What a Bunch of Teenage Activists Can Teach Every Communications Professional

Responsiveness, clarity, and discipline matter as much as creativity.

Vanity Fair just published a behind-the-scenes look at the teenagers behind the #NeverAgain movement. Described as a “meme factory,” this group of students are all survivors of the Parkland, FL school shooting in February 2018.

Their goals are threefold: a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; universal background checks; and overturning legislation that prohibits the CDC from studying gun violence. Their strategy is to remain a dominant media presence (not just social media) that changes the conversation around gun violence in America.

There’s a lot to talk about in this article, but as a church communicator, I couldn’t help but be amazed at all I can learn from this group of young people. The things they do intuitively are the very things that churches struggle to do occasionally. And where churches are embracing the same strategies as the #NeverAgain group, they’re seeing growth.

Here are a few of the things that stood out to me:

They know where their audience lives. How do younger millennials and Gen-Zers get their news and information? Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and most of all, YouTube. “What a lot of my generation does is come home from school, eat a snack, and watch whatever’s in their subscription box from YouTube. That’s how they got a lot of their information.”

10 million people watched the #NeverAgain/March for Our Lives kids on 60 Minutes. Combined, the core group gets that many interactions on social media almost every day. They understand that influence is a direct result of creating community around content.

They are prolific content creators. They work as a team, and if nobody says no, they assume it’s a yes and move forward. Whether it’s a tweet or a video, they’re always making.

The end goal isn’t online activity, it’s offline activity. And their approach to offline activity is well-managed. They realize they can’t be everywhere all the time, so they planned the DC march and delegated the planning for other regions’ marches. But they sent out briefing documents, conducted conference calls – recognizing that one bad tweet can undo it all.

They stay on-message. They’re not anti-gun, just for more common sense around gun laws. They reiterate the specifics of their agenda over and over again: ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; universal background checks; re-authorizing the CDC to study gun violence. They stay on-message, and don’t depart from it.

Responsiveness. They leverage every opportunity. They move fast. From script to filming to social post in a couple of hours, not days. They don’t wait until Monday to jump on an opportunity.

They take risks. These kids are from an upper middle class suburb, and have lives full of opportunity and comfort. But they are choosing the less comfortable road ahead of them for the greater good. They regularly receive death threats, to the point that their office location remains a hidden secret.

They understand how much tone matters. They vet the tone of what they do to avoid too much sarcasm, too much anger, sounding too easy to write off. They are aware of each other’s strengths: some are acerbic and wonkish, some are emotional, some are comedic/satirical.

Basic rules: no profanity. no violence, actual, symbolic or implied. No personal digs. MLK’s third principle of nonviolence: defeat injustice, not people.

They are brash and bold in the brainstorming phase, but cautious in the editing room. They don’t always get their tone right at the start, but they refine it until it works. Anyone else find this remarkable for a team of high school students with a political agenda?

On Copywriting

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

– Gary Provost

Most churches are focused primarily on delivering information verbally. Sermons, announcements, prayers, scripture readings… all verbal. Part of the reason for that is that most people vary the tone of their voice, their inflections, and their posture when they speak. It just comes naturally.

But in writing, people only hear the voice in their head. The only variations in cadence, tone, and posture are often just the ones they’re projecting onto the words they’re typing – unless they consciously make an effort to vary those things.

When you write shorter copy for things like promotional pieces or short bits of information in your app or website, keep it clear, use the 3 C’s I mentioned elsewhere. But when it comes to blogging,  or longer-form content, make sure you incorporate variety of sentence length throughout your writing.

When Not to be Creative

Creativity is highly valued in today’s church world. Churches put countless hours into crafting creative elements in their worship services, making promo videos or graphics for a teaching series, even a Christmas video.

And this is a good thing! It’s not easy to stand out in today’s crowded infoscape. In the 1970’s, the average person was exposed to about 500 marketing messages per day; now it’s closer to 10,000. Many consumers switch screens up to 21 times per hour in a typical day.  It takes a lot of creativity to get people’s attention.

But there’s one place where being less creative actually helps: search.

When you want your sermon highlight to stand out in a regular attender’s Facebook news feed as they scroll by, you need to be creative. When you want a visitor to open the follow-up email you sent them, your subject line has to be creative.

But when you want someone to be able to find you when they’re looking for you or something like you… that is not the time to be creative.

Google (let’s be honest here: when we say search, we mean Google) doesn’t care about your creativity; in some ways, it even penalizes it.

Google is only interested in determining one thing: is this content relevant to the person who’s searching for something right now? And it does that by asking a few different questions.

First: does the content contain the keywords that the person is searching for? If you’re creating content for the person who’s in need of a recovery ministry, then you need to put the word recovery in your content (obviously). But you also need to include likely synonyms for your keywords, because not everyone thinks like you do. Some people (usually church people) search for a recovery ministry; but many more search for recovery programs or recovery groups or recovery meetings. So make sure you write those into your copy as well. Not everyone thinks like you do, and Google is trying to think like everyone.

Second: is the content using natural language that would be helpful to the person searching?  Some time ago, Google eliminated the value of keyword spam, the senseless repetition of a word multiple times in a piece of content, which looked like this:

“If you want to learn about church marketing, then church marketing blogs can help your church marketing team get better at church marketing, whether they have experience in church marketing or no experience in church marketing, whether they have lots of church marketing resources, or no church marketing resources….”

You get the idea. You’ll get penalized for repeating keywords over and over again, so don’t do it. Instead, think like Google does. AI is real, people! Google’s search engine actually reads your copy like a person, and determines whether the copy sounds like a good source of information for the person searching. So write naturally.

Third: what do other people think? Okay, so Google’s not really asking you for your opinion on things. But it is using data to figure out what content is “good” and what isn’t, starting with, how many other people clicked on the link to that content when I showed it to them in the results of this same search?

I know it seems unfair; you’re probably thinking, “how am I supposed to get people to check out my web page content when I’m not showing up in search yet?” Good question.

Google weighs more than just clicks in search results. How many people viewed the page? How long do they stay on the page when they do there? How many links send people to that page? These are all measures of content quality.

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