Alexa, say Grace
EVEN for those of us who are accustomed to living with a ‘digital assistant’ in the house, asking a smart speaker to commune with the Divine might seem a big step up from requesting the weather or the time of the next train.
Thanks to the Church of England, though, the Alexa in your kitchen will not only say thank you before a meal, but will offer you prayers before bedtime and attempt to answer the question Who is God?
Alexa’s conversion is part of a digital transformation that has seen the Church of England leapfrog many more established communicators when it comes to its website, audio offerings and social media use. The organisation even picked up two trophies at last year’s CorpComms Awards, one for Best Corporate Website and another for Best Digital Campaign, awarded for its Amazon Alexa skill. The Church also achieved highly commended certificates for its #LiveLent digital campaign and for content manager Amaris Cole, who was highly commended in the Young Achiever Category.
‘We’ve been through a huge change,’ says Adrian Harris, who was appointed head of digital at the Church of England in October 2016. ‘Before I came there was no investment in digital - just a very simple website that would point people to their local church and one junior employee who was looking at the Church’s web presence as part of their job.
‘The Church recognised that there was a huge opportunity to use websites and other digital means to encourage both regular churchgoers and those who were just exploring what we had to offer.’
Harris’s background was in corporate digital communications. Before joining the CofE, he had worked for Bupa and Tesco, amongst others. ‘In some ways, the challenge was similar,’ he says. ‘At Tesco I was in charge of using social media and other digital methods to protect and promote the brand’s reputation. For the church it is the same, as well as using digital to allow people to access Christian content whenever they are.’
Some catching up to do
As soon as he was appointed, Harris launched an ambitious three-year plan to address many years of underinvestment in the Church’s digital strategy. It included transforming the Church’s four main websites: its national site; the sites dedicated to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and a site called A Church Near You, which allows users to search for local churches by postcode.
The combined websites, which had more than 100 editors and 70,000 pages of content, enjoyed more than ten million page views annually, but almost 55 per cent of those visitors left immediately, because they couldn’t find what they wanted.
‘We inherited a site that had not seen significant redevelopment in 12 years,’ Harris says. ‘It was structured around the Church of England’s complicated structure, making it difficult for users to find content. It was very clear that we were failing to effectively serve our various audiences. We definitely had some catching up to do.’
As well a website redesign, the three-year plan focussed on introducing social media campaigns linked to key Church festivals including Lent and Advent.
Harris also planned to use the Church’s content - including that held by its official publisher Church House - more effectively.
Harris’s first step was to work out what his audience wanted from the CofE’s digital content. As he explains, the Church must serve several different audiences. These include churchgoers who want to interact with their faith in the same way as they do with their bank, store or friends: online.
However, the Church must also interact with those who do not regularly step over the threshold. These include those who are exploring the possibility of faith, as well as those who wish to use their parish to mark milestones in life such as baptism, marriage or a funeral.
Many members of the clergy were supportive of a change to make the church more digital. Liz Clutterbuck, curate at Christchurch Highbury, London, says: ‘I think it’s important for the church to be wherever people are. Mission is about far more than just trying to get people into church buildings; it’s about meeting people where they are – including in a digital space.’
The CofE began with a ten-week research project including quantitative and qualitative research. ‘We looked at how users interacted with our content,’ Harris says. ‘We also carried out online national surveys, numerous one-to-one interviews and held focus groups across the country.’
He used the results of this research to make five major changes on the Church’s website. The first was to make it easier to navigate. The new website has an improved search engine, and is designed to be mobile first.
The website also has a new section for explorers, with video content that explains Christianity and a Life Events section for those who want to use the Church for baptisms, weddings or funerals.
Local churches have been involved in providing new images that show the breadth of activities that go on, while they are also able to use the new content within their own services and on their own websites and other digital platforms.
