It's a word church folk ought to know
In March, just before Easter, the UCC made internet history - some are saying - by becoming the first religious organization to purchase extensive advertising on 50 of the country's top "blogs."
The UCC's blogad utilized a series of still photos from the 30-second "bouncer" commercial - rejected in December and again in March as "too controversial" by the major broadcast television networks - to entice blog visitors to "see the ad the networks didn't want you to see."
While it's true that the UCC's ad did reach millions of television viewers in March during a three-week cable network buy, the blogads reached millions as well, and the combination seemed to work nicely, early reports indicate.
The proof is in the statistical pudding: In just two weeks, nearly 50,000 people clicked on the blogads to view the UCC's 30-second "bouncer" commercial online.
Even more remarkable is that one-third of those who came to the commercial through the blogs were persuaded to explore the UCC a little deeper, by seeking additional information from one of three UCC websites: ucc.org, stillspeaking.com or accessibleairwaves.org.
Impressed yet? Consider this: More than 40 percent of those who visited stillspeaking.com during the two-week period entered the site via one of the blogads.
"This is, as far as I know, the first time a church has bought blogads," says Henry Copeland, a professional blogad broker in Chapel Hill, N.C., who began worshiping at United Church of Chapel Hill after he first saw the UCC's television ad in December.
Copeland believes the UCC's reach into the blogosphere is in keeping with the church's progressive heritage.
"As well as being on the cutting edge of the evolution of media," he says, "there's a certain historical symmetry in the church's blogad order. The UCC represents the theological descendents of the Puritans . [who] came to America to speak their own minds and escape England's rigid and hierarchical religious orthodoxy. And there's more than a hint of the emphasis on personal autonomy and bottom-up truth-seeking in the blogging community."
Okay, already, so what's a blog?
A blog - short for "web log" - is basically an online journal that, typically, is updated daily with chronological postings by the site's author. The increasing availability of affordable, easy-to-use blog technology is revolutionizing news reporting because far greater numbers are participating in gathering and sharing information.
While the creation of a traditional website may require some degree of technological skill, a blog generally utilizes low-cost "templating software" that requires limited experience to implement or update.
"Distributing information to a global audience used to cost millions of dollars," Copeland says. "Today, thanks to cheap online publishing tools and networks of individual writers, anyone can reach a global audience for the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks."
Ken Deutch, an expert in blogger relationships who lives in Washington, D.C., says blogs are not only in the news, but "increasingly, blogs are impacting news."
Consider, he says, the fact that blogs led to the downfall of several CBS news executives when bloggers uncovered the fraudulence of documents allegedly related to President Bush's National Guard service; the resignation of CNN's Eason Jordan over statements made at the World Economic Forum; or the outing of partisan-plant Jeff Gannon who had acquired top-level access to White House press briefings.
"Blogs have emerged as a powerful force, supplying an army of amateur journalists who write stories about people and events that interest them," Deutch says. "Many journalists have become avid blog readers or contributors. Some editors and journalists have their own blogs. Blogs are no fad - their influence is growing and organizations need to be aware of their power."
Copeland says the intertwining, interlinking nature of blogs has created a powerful online journalistic community.
"Bloggers often read each other's posts and link their own readers to them, creating a kind of virtual information network," Copeland says. "This may not sound like much, but many bloggers today have audiences that rival those of traditional publishers."
The Rev. Robert Chase of the UCC's proclamation, identity and communication ministry calls the blogworld's emergence "the next great revolution in journalism."
"In the tradition of this nation's earliest pamphleteers, bloggers are sharing news and information as a mark of a truly free society, not as something that can be controlled and manipulated by multi-national corporations," Chase says.
While blogs come in all political, social and religious persuasions, progressives - by and large - have more readily embraced blogging as their primary outlet for communicating en masse. Howard Dean's grassroots run for the presidency was fueled heavily by blog-based fundraising and networking, Chase points out.
"In some respects, blogs have become to liberals what talk radio is to conservatives," Chase says.
What would Jesus blog?
When someone asks puzzlingly, "What's a blog?" - one can safely assume the questioner is not under the age of 30.
"Pastors and churches should appreciate the importance of blogs in order to be up to speed with the ways people are now sharing information and debating ideas," Chase says.
For this reason, Deutch recommends that churches and other non-profit groups consider creating their own blogs, as a way of linking members, disseminating information, forging partnerships and encouraging dialogue.
"Having your own blog is a great public relations move and a powerful informational vehicle," Deutch says. "It can open your church's message to a whole new audience and can permit that message to be streamed direct to the public without the filter of the mainstream media.
"Having a blog that is regularly updated can help your church appear more down-to-earth, grassroots-oriented and transparent. Your members can get up-to-the-minute information on your organization's direction and daily activities," Deutch says.
And, in times of controversy or criticism: "Having a blog also means that you can respond to other bloggers more quickly," he says. "You can begin to build a community around your issues."
Let's play blog
In December 2004, says Chase, when CBS and NBC rejected the UCC's television ad, the story received significant attention from bloggers before it ever reached the mainstream television or newspaper. In many ways, Chase emphasizes, blogs create the buzz that elevates important, often-marginalized stories to the point where traditional media can't ignore them any longer.
In January, when the UCC issued an invitation of "unequivocal welcome" to SpongeBob SquarePants, the popular cartoon character criticized by James Dobson's Focus on the Family and other conservative groups for promoting tolerance, the UCC was again the subject of much blog fodder.
At the time, Paul Waldman on his blog Gadflyer.com wrote, "The United Church of Christ is fast emerging as the coolest denomination around - not only are they delivering a message of love and welcoming, but they actually have a sense of humor, something that, with all due respect, is not usually in evidence among those of strong faith."
UCC leaders made the decision to purchase blogads, in part, because of the emerging reputation the church was garnering in the blogosphere. In addition, Chase says, after the networks rejected a second request from the UCC to allow the ads in March, it became clear to him that blogads would be a cost-effective way to go around the networks and reach millions of people.
"Knowing little of blogs six months ago, we increasingly recognize that these folks are informational trend setters," Chase says. "If this ad campaign goes as planned, we'll consider shifting even more to blogs and away from traditional media the next go around."
Copeland affirms the UCC's blogad buy as a way of responding to emerging trends in communications technology.
"All this has happened in the dozen years since the Internet started becoming popular," he says. "Who can imagine how powerful this medium will be in another dozen years?"