lot, causing many of the priests who would’ve otherwise been interested to stay out of the discussion).

    3. The ‘just another network’ syndrome; for many of the people who seemed they would be the target demographic, they quickly responded with complaints that we were simply asking them to manage yet another profile/persona, and one which didn’t really provide them added value (compared to the small communities they were already in on Facebook, Twitter, and in real life).

    I’m not saying this to downplay the idea of a social network—rather, I’d say it’s important to be prepared. If you want to make a successful private network (as have many large corporations, and some smaller communities), you need to have a lot in place from the start:

    – A ‘community manager’ (or many), who will moderate things, try to keep discussions sane, and ensure the network is always fresh.

    – A ‘hook’ (or many); something that will keep people coming back. Once the online community is established, the hook might *be* the community. This must be something people will value and want more of. With Facebook, it’s connections with past and present friends and family (and pictures). With Twitter, it’s often meaningful, quick conversations, or simple sharing.

    – Simplicity in setup and management: If people can login quickly, and get started immediately, you’ll have a much better chance of at least letting people in the door. If you make people do a lot of things before they can even see what you have to offer, you’re shutting the door already.

    Do I think a private social network is good for a parish? It depends on the parish… I think many, if not most, are not ready for one. Do I think flockNote is good for a parish? Same answer. Sadly, most of our work right now needs to be in the field of getting pastors and leaders simply to consider the possible positive impact online community and relationships (in any form) will make on people’s lives. Only with their full support can an initiative like using a social network or finding new communications channels have any fruits.

    Disclaimer: I work with flockNote (with Matthew!).

    • Ryan Foley

      Jeff thanks for your reply and thoughtful feedback. I think you are right on your last point regarding the need to get pastors and other such leaders to consider online communities and how they can help increase engagement and improve communications. At Faith Interactive we’ve been blessed to have met some pastors/lay leaders like this and after careful consideration did decide to go ahead and implement our Connected Community software. In coming months we plan to offer some case studies to show the effects that such and implementation can have on a parish. We’ve also been able to have non-parish organizations see the benefits, most recently Women of Grace launched a new private network using our Connected Community software, the site is called Grace Place and from what I can see it’s really taking off.

      Your comments about past experimentation with a private network are very familiar to me, I meet many people who have had similar experiences as you and after little success are now hesitant on the whole concept. When I dig a bit into what functionality they were trying to offer it often ends up boiling down to a simple discussion forum or some type of message board. Where this is the case I definitely agree with your follow-up points.

      When development of Connected Community got started in 2007 past experiences with private discussion forums were well understood, given their mediocre success it was realized that a totally unique solution was needed, hence the creation of Connected Community. This solution was the answer to many of your experiential findings you listed in your post. Today Connected Community is the product of choice for a growing number of nonprofit associations, and now through Faith Interactive we are working to bring the software solution to catholic parishes.

      With Connected Community discussion forums are just the start of the total offering. To make the solution the greatest value to parishes we also offer a member directory, secure online profiles, integration with the parish database (e.g. ParishSOFT), a new branded public-facing website (if desired), community microsites, mobile application, event manager and calendar, resource libraries, and more. Having a blended and comprehensive suite is what really elevates past private networks, or discussion forums, and in my view is what will help people to rethink or consider these type of solutions once again.

      • Jeff Geerling

        Each of the online communities I’m discussing in my first post was very far beyond a simple discussion forum site (I’ve spent plenty of time building those, too, and managing different types of forum communities).

        In one of the cases, we spent months working on tweaking a bulletin board, email notifications, calendars (which could be integrated with Outlook, and showed community-wide or group-only events, with color coding, iPhone/Android subscription, etc.), private and public groups for collaboration, wikis (both organization-wide and group-wide), document sharing integration, responsive (mobile-first) design, and a TON of other very customized and extremely well-thought-out/designed components, everything highly tailored to helping this particular community. In addition, a team of employees gave a lot of feedback through the process, and studied five different corporate intranets to try to bring in the most fitting features in the best ways possible.

        And it failed—hard. It’s still puttering on, but it’s used the same way a shared folder is – people dump a little information in, and they get a little out.

        In other corporations I’ve worked with, there is a lot of enthusiasm for this kind of product, but I have found that Churches (and Dioceses) don’t typically have the willpower to see through one of these kinds of networks past the initial few months of rollout.

        You really need to find a cheerleader, or just some kind soul who can push forward mercilessly, if you want to get any kind of online community started. And this is even more important in the Church.

