Some Thoughts on the Vatican's New Media Project: Aleteia
Update: I need to make a clarification. While this project does have the support and patronage of some in the Vatican, it is being run by a private group - not by the Vatican itself. I apologize for any confusion.
Update 2: Also, since this article posted on Friday, they have since updated the front page of the site to a Beta landing page with no internal links to the site. So you won't be able to poke around on it yet. But looks like the project is very much still in flux as it gets off the ground here. Many prayers and support as they work on this important effort.
There is a new initiative for the New Evangelization called Aleteia:
ALETEIA (Aleteia.org) is a Catholic social networking site that gathers together "seekers of the truth" to look for, share and disseminate the best answers to the most common and pressing questions about faith, life and society. ALETEIA is a project of the Foundation for Evangelization through the Media (FEM), developed under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.
Here's a well-produced video about it:
I heard about this effort a little while ago and was very intrigued by it from the get-go.
It's awesome that the Vatican has gotten behind a significant and concrete effort in this area. I certainly commend them for that! And it has a great aesthetic and appears to have been implemented very professionally. The format they have for the answers to the questions on the site is nice, too. All good (great) things. From what I can tell so far, the folks executing the project are doing great work!
I also know that this is a work in progress for them (still under construction and in beta). So in the spirit of being constructive and at the request of some of the folks at the Vatican (who have sincerely told me how much they love feedback), here are some of my thoughts for going forward. Please add yours in the comments below.
First, I would love to see them shift away from calling it a "Catholic social networking site." Any interactive or communal site online is "social" and is therefore a kind of "social networking site" in the broad sense. It's too vague and confusing and the wrong way to think about and describe this project. Besides, I don't think they really mean for it to be a "social networking site" in the specific sense that most people use that term now, anyway. In fact, in the video and other places I've seen/heard it described, it appears to be a "question and answer site." That's a much a better description that is far less vague and immediately communicates what it is.
Second, it does offer the ability for readers to comment and discuss the content on the site. This is the "social" part of it. That's excellent. But this is nothing novel, however. Every social site on the web has the same functionality. So promoting this as the first site where people can do this just comes off as out of touch. The neat part of this project is not that it's a social networking site (it really isn't). And it's not that it does questions and answers about faith, life, etc. The unique part of this project is that it is supported by the Vatican. That's what is most novel about it, which is probably what is most valuable about it, too.
Third, the site has loaded very slow every time I've gone to it. It doesn't matter how good your content is if the page loads too slow. People will not wait long until they decide to leave and try somewhere else. I'm sure the developers are already aware of this, but the importance of this can't be understated, especially when you launch. I'd love to see it running on some fast servers in the US to make sure the experience on this side of the pond is a good one for new users.
Fourth, I'd love to see them make submitting a question easier to where it does not require logging in or creating an account to do so. If the site is about questions and answers, then it should be as easy as possible to ask a question and receive the answer. Creating a full account will be too prohibitive for a lot of people who would otherwise ask great questions (and need the answers).
Fifth, my biggest concern is that the scope of this is too big. To sum it up, it's target audience seems like it's everyone. Which, from a marketing standpoint, means it's for nobody in particular. Which is a difficult way to market, especially when you're just trying to get a new, social site off the ground. Social sites are about the critical mass of the community. You go after a particular group of people and build a small community. Then expand your scope from there. Most every modern-day successful "social network" started with a relatively small, targeted niche in order to reach a critical mass before expanding. Facebook started with Harvard. Foursquare started with New York City, etc. And it's not just big social media platforms, it's anything that is community driven. Even your average blog is best started this way.
So the fact that the site is launching in multiple languages and targeting people from all over the world from different cultures and countries right from the beginning...is going to make it much harder — not easier — for the site to succeed. People that don't speak the same language can't really have an online discussion together. So your efforts to build the critical mass of the discussion community is now divided among every language on the site. It's like building six communities at once, instead of just one, and at a point where you don't even know what one site should really be yet, much less all six.
And now aside from the marketing challenge, you also have a content challenge, because the questions people have in one culture will be different than the questions in other cultures. And the way you answer even the same questions in relevant ways will be most effectively answered in *different* ways depending on who your audience is. These are not insurmountable challenges, but they are unnecessary ones to take on when you are just launching something that is still "under construction." And it also begs the question of why it's one big site in the first place? Perhaps it should be multiple, more targeted sites? (or just *one* targeted site to start with. Make that successful, then multiply it).
Sixth, the site has an "under construction" sign on it (and multiple "coming soon" sections) and, from what I understand, they plan to be in a "beta" test phase for 3 years. Websites that "launch" with "under construction" signs on them is another thing that gives me web flashbacks to about 10 years ago. Not good. And the idea of a 3-year beta test for a project like this, to me, may not be the best way to go about it. There's a great principle regarding the launch of new products called the MVP: Minimum Viable Product. You launch with your MVP, see how it succeeds and fails, adjust, and then increase scope from there. The product may start very simple when you do it that way, but at least it's complete. Which is much better than launching with an incomplete, massive product that leaves you with little agility to adjust. If the Wright Brothers would have started off trying to build a 747, they would have never gotten anything off the ground.
Seventh, while I truly love the meaning behind the name, Aleteia, I think it will be unnecessarily prohibitive to the site's success. Most english speakers have no idea what "aleteia" means. They can't pronounce it. They can't remember how to spell it. The domain name is not going to help them at all with english SEO. And since nobody knows what it means, it communicates nothing (initially) as to what the site is about. These are all massive drawbacks from a marketing perspective, and even more so when your product is a website.
All of that said, I don't want any of this to take away from the great efforts so many have already put in to Aleteia. In fact, those behind it probably already know much of what I just mentioned and are working to improve it. And, again, I know that they are viewing this as a process that is going to take some tweaking over time. I would truly love to see this effort be a huge success and to see many other similar projects do the same in its wake. I hope some of this feedback helps.
What do you all think? Any other thoughts and feedback on this new, exciting project?