On the Anxious Bench we’ve been discussing the continuing need for Christian scholarship, and the distribution challenges Christian scholars face. Today’s guest is John Hwang, founder and CEO of Lanio, a company whose mission it is to develop and promote nonprofit organizations and amplify the work of thought leaders. In that capacity, John has done a lot of thinking about the role that institutions and Christian scholars can play in promoting Christian scholarship. He brings to the Anxious Bench a challenge to scholars to reconsider how they prioritize research and writing, one the one hand, and the need to build a platform and cultivate an audience, on the other.
KDM: John, conversations about “Christian scholarship” are nothing new. At least since the 1970s, Christian academics have been intentional about combining their faith and scholarship, and about speaking both to academic communities and to the church. What has changed?
In a sense, Christian scholarship has not changed. Christian thought leaders are actively engaging with their guilds and the Church.
So “What has changed?”
Since the invention of the printing press, there hasn’t been a greater disruptive technology or democratizing force than the Internet. The internet, the mobile revolution, the dominance of social networks and the ubiquity of video are the great equalizer and have removed the gatekeepers between thought leaders and their audiences.
Technology has enabled everyone to become a creator, a publisher and a thought leader. We no longer need to ask for permission to distribute our content and our thought leadership. This means that we do not need publishers to reach an audience. We can build our own audiences and our own platform.
As instrumental as the printing press was to the Reformation, in today’s world, it’s an outdated and limited form of distribution. According to a study published by Cisco, 79% of all content consumed on the internet will be video by 2019. Mark Zuckerberg has also shared that the majority of the content on Facebook will be video. While writing continues to be an important part of scholarship, it’s becoming a less effective strategy for public scholarship.
Christian scholarship is alive and well, but the problem is that nobody knows about it outside of your guild. In Donahue’s words, “Christian scholarship has a distribution problem.” It’s not a question of quality or quantity. The problem is we have no clue how to distribute Christian scholarship to the public or to a wider audience.
KDM: How well have Christian institutions and scholars responded to these changes?
Not very well.
Traditionally, scholarship is primarily done through engagement with your guild, through published books and through in-person events. It’s not clear how you do thought leadership in higher education beyond the traditional scholarship avenues.
Ironically, so many academics insist on being “assertively humble”. Many have bought into the “Field of Dreams” fallacy: “Build it and they will come.” They hide behind their work and hope that their work will speak for itself. Truth is, this strategy almost never works. Academics spend several years writing and publishing a book, but no one reads it.
It’s too late to start a blog for promoting your book after your book’s already published. If you don’t build an audience well before your book is published, no one will read it.
Academics are encouraged to blog, give interviews, write books, and engage with the public, but Christian institutions fail at integrating public scholarship into their strategic plan. Public scholarship is usually not a primary consideration for tenure. Those Christian scholars who have successfully built a platform have mostly done it on their own, without help or support from their institutions.
In a competitive higher education market, the majority of marketing & communications budgets are allocated for prospective student recruitment. What’s missing is the operational capacity and infrastructure to support the academic staff in building personal brands/platforms.
KDM: What are the primary challenges you see when you look at the landscape of Christian scholarship today?
One of the biggest challenges is that Christian institutions are operating on a “scarcity mindset,” due to financial constraints, limited resources, and constant competition. Functioning out of a scarcity mindset inevitably leads to short-term thinking. Short-term thinking leads institutions to focus on attracting prospective students above everything else. The value proposition to prospective students and parents boils down to job prospects and affordability, which are only so attractive.
Instead, Christian institutions should invest in long-term strategies that invest in long-term assets, such as increasing their endowments and strengthening their brand. Choosing which college to attend should be an emotional decision rather than an economic decision.
A strong brand allows you to differentiate yourself within the competitive landscape. Having a world-class, world-famous faculty and staff is a wonderful way to build your institution’s brand. It’s also a great way for alumni and donors to align with the mission of the institution.
Another challenge is that academics romanticize getting published and receiving the title of author. We insist on writing books and research papers that are published in archaic journals with a limited audience.
Ideas are like jockeys. They need a horse to travel far. If you have something to share and you want your ideas to make an impact in the world, you need to get rid of this notion that writing a book is the best medium for delivering your thought leadership. They are a terribly outdated and limited way to distribute your content.
Lastly, we don’t realize that the issue of wider distribution is not automatically solved by building a website or getting your book published. Every institution has a beautiful website. We focus on logos, color schemes, messaging, and packaging. What we don’t realize is that the hard part is getting people to notice. The hard part is getting people to return to your website. The hard part is getting people to read your content every week.
