Inside the Pope’s social media plan to win over millennials

Courtesy Tracx

Pope Francis has made it clear that he does not want his upcoming trip to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City to look like a tour for East Coast elites. He wants his message of hope and inclusiveness to come through, especially to the younger generation, and his team is using social media to do that.

In preparation for the trip, Aleteia USA, a subsidiary of a Catholic media company which shares an advisor with the Vatican’s communications office, has engaged a number of social media-focused agencies and software providers to help spread the good word. That includes Sports Media Challenge, the digital agency known for encouraging Shaq to join Twitter, Swyft Media, a branded emoji company which recently sold to Monotype Imaging Holdings, and Tracx, a social media data company.

The campaign includes hashtags (#PopeisHope and #GoodisWinning) and “Popemojis,” or cartoons that depict the Pope visiting famous tourist attractions, crowdsurfing, and taking selfies with fans.


The campaign has enlisted a “digital street team” of 60 digital strategists, content creators and “real time community managers,” 35 of whom will be publishing content on the ground at the Pope’s appearances. The rest will work out of the “Pope is Hope social listening center,” located inside a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. “Think of it like the Super Bowl social media command center,” says Kathleen Hessert, Founder and CEO of Sports Media Challenge.

The efforts will go beyond a simple campaign to make noise on social media. Hessert says her team will use Tracx to deliver insights from the social media to the Catholic Church, so it can better understand what matters to young people and how to engage with them.

So far, young people care about issues like immigration, climate change, poverty and forgiveness for abortions, according to Hessert. But they also appreciate the more frivolous parts of social media: in just four days, more than 30,000 people have downloaded the Popemoji keyboard and send 235,000 Popemojis.

The Pope himself isn’t big on technology—he frequently communicates with his cardinals by fax machine. And he has condemned social media, saying it creates “mental pollution.”

But he recognizes the importance of digital media. He has reorganized the church’s communications department to elevate social and digital media, according to Hessert. And he’s not above a selfie. “He knows people want to do that with him and finds joy in it,” she says. She notes that the campaigns are meant to inspire people to take action offline, too.


One action the Vatican is hoping for is a return to their faith. A recent Pew study found that a third of the millennial generation says it does not affiliate with any faith. That’s a 10% jump from just eight years ago.

Hessert says her job is to build the Catholic Church’s brand with people who have abandoned it. Take, for example, a 31-year-old woman who was baptized and stopped going to church now has children of her own. She may be deciding whether to baptize them. Sports Media Challenge and Aleteia will be using Tracx to monitor those types of fans “They’re drawn to the inclusiveness and the humility and the whimsical nature of a world leader that is now taking the church in new and different directions,” Hessert says. Adds Eric Berkowitz, VP Solutions Engineering of Tracx, “It’s up to each organization to embrace the fact that their followers really own the conversation.”


For more on Pope Francis, read Fortune’s 2014 cover story on his efforts to reform the Catholic Church’s finances: “This Pope Means Business.”

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