Among 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.