Navigating Youth Engagement in Digital Media

Navigating Youth Engagement in Digital Media

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This was delivered at The International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care organized under the High Auspices of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Orthodox Academy of Crete, Greece 

Navigating Youth Engagement In Digital Media

Where are they? Where is my generation? Why aren’t they sitting next to us in the church?  I am a millennial and my generation is rapidly disappearing from the church. It is commonly known in the Orthodox community that there is an epidemic of youth leaving the church and not returning. For the purposes of this discussion, the word “youth” will refer to the millennial generation and generation z. The millennial generation is defined as individuals born between 1980-1994 and individuals grouped into Generation z are born between 1995-2012. According to the Barna Research Group, “only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low)” and “59% percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.” As a graduate from Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts and someone who travels around speaking to Orthodox youth all over the United States, being on the front lines of youth engagement, has giving me an understanding of the Orthodox Pulse. In this paper I will pose various questions that should be a central focus of our church and how it interacts with media. To frame these essential questions, I am going to discuss with you why social media in the digital landscape is relevant, how the internet social structure is important for targeting audiences, and what our church can do to meet these youth where they are.

The first step and key to understanding the youth generations begins with understanding digital media as a meeting-place and community for Orthodox individuals and youth from all over the world.

Let’s start with the first, and easiest part of our discussion – where the youth “live” today in terms of digital media – this consists of the Social media platforms and online communities. In terms of social media, the major platforms for online discourse are Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Reddit. Many of you may be wondering, why Facebook did not make the list of
online platforms for social discourse. According to a study from Piper Jaffray last year, only 9% of teens say Facebook is their preferred social-media platform. I myself do not have Facebook anymore, as it has not only been taken over by my parents’ generation and even my grandparents generation, but has also become diluted to where I can no longer quickly see my
friends and families content.

In terms of online communities, they are not just for social activities and having fun. They can provide a lot of useful and necessary services. Some examples are: health support services, advocacy services, news services and personal interest groups to name a few. According to reach right studios, an estimated 30,000 searches on Google occur a month, searching for an
online church community or live streaming of a church. We need to ask ourselves “what are these 30,000 people finding”. If we aren’t satisfied with the answer, that’s a gap that we must be filling.

Within each platform and service, there exist smaller social communities. These communities are used for marketing, awareness, broadcasting information, and most of all engaging with other people. When we look back in the Book of Acts, it is clear that the apostles did these same things in communities. They advertised and engaged with others sharing the word of God. This is the root of apostleship. What took them days and weeks by foot and word of mouth, we can now accomplish this same task in a matter of seconds with a click of a button.

So, now we know that an online presence isn’t only worthwhile for youth generations, but necessary. It is a reflection of the real-world communities that are most important to us, but it spreads a much wider net that includes our youth. So how do we use it? Let’s dive into internet social structure and how to target audiences.

Today, the Internet has 3.2 billion users but the internet culture operates by a very simple rule. It is called the “1-9-90” rule. This rule states that 1% of the people who use the Internet create the actual content, 9% of the people contribute to that content (via forum, blogs, comments, websites, etc), and 90% of the people lurk on the Internet. This phenomenon of “lurking or watching from afar” is a key aspect of online culture, and is also important to consider in the discussion of how to engage youth in the Orthodox online community. It is important to understand that just because a “lurker” is not contributing to a certain community, does not mean that they are not fully engaged and absorbing information in a way that is meaningful to them.

Lets take this room currently. The 1% includes myself and the others speaking on this panel currently. The 9% are those who contribute by asking questions after the all the presenters have spoken. And the 90% of the people are you all individuals who are sitting here and listening to what is being said, but not asking questions. Just because you didn’t ask a question does this mean you are still not engaged because you are sitting quietly and attentively in this room? Does it change because we do not know the truth of whether somebody is engaged in an online community because we physically cant see them? Just because somebody is not posting does not mean they are not listening.

If we take another popular social media platform, Instagram, and dive deeper into how it works we will see the importance of engagement. Say you post once a day, and you only get nine likes. That doesn’t mean that no one has benefited. According to the lurker rule we just learned, up to 90 people still might have seen that post and benefited from it. Such is the way of the internet. However, while providing quality content is important, just posting a picture and leaving it, just isn’t enough, we can do even better. User engagement is a huge factor in the success of social media outreach, and it is generally a positive organic way to reel more people in and keep the following you have.

Let’s use Instagram again. The root of Instagram is simply posting a picture or a video and your followers like it, leave a comment, or just keep scrolling. Now time for the deeper dive. This platform is controlled by an algorithm that dictates who sees your post and when they see it. The algorithm combines interest, timeliness, relationship, frequency, following, and usage.
So to simply just “post a picture” doesn’t cut it anymore. For example, according to a study from the Huffington Post the top times to post on Instagram are between 8 and 9 in morning any day during the work week and Monday and Thursday between 3 and 4 in the evening. Is this when we are posting or are we just posting without learning how it engage with the most followers and missing the opportunity to spread the good word to more people. We must learn the algorithms and understand the importance of engaging while on these various platforms.

Now that we have reviewed where our youth are in the digital media landscape, and how to view internet community engagement, we as the church community can pull this information together and use it to our advantage when thinking about how to reengage youth. Measuring the impact on the effectiveness of our online ministry presents an analytical difficulty with such a high percentage of “lurkers or watchers”. We must all understand that our ministry online does not come down to how many likes one gets, but how well we are engaging with our followers and the quality of the content we are pushing out over these platforms.

Social and other communities, types of Internet users, and online culture provide various perspectives and intricacies to consider when untangling the web of how the church should engage youth online. The online community does not take the place of the Church but must be the vehicle in which one uses to return to the Church. We must make them interested in living
the life of an Orthodox Christian everyday and this can be done with proper techniques and usage of social media. While I don’t have all the answers for each unique community, I do have some general guidelines.

Priority number one: find out who your youth influencers are. You will be surprised by how many of your youth are already influencers in their community. Some ways to know if they are an influencer could be; if they have their own YouTube channel? Do any of them have a high number of followers on social media? Are they verified? These are just a few.

Priority number 2: does your church have a brand? For example, a signature post, saying, phrase, or most importantly, a hashtag?

Priority number 3: Plan out your strategy. Targeting the 9% of contributors is a different strategy than targeting the 90% of lurkers, and each strategy should be different for adults than for youth. Plan your posts in advance and know that there are tools available to use which helps you plan your posts across multiple platforms all at once.

Finally, always remember to generate quality content that engages and interests the youth.  Social media is no longer just a fun place to post pictures and see what is happening, it’s a craft and a skill. It can be learned by any age, it can be done correctly and can also be done incorrectly. We must have combined efforts from various organizations and focused consumer
targeting. Your church must have a representative, influencer, or a brand ambassador guiding the youth from the digital frontier back to the church. These are just the starting points for the many next steps to come as the social media environment continues to evolve each and everyday. Social media and online communities are of course a key player in involving youth
generations, and in tandem with other initiatives can be the catalyst for a youth movement returning to the church. But for now, The next frontier of missions and evangelism is already upon us… It is the digital world. Followers online, become followers in Christ.

Help continue the conversation with Nicholas Savas @myocn #myOCN #DMOPC18

About author
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Nicholas Savas

Nicholas brings his passion for Orthodoxy and experience in the nonprofit arena to the OCN Team as the Director of Donor Relations and Stewardship. Prior to his role at OCN, Nicholas gained invaluable experience with organizations such as the Secretary of State of Georgia and Ionian Village at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He graduated with his Master’s in Theology from Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline Massachusetts. Nicholas is passionate about sharing his faith with the OCN’s Community.