It is always a challenge to break through and get in front of people who are not already connected to your church online. You can always use paid advertising, but some recent changes to Facebook and Instagram are offering new opportunities and emphasizing strategies that are completely free.
Location is a renewed focus for Facebook and Instagram
Facebook and Instagram are always adding or expanding features to keep people engaged with their apps. Throughout 2017, we saw a refocus on the role location plays in both social networks.
Enhanced Facebook location search
First came an enhancement of search results on Facebook. Taking a page out of the playbook of recommendation and discovery apps like Yelp or even Google Maps, Facebook has begun to highlight local options when users search for various topics.
Search results on both desktop and mobile now feature a map and a listing of locations that include distance from your current location, business hours, your Facebook friends that have previously "checked in" at the location, and a star rating pulled from the business or organization's Facebook Page.
Facebook is also subtly encouraging location searches via the autocomplete suggestions that appear while users enter search terms. For example, when you type "church" into the desktop or mobile search bar, "churches near me" and "churches nearby" are two of the top suggested searches.
Location stories on Instagram
Stories, Instagram's wildly successful feature copied directly from Snapchat, allows users to share photos and videos that expire after 24 hours. In June 2017, just one year after launching Stories, Instagram reported that they had 250 million active daily users of the feature.
In May 2017, Instagram introduced location stories, a feature that curates and presents story segments from the public that are tagged with location "stickers." You can view location stories for cities, states, countries and even some famous locations, like Times Square.
Segments tagged with your church as the location or segments from your church's account that tag your city, or a location within your city, have the potential to be featured in your city's story. This can be very valuable, as your city's location story is featured prominently on the Explore tab for everyone in your area. Being featured in your city's story guarantees extra exposure, and it costs nothing!
How to take advantage of location features
The first and most important step is likely something you have already done: Include your church's physical address in the About section of your Facebook page. If you have not done this yet, or if you have listed an alternative like a P.O. Box, you should strongly consider including your church's physical address. This is critical because the information you enter here is used by both Facebook and Instagram for tagging locations. If you do not list your physical address, your church will not appear as an option when tagging posts or story segments for location.
Second, start tagging your posts and Stories on Instagram with a location. For standard posts, location can be added to the screen where you input the caption. For Stories, location is added via a "sticker" during the creation process. Tagging your posts and Stories makes them eligible to be featured on location pages and within location stories on Instagram.
Note: If the post includes images or video of children, for purposes of safety and privacy, you might not want to include location tags and should always seek permission from the parents or guardians before posting.
Similarly, your Instagram post can use public Facebook events as a location tag. While searching location tags for your Instagram post, just enter the name of a Facebook event and it should pop up in the suggestions. This cool little integration allows your Instagram post to use the same location tag as your Facebook event.
You can use location tagging for your church Facebook events, but for wider exposure, take advantage of this feature when you are attending or participating in community events. Create posts or story segments that feature members in church t-shirts or include added text like "First UMC loves our city!" Next, tag the post or add the event's location sticker to your story segment. Your posts will then be discoverable by people checking out the event on Facebook and/or Instagram.
Third, encourage your congregation to take actions that will help with location-based features. "Checking in" at a location has declined over the last couple years, but Facebook's enhanced location search results now include this information as social proof. Members don't need to check in every time they come, but if they will do it just once, it appears as part of the search results for their Facebook friends. It is an easy way to essentially "recommend" the church.
Teach the Instagram users in your congregation how to add location stickers and suggest ways they can use the feature to help promote the church. For special occasions, consider creating fun backdrops or settings for people to use in Instagram posts or Stories. If you have a sermon series themed around the movies, create a "red carpet" area. If VBS is beach themed, create a fun backdrop and make available inexpensive props like inflatable fish or giant sunglasses that people can use. Posts and Stories from members offer a different perspective and can have a different impact than posts from the official church account.
Finally, monitor what types and styles of story segments tend to get selected and create similar content. There is currently no information available from Instagram about how segments are chosen for location stories. However, observation for even a few days will reveal patterns. For example, if the majority of featured story segments are videos as opposed to still photographs, shoot more video. If they primarily feature "slice of life" style posts, make sure you're sharing the activity of your ministry outside of official events and tagging locations other than just your church campus. And if you're noticing mostly posts from individuals as opposed to brands, businesses or organizations, double down on the previous point above and put your effort into getting your staff, volunteers and other members involved.