Simon Grant's quaker links

Internet-enabled outreach

Paper accompanying a talk delivered by Simon Grant at Britain Yearly Meeting at Exeter, 2001-08-02; page checked 2002-12-24

What is outreach?

The question would take an age to exhaust. Ask Harvey Gillman! But to discuss outreach in terms of the Internet, I need some working definition. In full knowledge that other Friends may think of outreach differently, I would personally describe the objectives of outreach, at a local level, thus.

Many friends distinguish outreach from inreach (Alastair Heron's term). Outreach, as above, is concerned with finding people and bringing them to discover and sample what we offer: to begin to engage with the Society, experience Meeting for Worship, perhaps to be counted as Attenders. Though there is no absolute dividing line, inreach is the process by which a newcomer to the society (after having been found by outreach) is informed, nurtured and encouraged towards a more definite participation in, commitment to, or relationship with, the Society. Thus, "enquirer's days" arranged for new attenders, or those possibly considering membership, are concerned with inreach, not outreach (and because of this potential confusion I have not used the term enquirer further in this paper).

In the attempt to achieve these outreach objectives, many different methods are used, and for this paper I shall consider these in terms of different functions. What are these outreach functions, and how have they been done pre-Internet? I suggest the following list, some of which are shared with inreach as noted.

  1. Enabling interested people to find us if they know what they are looking for (telephone directories, local information).
  2. Providing and distributing information on who and what we are (brochures left out or circulated).
  3. Going out to them; meeting them where they are (posters, adverts, radio, other publicity).
  4. Communicating with people who are expressing interest (receiving, sending letters; telephone).
  5. Sending newsletters (outreach and inreach).
  6. Drawing people in to events we organise (e.g. on peace, social issues).
  7. Providing facilities or services through which people may come to know of us (Meeting House lettings, hosting other events, funding projects). This function is shared with inreach.
  8. Communicating face-to-face.
If I have left anything out, I would be grateful if readers would let me know.

How can this be done with the Internet?

1, 2. Directories and brochures

Web sites with search engines can cover this aspect without much difficulty at low cost and effort. The Web site is the brochure; the search engine is the directory. The sites I am responsible for - the various FWCC pages and the Italian site - draw a definite slow trickle of enquiries, which means that at least some people find them. However, it seems common experience that local sites currently draw very few enquiries - this is true of the Liverpool site. Perhaps for a while we have to consider ourselves as preparing the ground. Enquiries will come, and even one or two new attenders found through this channel make it worthwhile.

The first thing that is required is good information, presented clearly, easy to find within a site, easy to read, in a language which communicates to the reader. Information to be given on such a site would normally include at least times and places of meetings, and some contact details. It doesn't really matter who the contact people are, or where they are, as long as they know about the local meetings and reply quickly to enquiries. (Speed of response is considered further below.) Remembering that some people are new to the Internet, telephone numbers and postal addresses should also be included if there are Friends able and willing to deal with enquiries through those channels. It may be worth bearing in mind that many people like to use the telephone, but some do not like leaving messages - for them a message on an answering machine may be more hostile than an e-mail address.

Information should be presented in a form which is accessible to people with a broad range of human ability and a broad range of levels of technology. The Internet is far from an inclusive medium as it is (though steadily getting more inclusive), so there is little reason to make matters worse by presenting information in a way which significant numbers of people find inaccessible.

There are several ways in which a web site can create difficulties for readers, apart from the language itself. Excessive graphics; unreadable fonts; complex layout; using new technology such as Flash without alternatives - the list extends. Fortunately there are several web sites that advise on accessibility. Wordy but detailed are the W3C's Web Content Accessibilty Guidelines. Shorter articles are, for example, Jacob Nielsen's article on Disabled Accessibility, which serves as an introdution to the W3C documents. Usableweb has a whole page of links to useful-looking web sites and pages on accessibility.

If a reader has and old computer, a slow connection, or old browser software, anything that uses fancy techniques may be a problem. To allow for this, it is best to keep a site fairly plain, and not try to be glamorous. That does not mean that you have to, or should, follow my, or Russ Nelson's (on www.quaker.org) rather puritan or spartan style. Speaking for myself, I do this because I have very little sense of graphic design, and I am wary of wasting effort on it. Examples may be found of the kind of restrained, but effective design which does not overburden a slow connection (but as I am no expert I will not make recommendations).

One of the good things about a web site is that it can naturally extend to including study material or links to study material. Material that is common to many meetings is generally best placed on a national or international site, and linked to, rather than copied. Material particular to a local meeting could be provided on the meeting's own site. Eventually we could have public records of many kinds attached to local web sites, which would help to bring in people with an interest in whatever information is provided.

For printed brochures in particular, decisions have to be made on how deep to go into detail. On the web also it is important to prioritise the main points, particularly as people are reluctant to read large amounts of text on screen. The main points need to be on the first pages that someone new to Quakers will visit. If done with care, much more information can be provided in linked pages without swamping the reader initially, and web pages are an improvement in this way over printed brochures.

