It’s time for another installment of the Communication, Misunderstood tour, where I offer completely unsolicited advice to missions organizations about their communication strategies.
I first stumbled upon the Ask A Missionary site while I was researching, well, questions people ask of missionaries. I was curious if anyone had compiled a sort of “frequently asked questions” for missionaries. It turns out, they have.
According to the site, Ask A Missionary was started by missions mobilizer John McVay in 1998. The site was assumed by Missions Data International (M-DAT) in 2009. Though it has a section for questions about short-term mission trips, Ask A Missionary is geared toward those who are considering long-term service. It’s basically a Yahoo Answers for long-term missions (with the answers being provided by missionaries rather than teenage girls.) The concept is pretty straightforward– users can submit questions about missions, and missionaries provide answers.
First, the good: the site is a brilliant way to make missionaries accessible to everyone. Many believers truly have no connection to a real live missionary, and the site makes it possible for people to ask very specific questions (like “I am a meteorology major and I want to serve overseas. Is there any way I could use this degree in missions?” and “How does a male, non-medical spouse fit in who raises the children? My wife is a healthcare professional and we want to serve overseas long term.”). Nothing about being a steampunk Civil War reenactor wanting to become a missionary blacksmith in Viet Nam. Yet.
The site is well-designed and easy to use. The “Ask,” “Answer,” and “Search” sections are clearly marked. Posting a question is easy (you’ll have to guess which one is mine), and it’s easy to peruse answers already given. Twitter and Facebook, integration are everywhere, and the site includes some resources for those who are ready for next steps.
There are other “Ask a missionary”-type sites, such as Urbana.org‘s Ask Jack. But these sites use more of an “ask the expert” format, where “Ask A Missionary” seems to allow pretty much anyone who claims to be a missionary and doesn’t use foul language to post an answer. That said, I’m pretty sure answers are screened and edited before they can be seen by the public. I won’t tell you what research may have led to that conclusion.
And that’s the problem with Ask A Missionary; something about the answers on the site seems too, well, nice. In response to the question, “How can I prepare for missions when others try to discourage me?”, missionaries to Colombia and New Zealand answered with encouraging notes about having patience and self-esteem. If I were to write for the site, my answer would be more like: “Take the hint! Maybe the reason people are trying to dissuade you from going is that you’d make a terrible missionary. The last thing we need on the field are more uninteresting Lifers with no social skills.” But maybe that’s just me.
Ask A Missionary doesn’t feature many photos, but the few it does use are some of the most sterile and generic I’ve seen. I’m not sure what it is about missionaries and stock business photos, but surely an open, wiki-style site could solicit a few photos from the field. A video answer would add some visual interest, as would some photos from the field or profiles of question-askers.
Also, because answers are provided by a variety of “missionaries” from different perspectives and approaches to ministry, the site lacks a consistent voice, tone, and mood. The result is a collection of answers that lack a certain credibility or honesty that make other “expert” sites so appealing. The reason USA Today’s “Ask The Captain” works so well is that users can get to know Captain John Cox by reading the column. This builds expectations for the answers, just like call-in radio advice shows like Dr. Laura‘s or Dave Ramsey‘s. Ask A Missionary doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that sort of personalization, and suffers because of it.
Furthermore, it’s clear that some missionary responders on the site are mobilization specialists and agency recruiters. This means that their participation on the site is primarily PR. Though most of them have previous missions experience, they’re expanding the online presence of the organizations they represent. (By the way, if you are an organizational representative, you really should take advantage of Ask A Missionary as a platform and weigh in with answers to at least a couple of the questions posed there.)
If I were going to develop Ask A Missionary’s communications strategy, I would build a bullpen of several missionaries that each have some specialty. I’d then develop their personalities on the site and have them tell more of their stories as they answer questions. This would help build credibility and establish a more personal connection between “askers” and “answerers.”
In an attempt to be a bit more proactive, I’d add a section of “Questions Users Don’t Ask, But Should,” where missionaries ponder questions they wish they’d asked or known to ask.
I would approach multiple major missions sending organizations and ask them for money in exchange for links and representation on the site. When a candidate for missionary service has a question about missionary service, they go to Ask A Missionary to get quick answers from an “actual” missionary. Most organizations have layers of bureaucracy to go through; it can take several hand-offs before a curious person is connected to someone who might be able to answer their questions.
Finally, I’d have the site include commentary and questions about missionary service that are being asked on other websites. In other words, scour the internet for questions that are being asked, and address them as though they were being asked on Ask A Missionary. Then link to the original post and interact with the answers that were given. For example:
“Over on Missions Misunderstood, a commenter recently asked about the viability of business as mission in the Middle East. Our business as mission specialist, John Smith, had this to say about it…” Ideally, Ask A Missionary could then comment on E.Goodman’s answer to the original question: “Goodman advised the commenter to look into opening a Subway franchise. This is a terrible idea, because Subway sells bacon….”
You get the idea.
Though Ask A Missionary didn’t ask me, those are my two cents about their communications strategy. To M-DAT, Ask A Missionary, and all the contributors to the site, I thank you for offering such a valuable service to the church.
If there’s an organization you’d like suggest for my next Communications, Misunderstood post, please leave a comment.