Why and how to build an online community on social media

21 DEC 2020
Lazzaro Pietragnoli
Lazzaro Pietragnoli
PR and Communications Manager, Church Urban Fund

"Social media allows you to create a strong, committed and engaged community of supporters. These online connections can easily and quickly translate into new partnerships, personal relationships and even new members for your organisation."

In this blog, Lazzaro Pietragnoli - social media trainer and PR and Communications Manager at Church Urban Fund - shares his insights and tips for building a social media community, and highlights the value this can add to your organisation.
 
I was running a training course on how to make better use of social media a few months ago, and the leader of an inter-faith group questioned if there would be any real benefit to his organisation in having an online presence… In his words: “We are a small local group, we all know each other, we hold regular meetings and discuss face-to-face the issues that are really important for us, without any risks of being abused online by anonymous people.”
 
There is, of course, an element of risk in being present on social media, and it’s understandable that faith-based organisations are sometimes more reluctant to use digital channels, mindful of the pitfalls but also preferring the warmth of personal interaction. But opportunities for community-building can be missed in adopting a no-tech approach.
 
After all, we’ve seen only too clearly how crucial technology has been in supporting people to stay connected during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how social media and messaging platforms have been a lifeline for many. And while there’s no substitute for talking face to face, people of all ages and from all walks of life have grown to understand that it is possible to create positive, productive relationships of trust and collaboration online, even in these most challenging times.
 
So why use social media?
 
• An active online presence can help energise and motivate existing members of a group. They can see their hard work being promoted, shared and appreciated beyond the usual attendees at face-to-face meetings.
• It is a very useful tool to engage with a younger audience; who are often hard to reach for faith-based groups
• Promoting your activities on social media can inspire other people and organisations to find new ideas and motivation in your stories and activities, even if they live in a different area, or even a different continent! 
• It can help your wider community to understand and buy into what you do, and even potentially encourage investment in your organisation – of both time and resources, like attracting new volunteers and support from local business.
 
Choosing your social media platform
 
Once a decision has been made to “embrace” social media, there are a few steps to follow to make the most of these powerful tools to enable you to promote your organisation, increase your visibility, and grow your community of supporters and volunteers. 
 
Each platform has its own specific features and its own rules, both the formal ones established by the owner, but also the social etiquette of that platform, which are part of the unwritten agreement between users (i.e. please don’t write a comment in capital letters; that’s like shouting in the middle of a friendly conversation).
 
Familiarise yourself with the features and rules and decide which platform best suits your needs: 
 
Facebook allows for more reflective, storytelling posts, with a longer ‘lifespan’ – it usually attracts an older demographic and is often the number one choice for churches;
Twitter, whose posts are limited to a bite-size 280 characters, is more immediate, linked to the news agenda/social issues and is great for enabling network building with similar organisations and a wider reach;
Instagram is based on imagery more than text, so definitely one to think about if your work/project is very visual (and your audience is younger)
YouTube allows you to create a collection of longer videos, with an excellent search engine, but it does requires some technical skills (see Allchurches’ blog on producing simple video content)
TikTok allows you to publish video directly from the camera of your mobile. However, videos can only be a maximum of 60 seconds long. This platform tends to attract a younger audience and may be a move too soon if you’re just stepping out into social!  
Building an online community
 
The most important thing with social media is to focus on creating and develop an online community. People will follow, like, share and comment on your post, and it’s important to actively engage with them, sharing their posts and replying to their comments. And be clear in your bio information for the platform when/if you will be available to respond, so you don’t feel tied to your phone 24/7! There are more helpful tips in this social media toolkit that we produced for Near Neighbours.
 
This interaction and exchange is the key difference between social media and traditional communications channels (sending a newsletter to members, putting up a poster in the community hall), which only allow the flow to go in one direction, from you to them.
 
Social media allows you to create a strong, committed and engaged community of supporters. These online connections can easily and quickly translate into new partnerships, personal relationships and even new members for your organisation. 
 
Try the one platform that you think will best suit your needs at first. When you master this, you can move to another one and expand your reach to a different audience. You will soon realise that the benefits of social media largely outweigh any risk and provide your organization with a powerful, interactive and easy-to-manage way of engaging with your online community.
 
P.S. Why not check out our blog about announcing your grant and project progress on social media?
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