The Pope on Twitter: 140-character Sermons?

As probably the whole word knows by now, Pope Benedict XVI plans next week to start tweeting in eight languages. His Twitter handle is @Pontifex, and he has already generated several hundred thousand followers even before his first official tweet, scheduled for December 12.

The pope’s decision to open a Twitter account raises a number of questions, including: Is this a good marketing strategy? Will it help the Catholic Church reach out to younger generations, and will those younger generations tweet back? What kinds of messages should the pope tweet? Finally, does the pope seem a little late to the game, since, as FastCompany.com noted today, he joins “an impressive, highly retweeted group of religious leaders,” including such names as the Dalai Lama, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger suggests that the pope’s new communication strategy is a good marketing decision for the Vatican. “As technology advances, religion often gets less attention. This raises the church’s profile and reminds people it is relevant to [our] day and age.” As to whether this strategy will help the church reach the coveted younger generation, Berger predicts that most of this age group won’t respond, “but some will. Churches have a target market just like Pepsi does. And this is another channel to reach that market.”

What kinds of messages should the pope tweet — and what kinds should he avoid? Berger’s advice: “Be authentic. A formal ministry in Japan started tweeting using slang, but people found it incongruous. No one wants to hear the pope talking about YOLO [you only live once] or using phrases like OMG. Tweeting useful information about faith or inspiring stories will spread their ideas while staying true to the [church’s] core message.”

Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader says the pope’s foray into Twitter “seems entirely sensible and natural to me. Twitter is nothing more than a personalized broadcasting channel. No one would think twice if the pope had his own radio station or cable channel. Perhaps he already does.” It makes sense for him, “and any other highly visible person/organization, to have a way to share information, perspectives and other relevant content with followers.”

In that respect, Fader sees Twitter as “very different from Facebook. I actively use the former, multiple times a day, but very rarely use the latter. I find it very valuable to be able to offer one-way broadcasting about my work, and find it equally valuable to read the broadcasts from other people/organizations that interest me. I’m not interested in having conversations.”

Fader laments what he describes as Twitter’s “cutesy name. If it were just called ‘micro-blogging,’ no one would think twice or raise eyebrows that the pope is doing it.”

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the Vatican already uses other social media tools such as Facebook and YouTube. In addition, the pope’s “first tweets will be in response to questions put to [him] via Twitter about faith; the pope isn’t likely answer queries unrelated to religion.” The Vatican’s media advisor adds that the pope “won’t physically write each tweet, [but] will be personally involved in what it says,” the Journal reports.

Given that other religious leaders are already tweeting, does Pope Benedict XVI seem a little late to the game? “So maybe he’s a little late, but better late than never.” Fader says. “And as long as [Twitter] is used in an appropriate manner – and I’m sure that will be the case – then I don’t see any downsides to it at all.”

Adds Berger: “No one is counting. Or expecting the pope to be on technology’s bleeding edge.”

 

 

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