HIGH CONCEPT MARCH 13, 2013
Congratulations on your election! And welcome to the biggest turnaround mission since Marissa Mayer took over Yahoo!. Our colleagues in the media have offered you no shortage of advice on how to comport yourself like a CEO, run the church like a troubled business, or follow the public relations innovations of contemporary American politics.
But why follow the lead of a discredited business world or a profession most people disdain? Perhaps the better strategy is to take some lessons from one sector of the marketplace many people treat as a source of divine know-how: the tech business. Rejuvenating a brand that’s been in decline for a few centuries now—and overhauling a sclerotic infrastructure—represents one serious pivot. To pull it off, you’re going to need to take inspiration from leaders for whom iteration is a gospel unto itself.
More than anyone else, tech entrepreneurs—the successful ones, at least—know how to reach new audiences and reinvent markets, all on a shoestring. So buckle down: You’re in startup mode again. Here’s what the pros do that you can adopt.
- Ask Me Anything: One central attribute of tech companies—their relative absence of hierarchy, with the lowliest engineer working across the room from the CEO—would be hard to replicate in the Catholic Church, perhaps the most top-down organization on earth. But you can at least create the appearance of transparency and access through a favorite tool of Google: the Friday meetings, broadcast in offices around the world, in which any employee can ask questions of the founders. Clergy would welcome the opportunity for even virtual face time with the guy in charge, and you’ll get a better sense of how the foot soldiers are faring.
- Massively Open Online Mass: Over the past few years, Khan Academy has ushered in something of a revolution in education by making available lectures by a guy who does them really well—Salman Khan—so that teachers can skip that part and instead spend classroom time helping kids really understand and apply the material they learned online. You’re already merging parishes because you don’t have enough priests. By getting the best of the cloth to record themselves, you can make sure everyone has access to quality spiritual instruction, wherever they happen to be located—even confession can be conducted via Google hangout. Just like Jesus, you must meet your adherents at the marketplace, and now the marketplace is everywhere.
- Divinely Big Data: How much do you know about your followers, really? A deep understanding of who’s on board, what frustrates them, and what keeps them around would help you stanch the bleeding in places like the United States and Europe, and consolidate gains in Africa and South America. Your first order of business should be surveying the flock, in writing or online, both to show you’re listening and to design targeted outreach campaigns where they could do the most good.
- Earthly Omniscience: So, you’re on Twitter. Great! But it’s not just a platform for pushing out your message in occasional proclamations. The technology now exists for you to reach people in their moments of greatest receptivity to God's word, in real time, by launching tweets at people triggered by key phrases—a good way to contact people who may never have otherwise known they were interested.
- Elevate Your Ambassadors: Any new product will gain traction more quickly by gaining influential devotees in early adopter communities. That’s important too, but older products—like, say, a 2,000-year-old religion—should also create associations with people who have more pop-culture cachet. Luckily, you’ve got quite a few to choose from, if they’ll agree to it: Nicole Kidman, Stephen Colbert, Roger Federer, and Martin Sheen would make for one hell of a “Why I’m Catholic” marketing campaign.
- Streamline the Onboarding Process: In startup land, if it’s difficult to start using your product, you’re toast. And the Catholic equivalent—converting later in life through confirmation—can be a lengthy and onerous process, involving months of Bible classes, getting a sponsor, and choosing a saint. Consider reversing the process: Get people in the door early, and then allow them to learn gradually, rather than raising a barrier to entry up front.
- Recruit Like Your Life Depends On It: Because it does. Just like a new company, whether the Church thrives or withers depends on the talent it can bring on board, given the drastic lack of priestly manpower at the moment. Unlike new companies, you can’t offer signing bonuses. But you can encourage your bishops to personally reach out to promising candidates, offer them perks like the ability to marry, and broaden the pool to a so-far-untapped resource: women. (Although the tech world could use some help there as well).