Although the number of pages across the CofE’s websites has been reduced seven-fold to just 10,000, the new look has increased page views by 20 per cent. Harris says that this is because the quality has improved and the site makes it easier for people to find what they need. ‘We’ve slimmed down access to 50 page editors, and all have received training in writing for the web,’ he explains.
A Digital Reimagining
The Church’s digital transformation has not been solely about website redesign, nor has it been down to the CofE alone. Harris has had help from various other organisations.
These include Church House Publishing, which is the official publisher of the Church of England, as well as an organisation known as Kingdom Code, which has the strapline Love Jesus. Love Tech.
The Kingdom Code group is made up of coders and other technology enthusiasts who want to use their skills to further the faith of others. Presided over by James Doc, who himself holds the title of digital ministry developer at the Globe Church on the South Bank, Kingdom’s collaboration with the Church of England can be credited with taking the Church’s digital conversion another step forward.
‘The Church used to be at the forefront of technology, but that was a while ago,’ Doc says. ‘St Paul sent letters on new Roman Roads, and then there was the use of the printing press. More recently, Chad Varah set up a telephone line in his vicarage in 1953 that became The Samaritans. Christians have always used the tools of the day to be where people are. But we’ve fallen behind. The digital world moves so fast and it is hard and harder to keep up with technology unless you are living and breathing it each day.’
Kingdom Code and the Church of England held the first combined ‘Digital Labs’ event in February 2018 – a second one was held this March – aimed at furthering the Church’s digital transformation. From this came the Church of England Amazon Alexa skill, which launched last October. The skill has proved popular with owners of the Amazon Echo devices and is due to be rolled out to Google Home and Apple devices as well.
The skill takes some of the rich bank of content owned by Church House Publishing, and makes it accessible on request. ‘We were able to very quickly bring something out that works for a range of different audiences,’ Harris says. ‘It is of very high quality and gives people the chance to access Christian content wherever they are.’
The skill has proved popular, both with churchgoers and with those who are in a more explorative phase of their lives. The Church’s statistics show that 35 per cent of people are using the skill to say morning and evening prayers, while ten per cent use it to say grace before meals. One fifth find a local church using Alexa, and 35 per cent use it to explore Christianity.
James Poulter, chief executive of Vixen Labs and an adviser to the Church of England Digital Board, says that the skill is used by those who want to incorporate the Church into a daily routine. ‘It can help people to make good habits,’ he says.
Reverend Clutterbuck says that the skill serves an important function for a number of people who don’t worship regularly.
‘It has the capability of bringing a spiritual dimension to life for those who might otherwise never think about coming into church,’ she says. ‘Many who do not worship in a church regularly still see an importance to prayer, but don’t know how to do it. The fact that there are prayers for different times of the day, plus graces and the prayer for the day, provides people with a starting point that’s accessible. Alexa, say grace is much easier than trying to find the words yourself.’
She points out that those who ask for prayers are not faced with a robotic voice. ‘All the prayers are audio recordings of people actually praying, so they are prayers in and of themselves.’
The fact that they are audio recordings didn’t stop the launch providing plenty of press coverage, with major news outlets from the BBC to The Sun featuring Alexa’s new capacity to pray, however.
Mike Gearon, a voice assistant expert from content agency Brand Content, said that he had tried the app and found it ‘really good’. ‘It’s interesting to see the Church of England embracing such new technology,’ he adds. ‘I wouldn’t necessarily have expected it.’
A social revolution
Alongside the website and Alexa skill, the CofE has launched a number of social media campaigns based around the church calendar. These have included the #LiveLent campaign, which reached 3.54 million people, with 16,000 signing up for daily reflections and a 27 per cent increase in the number of people using the Church’s website to find an Easter service. The #LiveLent campaign was integrated with the Church’s more traditional publishing, working hand in hand with a #LiveLent booklet distributed by churches.
The Church advertised on Facebook and Instagram, calculating that the average cost per click was just 0.01p.