        There are definitely groups that could use private online communities, I just don’t think it’s going to be useful to most parishes at this time (maybe ever?), and will require education and convincing before parishes will adopt them.

        • Ryan Foley

          Jeff, thanks for your feedback. It’s good to hear of other peoples experience with online communities, we can always take these experiences, even negative ones, and learn from them. Since I’m not quite ready to wave the white flag and essentially wait for Facebook or Google to create an alternative for parishes, I think its best we build upon our shared experiences and develop something exceptional for the Church.

          In my experience one of the unique keys to making these communities successful is database integration. This is the approach we’re taking at Faith Interactive and with our Connected Community software. To date we’ve integrated Connected Community with 20 member database solutions, the most recent being ParishSOFT. The advantages here are many but three come to mind, they include:

          1.   Saves implementation time- Important data is transferred to Connected Community to pre-populate member profiles, ministry data,
          events and other key items.

          2.    Reduces staff time – Data automatically synchronizes between both systems to allow fast updates.

          3.    Easy to get started – Single sign-on to both systems makes it easier for staff and members.

          Even though data integration can make success a closer thing to grasp I do agree that good old  stick-to-it-ness is essential and that each parish will require champions for the cause. So far I’ve been quite impressed with the parishes we’re working with, the local teams are competent and excited about the product and that excitement is contagious.

  • Sara Kraft

    In my experience as a parish communications coordinator for the past 3 1/2 years, a majority of communities aren’t ready for a private community.  The problem with our church communications is not HOW we communicate, it’s WHAT we communicate.

    My husband is a prime example.  You wouldn’t find a person in the pews more passionate about living an authentic Christian life.  However, he won’t pick up the bulletin at church – EVER.  He also doesn’t check Facebook (because it’s a time suck), and will only occasionally read e-mails from the parish.

    Why?  He claims as soon as our parish has something relevant to say to him in their communications he’ll begin listening.  Until the bulletin, newsletter, and other communications are no longer just about the upcoming bake sale, the Ladies Auxiliary meeting, or wanting more help for “programming” instead of authentically teaching how to live a Catholic Christian life, he’ll won’t pick up the bulletin or race to read other communications.  Until then, it’s a good thing he has a wife to keep him in the know!

    The question is not public verses private networks.  The question ought to be what are we communicating?  How is it relevant to those in the pews?

    • Ryan Foley

      Sara, you make a good point here, although I don’t we have to totally discount the public vs. private discussion to enter into an even deeper topic.

      As a communications coordinator I’d be interested to hear how you see your role changing in the coming years. Are you being held back today from living out your role in a deeper way, are you restricted by the means through which you’re given to communicate? Is what you communicate today simply information only, or does it contain formative elements too?

      As our ability to communicate with parishioners grows in sophistication, hopefully getting us beyond a singular focus of the bulletin, we need to impress upon the church the necessity for new roles at the parish were formation can live alongside information, where content becomes conversation. For too long we’ve been stuck in administration mode, just maintaining who we have. Per work by the Gallup organization, and as presented in the book Growing an Engaged Church, only 16% of parishioners are engaged, engagement as they describe it meaning sense of belonging to their parish. Gallup also has shown that in many cases belonging precedes believing so if we do a poor job at the first it’s less likely people will be open to what we have to teach them. So to your point, what we communicate is important. I’m hopeful that over time more and more parishes will realize the opportunity and the responsibility we have to engage our parishioners and will find creative ways to communicate more than just administrative details. Let’s keep this in our prayers.

    • Matthew Warner

      Sara – that’s an excellent point! I also think, however, that WHAT we communicate is intimately tied up with HOW we communicate. Just like the “medium is the message.” Those relationships we build, the ways we are connected, how things are presented, WHO is saying them and the context within which they are shared all play a huge role in how much people care about “what” we communicate and how seemingly relevant it is to them. It’s not just about communicating relevant content – it’s about a relationship. 

      As soon as your husband feels that your parish communication is part of a relevant relationship between them, I bet he’d start listening. So it’s definitely a “both/and” endeavor and you are exactly right that WHAT we communicate can not be overlooked and must be central to these efforts.

  • Ryan Foley

    Matt, I think you make a good point regarding the context for our connections, Catholic Tech Talk and this very discussion offer a good example of this. It’s unlikely that we’d be having this conversation on Facebook or even LinkedIn, here on this site, and with the people that have participated, we’ve had a very good conversation and actually one with quite a bit of depth. The medium has offered the environment and the setting for this. This isn’t to take anything away from Facebook or other tools, it just goes to show that opportunities for other places to have conversation can and do have relevance.