What search engines?

Most people with substantial Internet experience will know the directories and search engines well. Yahoo (or its UK version), AltaVista and recently Google are three of the most important players. These engines are also used on other sites as well. There are also sites which link you to, and review, very many more search engines, and those with a serious interest in the topic could well start there. http://www.searchengineguide.com/ and http://www.searchenginewatch.com/ are two of these.

The major search engines will probably find your site in the end if there are links to it from anywhere else. But one should register any site with the major ones at least. There is usually a link from the search engine's home page which tells you how.

Search engines are vital for finding web pages, but not a solution to every search. You should consider how interested people might realistically be searching, and where. One useful principle is to go onto the Web and pretend you are searching for related things. Suppose someone is looking for the Quaker presence in Exeter. Would they put in "Quakers Exeter"? If they did, in Google, you can see the results here. On 22nd July, this gave several results related to BYM, but the PM site was only on the second page of results. But I'm glad to say that on August 23rd, Google returned the PM site 2nd - things can change! (I'm lucky with "Quakers Liverpool" ...)

Explore on! Try putting in "Friends Meeting House Exeter" or any other combination that you imagine might be put in by someone looking for us. Try different search engines. The words you (as web site builder) put on your web site will affect where your site appears in the list when people search. In general, if you put certain words more prominently, your site will rank higher when people search for those same words.

What should one do to get high up on the list? There are many, long answers, but three principles are worth starting with:

3. Going out to them; meeting them where they are

In the context of Internet outreach, meeting people where they are means attracting attention to Quakers when people are not already consciously looking for us. However, there are so many abuses of advertising and publicity on the Internet that one can understand starting with a list of what not to do:

What can one do positively, then? Perhaps the main good thing to do is to get links to your Quaker site from other web sites, so that people who are browsing round the Web looking at other things may come across links to one of your pages. Having a variety of material on your site opens up possibilities for asking for links.

When you have identified another web page which you think potentially interested people might be reading, see if that site either mention Quakers, or has links to other sites. In each case, you would have a starting point for asking the person that manages their web site to put in a link to your site. Of course, it is entirely up to them, just as it is entirely up to you what links you put on your site. Equally, just as it makes your site more interesting if you include links to other interesting sites, the owner of the other site may think that a link to your Quaker site might make their site more interesting. So it is worth asking. For instance, if you have a significant historical page, you might ask for a link to that page from any local history web sites, and from the historical page on your site you could includes links to those local history sites.

It is not the norm to pay people for links from other general sites, but you could certainly offer to include a link to their site in return.

Mentioning the site in your e-mails, particularly ones to groups, may also help.

4. Communication with people expressing an interest

E-mail has been widely regarded as the first and foremost tool of the Internet, and may very well be used to communicate with any interested people who use e-mail. Probably the vast majority of people who will find your web site will also have and use e-mail.

People who use e-mail frequently may have many correspondents and many lines of discussion. After they have made an enquiry, it may rapidly become overtaken by other matters. This is clearly different from someone who enquires by post, familiar with allowing "28 days for delivery". Thus, the best people to have as e-mail contact people are those who are able and willing to answer e-mail quickly - ideally within a day or two. One way of dealing with holidays and other times away from the computer is to have an address such as "enquiries@localpm.org.uk" which can be set to forward messages to whichever Friend is available to reply, or even more than one at once. If this is not possible, an auto-responder, replying that the Friend will be able to answer on a certain date, might be better than not response at all.

It is rare that everything a reader wants to know is there on any web site. Even the very best sites will convey little of the personality of local Quakers, and what it feels like to be in a Meeting for Worship. E-mail is a step closer, being a personal response. But it still falls short of face-to-face contact and the experience of shared worship.

It is good to bear in mind that in e-mail, many of the subtle features of communication present in face-to-face communication are absent. Even telephone communication goes beyond the words themselves, through tone of voice and timing. Because misunderstanding is easy when using e-mail, it is as well to be extra-careful when using it, and, if in any doubt, to save the message and reread later before sending.

E-mail can be used to send electronic copies of literature. However at present it is best to avoid sending attachments: better to give the URL address of a web page where the literature may be read. If attachments are sent, they should be checked for viruses or other malicious code before sending.

A widely used supplement, or alternative, to e-mail addresses on web sites is to have an enquiry form as a web page. This is potentially quicker for interested readers to fill in, and does not require them to have an e-mail account; but conversely, requires them to put in their e-mail address (which can be misspelt) if they wish to receive a reply by e-mail.

5. Sending newsletters

By e-mail it is possible also to send out newsletters, and copies can be put up as web pages. The Italian Quakers do this well, as an extra, cheaper and quicker route for their (usually paper) newsletter. If a new person registers interest, newsletters are a way of keeping them in touch gently and without pressure, while repeating the basic information about the location and timing of Meetings for Worship or other events.

