Marketing and religion are almost as uncomfortable in the same sentence as politics and religion. As the world is about to have its next Pope, social media will play a role before, during, and after his appointment.
It seems every big milestone gets the label of being the first social (fill in the blank). We’ve had elections, Super Bowls, and Olympics. Even the recent Oscars have changed because of social media. But we haven’t had a social Pope--yet.
Thinking about the appointment of the Pope as an election process, there have been several major elections around the globe where social media has played a vital role in deciding the outcome. Even at local government levels, through social media, it is even easier to provide your opinion to your representative or committee.
During the Conclave, the Cardinals are in a small room sealed off from the outside world. It is a micro community making a decision that will have a macro impact. The press will make its speculations. It did last time. But, for the first time, it is undeniable that the world will be making its opinion known, too.
A Little History
In 2009, the Catholic Church waded into social media via H2ONews , Facebook, YouTube, and an iPhone app . All this was brought to us by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
In the years that followed, Pope Benedict commented on social media. He even gave it his approval and acknowledged its role. He tweeted for the first time on 12/12/12, and despite relative inactivity on the medium quickly reached 2.5 million followers.
Almost as a sign of how powerful social media is, Benedict resigned his Twitter account  on his last day at the helm.
Lessons For The Next Pope
Like a lot of big institutions, the church has been slow to embrace social media. They’re fearful of making a mistake.
There is a lesson to be learned from previous Pope, John Paul II. He was often referred to as the “People’s Pope.” His popularity was huge.
The fear of making a mistake in social media is a real one--especially, for such an influential public institution. However, there are some lessons to be taken from marketing and branding.
1. The conversation is happening, with or without you: There is no turning a blind eye. The new Pope will likely be selected by the end of March. There will undoubtedly be more conversations this month about the Vatican, the Catholic Church, the Pope, and the processes than ever before. When you know there is going to be this much volume of discussion, it isn’t enough just to watch.
Brands actively try to facilitate, participate in the conversation. Ideally, they look for ways to engage their audience. Additionally, they look to capitalize on this increased attention to grow their base for future engagements.
2. Hire and hire well: Just at the People’s Pope hired a great press secretary, today it must be a social media team. Businesses and professionals alike are realizing that it isn’t just participating in social media that is necessary. A thorough brand strategy with communications and messaging schedules are imperative.
With a global brand, the need is even greater. One of the biggest successes in the Obama re-election campaign was the tireless effort of his social media team. He had hired the best minds in the business to put together one of the most sophisticated social media efforts to date.
3. Managing A Super Star: Public figures have handlers. So does the Pope. His every movement is tracked and choreographed. So too should his social media activity. His daily engagements are purposeful with a desired outcome. So too should be his social media activity. Each engagement the Pope has carries a specific purpose and is a way to reach out to his followers. So too, again should his social media activity.
Like it or not, the next Pope will be the first social Pope. As throughout history, he will have the lessons of his predecessors on which to draw. The engagement strategies of the People’s Pope and the infrastructure set forth by Benedict will be his base.
It will be interesting to watch how the new Pope steps into his role in this modern age. It will be interesting to see the path that he and the Vatican set forth. And the world won’t just be watching things unfold--it will be commenting throughout the entire process.
--Marcus Fischer is the president and chief strategy officer with Carmichael Lynch , an advertising agency based in Minneapolis.
[Image: Flickr user Jesper Sachmann ]