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Lessons from an Unlikely Social Media Star

Two of social media’s biggest stars are having a highly anticipated sit-down tomorrow.

I’m not talking about Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Rather, Pope Francis and President Trump—two world leaders who share little in common beyond their ability to harness media, particularly social media, to spread their message and connect with their flock.

President Trump, of course, leveraged his millions of Twitter followers and billions in free media to win the White House.

Since becoming pope more than four years ago, Francis has himself emerged as an unlikely social media star. With his 10.7 million Twitter followers, the 80-year-old pontiff isn’t afraid to wade into divisive terrain, often taking swipes at the president’s policies, particularly his proposed “Muslim ban.”

Though his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, established the @pontifex account, Pope Francis has many social media firsts: the first pope on Instagram (his @franciscus now has 3.9 million followers), the first pope to meet with technology executives like Apple CEO Tim Cook and, as of last month, the first pope to deliver a TED Talk. The 17-minute speech has since been viewed by more than 2 million people around the world.

Why is an octogenarian pope competing with the likes of Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian for retweets and followers? Simple—he knows that you have to speak to people and engage with them where they live. You can’t just assume your audience is listening, even if do you have an important title like president or pope.

Here are some lessons we can all learn from the pope’s social media skills:

  • Look to the Future. Many businesses with an older client or customer base may be slower to build a social presence. But before you dismiss these platforms as irrelevant to your core business model, think about the future of your brand. The pope’s active presence on social media stems from the fact that the Catholic Church is facing rapidly declining membership, especially in the United States and the west. If he has any hope of reversing these demographic trends, he must engage with young millennials now, before they’ve left the fold.
  • Strike the Right Tone. Every business is built on a set of differentiators and core pillars—things like quality, customer service and first-to-market status. While all of these attributes may be important to your brand as a whole, you have to align your message to a distinct audience. The Catholic Church’s policy on polarizing issues like gay marriage, abortion and birth control has been fairly consistent. But rather than take a fire-and-brimstone approach, Pope Francis has emphasized issues like forgiveness and mercy. He has also been vocal about economic issues like income inequality. For a Church that wants to attract young people, he is emphasizing a tone and message that is attractive to them.
  • Humanize Your Brand. Too many businesses play it safe on social media in the hopes of avoiding potentially embarrassing mistakes. While this is understandable—especially for highly regulated companies— it’s also important to connect with your audience on a more intimate, human level . The pope’s Instagram account displays poignant photos of what matters most to him: comforting a refugee, holding a child, presiding over a mass. He uses social media to connect emotionally with his audience.
  • You don’t need to be inspired by the divine to maximize your Twitter game, but a lot of can learn from the pope’s mastery of social media. Follow his lead and begin building important bridges to the future.