Andrea Chapman is a professional YouTuber – and president of the Ekoji Buddhist Temple – and videos on her sewing and crafts channel Sewspire have received more than an astounding 600,000 views.
Chapman shared her success in building a YouTube following, and spoke at a BCA Town Hall on March 5 about how to use digital tools such as a website, YouTube channel and social media to attract and build a Sangha. The Town Hall was titled “Messaging and Membership” and kicked off the workshops at the National Council Meeting.
The event also included the following ways to build a Sangha: having a strategy and vision; how to “message” Shin Buddhism; meditation and mindfulness as starting points for newcomers; offering a Dharma recovery program to help people and grow the Sangha; the value of Buddhist education; and having a warm and welcoming Sangha.
Essential digital tools
Chapman described how Ekoji is successfully attracting new members – “three digital tools that you can use. These are your website, a YouTube channel and social media. Ideally, every temple will have these three tools.
“So, I want you to think about your website as the way that you’re going to make your first impression,” she said. “Logically, if you’re seeking out a new temple or a church or a community of people to explore your religion and spirituality, you’re going to go to their website.
The YouTube channel, she said, is “a means to create an experience for your viewer, so this is the next best thing to being in your temple – and then social media. That’s a way for you to continue the conversation beyond Sunday.”
The Ekoji Sangha redesigned the temple’s website in 2020 during the pandemic. “We had two audiences in mind when we designed the website, the newcomer, obviously, and then we also wanted it to serve our existing members as well,” she said.
Chapman said it’s important to have a compelling introduction to the website to really connect with people seeking out Buddhism, and said Ekoji has received plenty of positive feedback from new visitors to the website.
“And, I made it a point, as the president of the temple, to be in the foyer to greet and welcome people, and always ask new people, ‘How did you find us?’ I’m curious to find out what brought them there. And, so, I just continually accumulate this information, so I can put it into action, and that’s where you’re going to get your results. It’s not enough to just know it, you have to get it into action.”
The website was also designed to make it easy to donate – with a donate button that’s easily accessible.
Ekoji’s YouTube channel began in June 2021 to livestream the Sunday services, and also broadcasts podcasts.
“We don’t have half a million views yet, but what we do have is steady growth,” Chapman said. “And that’s how you’re going to grow your YouTube presence is one subscriber at a time and that’s exactly how I grew my YouTube presence from one subscriber to almost 54,000. Just one person at a time.”
Ekoji also grew its Sangha by creating a hybrid Dharma discussion group and “is actually converting what were complete strangers in a very short amount of time into members,” she said.
Participants either show up at the Hondo while others are on Zoom. The discussion group isn’t run by ministers or Minister’s Assistants, just lay people with no formal training in Buddhism. She emphasized the importance of allowing everyone the opportunity to speak and the need to have a moderator.
Chapman listed a three-step growth strategy:
Step 1: Make it easy to find you: Title your content, use hashtags, add a description and relevant links.
Step 2: Be consistent: Post content on a set day and time for an extended period.
Step 3: Repeat reminders: Tell your audiences exactly what you need them to do – subscribe, like and share.
“You just have to keep doing it over and over again,” she said. “Do those three things and you will grow whatever it is you’re trying to grow.”
Likewise, there is a difference between growing your channel and building a community, or a Sangha, Chapman said.
“If you want to build a community, you’re going to have to share your purpose with people,” Chapman said. “You’re going to have to tell them why you’re doing this, why it’s important. You’re going to have to get back to them, reply to their comments, answer their questions.
“You’re going to have to engage them, acknowledge them, ask them questions, and tell them exactly how they can help you – by liking, subscribing and following. And people are happy to do that, but if you don’t ask, they don’t.”
Chapman recommended that temples and churches spend the money to sign up with a social media scheduling tool – she recommended PLANOLY.com, which schedules posts on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.
When Ekoji began its social media strategy, she said the goal was three posts a week. “If you schedule three posts using a scheduling tool, you’re set for the week,” she said. “Now we’re posting closer to once a day.”
Chapman cited analytics showing that 49,000 people saw Ekoji’s Instagram photo posts last year.
She said temples and churches shouldn’t be deterred if they don’t have graphic design skills, and highly recommended Canva.com as a useful graphic design tool that’s free for nonprofits and gives access to thousands of templates.
Rev. Jon Turner of Orange County Buddhist Church spoke about meditation services as an effective way to reach new people.
“Most Americans identify certain things in Buddhism as being authentic or true and real Buddhism, and meditation is one of those things,” he said. “Meditation is Buddhism. Buddhism is meditation, and that’s the one thing they’re looking for.
“Western people come with a certain understanding of a certain appreciation of what Buddhism is,” Rev. Turner said. “And they only recognize certain aspects of Buddhism as being true and real, and if they don’t see those things there, I think they tend to move on.
“So offering some form of meditation service is a really good way to attract new people. It aligns with their expectations, and it gives us the chance for them to come to our temples, make contact, and begin to develop relationships with them. And we can broaden their understanding of Buddhism over time.
“We begin with Gassho,” Rev. Turner said. “And then we sit for about 10 minutes. People can sit on a chair, or they can sit on a cushion, and the service is somewhat guided. We explain the point to meditation, your posture, how you sit, so it’s very much a guided educational explanation and we give it a Jodo Shinshu context.
“Then, we often either stand for five minutes or walk, and we sit again for another 10 minutes. And after the sitting and standing meditation, we chant and then we have a Dharma talk. And we open it up for discussion and we have a dialogue with those in attendance.”
When the pandemic hit, OCBC decided to continue with the meditation sessions via Zoom and Rev. Turner said that attendance has increased overall because of the convenience of signing on from your home,
And because of the virtual format, OCBC has attracted members who live in New Mexico and South Carolina.
“They’re a part of our Sangha now,” Rev. Turner said. “We’ve decided that we’re going to maintain this Zoom service even after we go back to normal when COVID-19 is over because we don’t want to abandon these off-site Sangha members that we’ve developed. This has been a very positive development because of COVID-19.”
The other advantage, he said, about holding the meditation services on Wednesday nights is that it offers an introduction to the Sunday service.
“I wanted to give some personal experiences of my own. I was kind of overwhelmed by Sunday service. A lot of people who come to Wednesday night meditation are hesitant to come to Sunday service,” he said. “It’s overwhelming. You don’t know what clothes to wear. You also are suspicious of organized religion. My comeback to that is ‘Buddhism is not organized religion,’ so you’ll feel very welcome.
“So Wednesday night is a jumping off point. Over time, once people feel very comfortable, they make friends. They get to know people’s names. They get to know the ministers. They’ll start to come to Sunday morning meditation, and then sooner or later, they’ll finally come to a Sunday service in the Hondo. We’ve had many people go through this transition, and end up as full-time members and even members of the Board at our temple.”
Rev. Turner added: “I wanted to let you know that this is not a silver bullet. This will not solve all your problems, but it’s another tool. It’s another activity that we could do that builds temple attendance and membership.”
Ekoji Buddhist Temple website:
Ekoji Buddhist Temple Instagram:
Ekoji Buddhist Temple Facebook:
Ekoji Buddhist Temple President Andrea Chapman’s Sewspire website: https://sewspire.com/andreachapman/
Orange County Buddhist Temple website:
Orange County Buddhist Temple Facebook:
Next: Town Hall speakers talk about: offering a Dharma recovery program to help people and grow the Sangha; the value of Buddhist education; and having a warm and welcoming Sangha.