Twitter is reaching out to religious leaders, encouraging them to use the social media platform, 140 characters at a time.
Religion has not received the same kind of attention in the company as other categories, says Claire Diaz Ortiz, leader for social innovation at Twitter, Inc. But its growing popularity is changing that.
"The kind of content that religious users and influencers are creating is really incredible," Diaz Ortiz told Christianity Today. "They have really high engagement rates."
She hopes to help the company connect to Christian leaders to ensure that popular accounts are not being run by imposters. Twitter uses a verified symbol to suggest the authenticity of celebrities, authors, and other influencers, but many pastors have not been verified. For example, Mark Driscoll (who has about 172,000 users following his posts) and Rob Bell (who has about 80,000) are not verified.
Twitter's attempts to connect to religious leaders come after ministries have faced struggles with some other technology companies. Earlier this year, Google cut churches out of its nonprofit program, and Apple has pulled applications from Exodus International and the Manhattan Declaration amid protests on the groups' views of homosexuality.
Part of Twitter's effort included networking—the physical, handshaking, business card exchanging kind—at Catalyst, a conference of about 13,000 pastors and other attendees that ends today in Atlanta. Diaz Ortiz is meeting with speakers and attendees, planning to follow up on the company's site.
The theme of this year's Catalyst was "Be Present," with many speakers noting the struggles they face with the idea as they interact with Twitter, Facebook, text messages, e-mails, and other communication tools.
At the same time, the conference promoted the #cat11 hashtag for people to tweet. The speakers also delivered a number of short, tweetable quotes to satisfy a crowd of iPad and iPhone owners.
Words like attention, focus, silence, clutter, and noise filled the stadium screens just before each session. During the breaks, the giant screens encouraged attendees to "be present" throughout the year by connecting through social media platforms.
Christians offer a high level of engagement on social media, and Diaz Ortiz notices the amount of religious content that is retweeted.
"We're trying to work out the specifics, but we want to give religious influencers and religious organizations attention that they deserve because they're creating valuable content that people really like," Diaz Ortiz said. She believes that the reason religious influencers are so good at harnessing Twitter stems from the same reason they are good at marketing.
"It's about relationships and social media is about relationships. A lot of companies don't understand that. They think it's a new way to market themselves," she said. "In contrast, religious organizations have been relying on word-of-mouth marketing and relational marketing for forever, so they take to social media well."
Twitter said last month that it has over 100 million active users worldwide, half of whom log in daily. "More than 40 percent of the top global religious leaders are on Twitter, including @DalaiLama and the Pope, who sent his first Tweet from @news_va_en in June," Twitter said in a release.
Diaz Ortiz, who recently released Twitter for Good, has navigated the nonprofit world a little bit differently.
"When you're talking about religious organizations, you're talking about a belief and you're sending a message, which is different from sending information, which is what nonprofit organizations are sending," she said. "I often tell nonprofits, 'Would you go up to someone in the street and ask for money?' When I'm approached, I feel guilted into it. The same things I think are awkward in real life are awkward in social media."
Religious leaders engage with Twitter in different ways, especially those who are leading megachurches, organizations, seminaries, and other kinds of ministries.
Perhaps one of the more noted tweets this year was when Minnesota pastor John Piper tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell" after Bell released his promotional video for Love Wins. Last month, Piper tweeted, "Seriously, as before, may you fare well, Rob Bell" to his 211,000 followers after Bell announced his plans to leave his church.
"If a religious influencer made a bold statement about faith in general, I think you'll have more people being responsive," Diaz Ortiz said.
California pastor Rick Warren, who regularly tweets a variety of inspirational, motivational, or informational messages to about 432,000 followers, was named in 2010 as one of Forbes magazine's top 20 most influential Twitter celebrities. Author and speaker Joyce Meyer is even more popular, with 435,000 followers.
Texas pastor Joel Osteen usually tweets inspirational messages to his roughly 365,000 followers, but like many religious leaders, he called for Christians to stand for the release of Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran.
Generally, accounts that only offer inspiration risk sounding impersonal, Diaz Ortiz said.
"Who doesn't want a quote a day type of thing that's really inspirational? I do think you have to make sure you're mixing in personal stuff," she said. "Those accounts risk sounding automated."
For instance, she noticed the difference between Dave Ramsey on Twitter compared to The Dave Ramsey Show on Twitter. "A strong message doesn't come through when people are doing third-party takes," she said.
Similarly, churches need to figure out the kinds of messages they want to send, such as supplementary material, summarizing material, or announcements, Diaz Ortiz said. One of the major national hotels, she says, has a fake person who runs their social media account. If the leader of the hotel moves on, the personality remains with the hotel.
Other pastors occasionally touch on national or international events. For instance, Andy Stanley tweeted to his 113,000-some followers, "Proud of our President for bringing The Word at Ground Zero gathering yesterday. Psalm 46: The Lord Almighty is with us . . ." after President Obama's September 11 speech.
Other pastors with influential networks don't engage on Twitter as regularly as others, such as Illinois pastor Bill Hybels. And many well-known pastors, such as Ed Young Sr., do not use Twitter at all.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today has repeatedly covered the increasing role Twitter and other social networks are playing in Christian life. So has our sister publication, Leadership.
Leadership Journal's's blog, Out of Ur, is blogging from Catalyst.
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