KDM: A couple of weeks ago Raully Donahue identified Christian scholarship’s “distribution problem.” Is this an insurmountable problem? How, in this polarized media landscape, should Christian academics expand their popular reach?
It’s not an insurmountable problem. In fact, it’s easier than ever to engage in public scholarship.
The first step to tackling this problem is acknowledging that there is indeed a problem. Our model of scholarship is still stuck in a 500- year- old distribution model. Once we shift our mindset and learn how to adopt new models of distribution, Christian scholars will be able to expand their cultural influence beyond their guild.
It used to be that you needed permission from publishers, radio stations, and movie studios to green light your projects. We needed permission from gatekeepers at every level of distribution. The mobile revolution, the rise of social media, faster internet speeds, the commoditization of video and audio has removed all of these barriers. You don’t need permission to share your ideas. Now, you can reach anyone with a click of a button.
Building a platform and an audience are the most important steps for solving the distribution problem. The goal is to assemble a tribe who welcomes your thought leadership into their inboxes and their social media feeds. A tribe that complains when your weekly email does not appear in their inbox. Subscribers who look forward to your weekly content. The key to successful public scholarship is building your own tribe and audience.
KDM: What are some key steps Christian scholars should be taking?
The first step is committing to building a tribe. For your scholarship to reach far and wide, your most important asset is an audience who trusts you and sees you as a thought leader. You need to be someone the tribe looks to for clarity, wisdom, and insight.
Once you build a tribe, the tribe will follow your leadership. They essentially become your long-term assets. By long-term assets, I mean things like mailing lists, Facebook page likes, YouTube subscribers and Twitter followers.
The second step is investing in distribution channels that you control by building a distribution channel that allows you to push content out to your audience whenever you want. Building a website and creating content is not the hard part. The hard part is getting people to keep coming back to them.
A Christian book publisher was recently asked who they were publishing. They answered, “Mommy bloggers who have a mailing list.” The keyword here is “mailing list”. When you successfully build an email list of 10,000 people who religiously consume your content each week, you can write whatever you want, and it will get published.
Don’t spend 5 years writing a book that nobody reads. Spend 5 years building an audience, and you can publish 10 books over the next 30 years.
KDM: What are strategic investments Christian institutions ought to be making?
Building the thought leader’s personal brand and platforms should be considered a strategic investment that benefits the higher educational institution.
What’s missing from Higher Education Marketing & Communication is the role equivalent to that of the “band manager” for musicians. Those who help manage the marketing, promotion, booking, and operational support. It’s essentially talent management.
Institutions that intentionally invest in the faculty’s personal brand and platform will attract hungry and upcoming academics who want to build their own personal brand. In addition, it will help with retaining successful academics.
KDM: Any other words of advice for Christian academics?
There’s so much to share. So I’ll list them in no specific order.
Stop asking for permission
You are more than qualified. You are experts. You are able to bring clarity to the complex. You certainly don’t need permission from gatekeepers and publishers. So many academics have shared that they feel like they can only speak into their own field of expertise. Your voice needs to be heard. Give yourself permission to speak your mind and cause a ruckus.
Out-teach your competition
Leverage your greatest strength: teaching. You wouldn’t be teaching at a college if you didn’t enjoy teaching. You are trained to equip and shape the minds of the next generation of leaders. You are well equipped to stand and teach in front of a classroom and in front of large audiences. You’re made to be in front of a video camera or behind a mic.
The best way to build a tribe and earn the trust of your audience is to deliver value and to educate. Teaching is much more effective than hype. Out-teach your competition.
The 80/20 rule
We typically spend 80% of our time on our content and spend the remaining 20% to promote our content. It’s important to realize that doing the opposite is much better. 80% of your energy should go into building an audience and only 20% of your energy into your content.
You don’t need millions of people in your tribe. Don’t aim for an immediate bestseller but focus on creating a space for what Kevin Kelly calls “1,000 true fans.” You just need a small group of people who trust and respect your thought leadership. “1,000 true fans” who will show up when you invite your tribe to attend your personal event. Small but solid.
The key to building an audience is consistency. In order for you to establish and maintain a strong relationship with your tribe, they need to hear from you on a regular schedule. Much like how people look forward to their favorite television show, your audience should expect to learn from you on a weekly basis, if not multiple times a week. Your audience should complain if they don’t receive your email each week.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. You already have years’ worth of content in your dissertations, your class materials, and your books. Don’t be overwhelmed with the idea that you need to create brand new content for a new audience. Just take existing content and tweak it for your audience. It doesn’t take much more effort than turning your talk or your class lecture into a series of blog posts or videos.
The Church needs you.
Your role as a public intellectual is more critical than ever. It’s more important than ever that we expand our popular reach. Your voice is important. The Church needs it. The world needs it.