Thursday, April 14, 2005
Unitarian Jihad: Not our 'iPod strategy.'
Lest people misunderstand what I'm encouraging with all this attention to the "Unitarian Jihad" fad, let me clarify a few things — and give you an opportunity to vent:
1. I'm primarily interested in learning how to identify and respond to little bursts of Internet publicity for Unitarian Universalists. Some publicity — in fact, a lot of publicity — isn't ideal, especially for a misunderstood religion that's already the butt of a lot of jokes. The key for our marginal religious movement is figuring out how to turn unfortunate publicity into an opportunity to tell our own story. The "Unitarian Jihad" meme attracted a lot of attention, most of it obviously transient, silly, and unflattering, but we can't stop this kind of attention. Happily, there are ways of redirecting at least some of this attention in directions we care about. That's my priority.
Some might say, "But it's just the Internet. It's not real publicity." Unfortunately, for many people — especially for many younger people — the Internet is a very large portion of their media diet. If we want to introduce some vitamins into a junk food diet, we have to figure this form of media out.
2. In trying to point at least some of the "Unitarian Jihad" traffic toward real Unitarian Universalism, I'm drawing on my observation that an astonishing number of people know nothing about Unitarianism, much less about Universalism. I don't mean that they haven't read William Ellery Channing very thoroughly or that they have a distorted perception of Hosea Ballou's theory of atonement; I mean that they have never heard the words "Unitarian" or "Universalist" before and don't have a clue what they stand for. Do a Google search sometime for "Unitarian Universalist 100%" and check out the number of young people's blogs and message boards where people report that they've just taken the Belief-o-Matic and turned out to believe in the doctrines of a religion they've never heard of.
Every time one of our words is first introduced to a large number of people, at least a few of them are going to want to learn more. I want to reach them with some of our message, even if they think they're simply looking for a good laugh or form a negative first impression. In our culture, these silly chain emails and blog fads actually transmit forms of cultural knowledge. Some of it happens to be about us. Not the best knowledge, mind you, but I figure we have to learn how the game works and then play it.
I don't care how uncomfortable the overtones of the original joke played out, or whether they offend our heightened rhetorical sensitivities. We can save the reeducation camps & conferences for later; the first priority is giving an improved context to the part of the phrase that belongs to us. I'm sure many Muslims are mad about the "Islamic Jihad" thing; I'm sure most of them, if they read Jon Carroll's column, recognize that "Unitarian Jihad" mocks the terrorist group, not the religion it very badly represents.
3. The highly focused little ad strategy that Chutney hit upon should not be mistaken for a marketing strategy for Unitarian Universalism. It's a tiny, targeted, flexible way of reaching very specific people in a specific context. A Google search for Unitarian Universalism won't bring up the Unitarian Jihad ad. I haven't seen it show up in the Google ads that show up on my site. Only a "unitarian jihad" search will bring up the ad. I think that's clever and useful.
Strategies that attempt to respond to or reframe or redirect some small piece of cultural conversation about Unitarian Universalism should never be confused with a general marketing strategy for a local church, much less for the whole movement. One thing ought to be very clear: Responding to something like Jon Carroll's column requires a bit of entrepreneurial evangelism — and a sense of humor — but let me be as clear as I can be: a UU "iPod strategy" it ain't.
4. This should be obvious, but perhaps isn't: In suggesting that Unitarian Universalists take some individual initiative in responding to some kinds of publicity, I'm suggesting that many forms of marketing don't require vast institutional resources or UUA involvement. But we do have to take some responsibility for this. People do not simply wake up thinking, "Hey! I oughta check out that Unitarian Universalist church." We have an unusual faith; we may need to learn to use some unusual methods to reach people.
5. An experiment can go well, or it can go badly. The point here is to learn how these trends/fads work, how to identify ones that require a response from ones that are simply fleeting, and how to develop appropriate and effective responses. Will "Unitarian Jihad" yield some first-time or return visitors to a UU church? Hopefully, yes. But no matter what, some other little opportunity is going to show up, and next time we might even be quicker at recognizing and seizing an opportunity.
Then again, Chutney and I and others could be completely off our rockers, as you are very welcome to suggest in the comments below. If you'd like to help think through the response, though, please comment at "How's the Unitarian Jihad doing?"
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 14 April 2005 at 8:45 AM