Whereas newsletters can be directed at existing Quakers or others (just as can paper publications), minutes of meetings are primarily directed at Quakers. A role may exist, however, for publication of minutes on the Web or their distribution by e-mail. That is, if we consider that the Quaker business method is good and produces good results, we may consider that allowing people to see the transparency of our business may itself be a testimony that could draw people in.

6. Drawing people in to events

Physical meetings or events can be advertised using the Internet. A simple list of events can be put up on any site.

If the list is simply a hand-written web page, it is vital that it is kept up to date, and past events are taken off without delay. Alternatively, with some technical help or expertise, one can put together a system by which anyone, or people with a password, can put up details of events. This is likely to be more work initially, but thereafter much less work for the person who is responsible for the website. The example from Devon Quakers is one of these more technically sophisticated systems, but what appears to the reader is just a simple list.

Another important use of the Internet is to use e-mail to remind people of upcoming events.

It can also be very helpful if particular events can be linked to from other web sites or pages of related interest. For instance, if Quakers are organising a meeting on third-world debt, it would make sense to get that meeting listed on the web sites of other interested organisations such as other churches running campaigns, groups like Oxfam or Christian Aid, student groups, etc. It can be time-consuming to find these other relevant sites, and to negotiate links, but it might make a substantial difference. The problem is that in general we do not know what events, and what sites, are worth the effort. Common sense should prevail, unless the sense of a Meeting requires otherwise!

7. Providing facilities

Real-world facilities

Clearly, the Internet can be used to advertise facilities provided in the non-Internet world, just as it can do for events. For instance, on a meeting web site there could be some pages detailing the facilities available in the meeting house; contact details and times of availability of the Wardens; room booking charges, terms and conditions; a form of bookings diary to show what times remain available; plans of individual rooms; an on-line bookings enquiry form.

The technically adventurous could investigate setting up an on-line diary and bookings system, if the Warden or whoever takes bookings would be able and willing to use it. Warning: this would not be a light undertaking. If anyone does do this for free, consider sharing the software with other Meetings!

Internet facilities

A completely separate approach is through the organising of services on the Internet which we as Quakers participate in. A Quaker mailing list, for example, could be seen as a kind of event (a discussion) or as a kind of facility or service.

A list or facility designed primarily for Quakers will mainly serve inreach rather than outreach. Quaker-B falls into this category. (Find out about Quaker-B here.) Quaker-B is perhaps not all that useful for outreach, as basic Quaker questions are diluted with sometimes off-beat personal opinion, sometimes controversy, and that controversy is usually handled well, but not always. The problems are common to most e-mail lists. The main role of this kind of general Quaker Internet discussion group is more for strengthening existing Quaker groups, meetings, or communities. Nevertheless if someone wants to sample on-line Quaker discussion, they can be lively and good examples, perhaps playing their own limited role in outreach.

Providing other facilities on the Internet itself is much less explored. If one follows the analogy with providing space in Meeting Houses, a Meeting can sponsor e-communities around areas of likely interest. Examples of e-community facilities might include:

Philapeace is an example of a Quaker-hosted discussion area which goes beyond the simple mailing list. On that site, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting hosts a number of discussions, in a web format where people can easily scan through past messages on one particular topic without seeing others. This might be the kind of place where peace activists could invite their non-Quaker fellow activists to join in.

It may be that Quakers have much to offer in the structure and function of Internet discussions, much as the silent meeting offers a very distinct and valuable structure for worship. Here is an area to explore adventurously.

8. Communicating face-to-face

Leaving aside video-conferencing, which is not very relevant to outreach, this is what the Internet does not offer. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that this probably remains the most important channel of outreach for most people. The Internet is not there to replace face-to-face communication, it is there to complement it, back it up and help it be more effective.

Treating outreach in a businesslike manner

When people are trying to find something deliberately, they generally use search engines of some kind. To go beyond this you have to give people the chance to come across Quakers, particularly in your locality, when that is not what they set out to do. It is like advertising. Commercial companies face the same problem every day.

How do you draw someone to your web site who is not actually consciously looking for it? Answers that have been given to companies include:

If and when people find your site, make the experience useful, good, memorable, so that they will visit again and recommend the site to others. All these considerations apply as much to Quaker sites as to commercial sites.

My tentative advices and queries for Internet outreach

Help please!

There are many ideas I have written about above without giving examples. If you know of examples on the web where I have not given any, please let me know so that I can give links to those examples to illustrate, either in the text or in the list below.

Many thanks to the several people who have already shared their ideas with me by e-mail, as well as the participants at the discussion at BYM, some of whose interests have been reflected here. If you can, please continue to comment as I would like to continue improving and updating this page.

Some links to explore if you don't know them already

http://www.quaker.org.uk/
That has links to the web sites of many meetings in Britain - browse these to see how other people have done it so far -
and the service to find a Quaker Meeting in Britain geographically
and (unofficially) Dave Smith's 5-minute guide to setting up a web site.
http://www.quaker.org/
Examples of local Quaker presence in the region of Exeter:
http://www.quakersindevon.org.uk/
http://www.quakersindevon.org.uk/Exeter.html


maintained by Simon Grant