What the Catholic Church Can Learn From Social Media

A New Pope Presents Fresh Opportunity to Connect With Followers

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In a simple cartoon circulated online, Jesus looks at Peter and says, "No, I'm not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me." This is an apt depiction of the competitive relationship that has existed between media and religion, summed up as: "I'm God. Turn off the media and listen to me." If modern technologies were used to further the faith -- be it an advertising campaign or a televised sermon -- religious institutions possessed a stranglehold on the content using a top-down, paternalistic approach to communication.

Forcing followers into submission no longer works -- this is as true for the Catholic Church as it is for consumer-packaged goods. As marketers have discovered, trying to manage a brand in the age of social media requires a certain amount of letting go and letting consumers -- even religious ones -- own a portion of the message. Pepsi learned this when it allowed consumers to compete to create a new flavor of Lay's potato chips. In turn, it gave the winner 1% of the profits. Eight million people actively engaged in co-creating with the brand.

Evangelical churches, too, comprehend the value of co-creation. Lifechurch is a good example: It provides multiple ways for congregants to interact with the church and each other, including services in Second Life, a Bible app and daily online church services complete with a live chat feed where visitors can relate to each other or comment on the sermon -- creating, in essence, a virtual pew. This church understands that the worlds of religion and media have converged, and integrating media into faith is fundamental, particularly for younger believers.

Pope Benedict was averse to the online world, preferring silence to interactivity.

As I explain in my book, "Compassion, Inc.," it is more important than ever to connect to consumers through their ethics and their spiritual beliefs. In the early days of branding, marketers appealed to consumers through a head, or intellectual, sell. In the 1960s' Creative Revolution, brands were sold through emotion and psychology and humor. Today, in the wake of Sept. 11 and because brands have become important building blocks of our identity, we expect them to be embedded with the values we hold dear.

Successful brands stand not only for something important like charity or sustainability -- such as Warby Parker or Chipotle -- they invite consumers to be part of a "movement." Brands used to be about the product -- a logo, a slogan, a mythology. Now, they are about the user engaging them in dialogue, promoting a purpose, and inspiring them toward their better selves. This is what some are calling Brand 2.0 or even Brand 3.0.

The Catholic Church is in the sweet spot in this age of branding. It already "sells" spirituality, but has lost its way in terms of inspiration and movement- building. Know here that I am not suggesting that the faith -- the product -- be changed. Rather, it is the packaging -- tweeting the Passion Play, for example -- and the promotion that can help reignite believers. Evangelicals have understood this for decades. It seems Pope Benedict did not.

Thus, Pope Benedict's resignation is not only a leadership change, but an opportunity to rebrand the Catholic Church. Today's communication environment calls for a church CEO that embraces media and marketing and its ability to aid in empowering a movement. This does not mean that the new pope needs to be young, necessarily. After all, John Paul II was well into his 70s and 80s when he inspired millions of people to see him, and he communicated a daily message to Catholics through SMS -- the Twitter of his day.

Will social media reduce papal authority? Perhaps. But what is the alternative? Just as churches learned that marketing is not the enemy, it is time to recognize that social media isn't, either.

Mara Einstein is a professor of media studies at Queens College, CUNY. She is the author of "Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age."

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