'The campaign set us up well for future years,’ Harris says. The Christmas Follow The Star campaign, ‘a journey through the 12 days of Christmas’ which offered daily reflections, built further on new social media capability, reaching 7.94 million on social media, up by 1.14 million from the #GodWithUs campaign in 2017.
As well as running national campaigns, the Church is also training local parishes in social media at a grassroots level, which it hopes will bear dividends across the wider 16,500 church body.
Poulter says that he hopes that the training will help local churches to connect with their communities.
‘Many churches do not have a high level of technology understanding,’ he says. ‘But life is lived online now, and the Church has a role to play in helping people to live life in a world where we have to navigate social media and to be more connected.’
Tom Mauchline, senior consultant at Portland, who has worked with The Bible Society, amongst others, on communication strategy believes that social media and the Church are a natural fit.
‘The Church has been doing peer-to-peer and ‘social’ communication for centuries,’ he says. ‘It encourages people to go off and proselytise on its behalf – go create user-generated content, be that by telling stories, creating a quilt or sharing something online. Jesus’ parables were designed to share the church’s values person to person – it sounds flippant, but they were the first viral content.’
Bringing the brand up to date
The Church’s rapid digital transition has provided positive press coverage, particularly in the case of the Alexa Skill. Marketing and communication experts, as well as church stalwarts, are positive about its impact on the CofE ‘brand’.
Nick Evans, chairman of Extra Mile Communications, says that the Church faces similar challenges to a football club or other membership organisation, when it comes to communicating.
‘They need to keep a dedicated audience warm, engaged and interested,’ he explains, adding that he was ‘pleasantly surprised’ when he reviewed the CofE’s digital offering. ‘Digital means of doing this are very much the way forward.’
Evans believes that the challenge for the Church will be to balance skills like Alexa, which do not push people towards the Church’s content but allow them to ask for it, with other forms of digital conversation such as tweets, emails and direct messaging. ‘Alexa on its own won’t work - it has to be part of a coherent strategy.’
Luke Budka, director of TopLine Communications, says that voice search and other digital improvements should help to make the Church more accessible. ‘I come at this from the selling angle, and people need to sell religion as much as sell blue widgets,’ he says. ‘Voice search is a great way to engage the younger generation, and makes things more accessible.’
However, there’s a note of caution from Will Wright, account manager at agency 21:12. ‘The Church is in a difficult place, with attendance figures dropping for decades. While giving churchgoers access to resources at home will help bring in a younger audience, it could still be hard to get them involved. This is a good start, but it is how they build on it and keep improving that will make the big difference.’
What’s next for the Church of England?
For Harris, the digital transformation of the Church is far from over. New social media campaigns, further use of artificial intelligence and support for local churches to build their own capabilities are all priorities going forward.
‘The aim is to try initiatives out, take risks for the Gospel, share the good news of Jesus Christ, and work at pace in such a fast-changing area,’ he says, while Reverend Clutterbuck cautions that technology and digital change needs to be seen as a means, rather than an end.
‘Tech is a really valuable space in which the church needs to operate,’ she says. ‘Church is not just about worship, it’s fellowship too and I think it’s important to see the church’s technological developments as augmenting a relationship with Christ and a local congregation – not replacing them.’
A new Digital Labs event for the Church was held in Salford in March. Poulter explains that its focus was to look at how technology could help to bring, and keep, children and young people in the church. ‘This is a really big opportunity for us - since we know that many young people leave the church at transitional stages, such as when they start secondary school or leave for university,’ he says. ‘Using technology to keep them engaged is really important. I’m hoping that we’ll come up with some really exciting solutions.’
Asked how important it is for the Church of England to get digital communication right, he replies that ‘I really cannot emphasise enough how important this is for the future of the Church in the modern age.
‘At the moment, a lot of people might say that they are not Christian, but simply spiritual, or that they are Christian but do not go to church. We need to use technology to persuade them of the benefits of being engaged in a local faith community. We really need to get this right.’