Opinion / Keeping the Faith
Contagious' head of Asia Pacific, Tara Hirebet, considers how faith is rethinking user experience for modern digital lifestyles
Writing on faith is a sensitive topic, and writing about how faith is changing the way it markets itself and gives people access – i.e. its whole user experience design and approach – is probably even more controversial because it suggests religion and faith are behaving like brands. Capitalism and materialism aside, this isn’t entirely untrue, especially in Asia in the case of certain modern day Christian sects like the Hillsong Church (probably the biggest example of how faith can become a powerful global youth brand and media house, more here.) If we look closely, religion and the religious sector are allowing for this evolution to take place in order to help their followers keep the faith in their busy urban lifestyles. After all, the more accessible something is, the more you can engage with it, and the closer a connection you feel to it.
This is especially pertinent in Asia compared to Europe and the U.S. In most of Europe and the US, long ago, church and state separated and culture continued to develop without faith being a central part of it. (According to a May 2015 survey by the Pew Research Centre, there has been a continued year-on-year decline not just in Christianity but millennials who describe themselves as affiliated. In 2007, 25 percent of 18 to 26-year-olds were unaffiliated, that number rose to 34 percent in 2015).
In Asia, faith is still a large part of actual culture (think of Hindusim and Indian culture and Islam and Islamic culture in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as across the Middle East) So, unlike European and American youth, Asian youth and millennials see faith as an integral part of their identity and lifestyle. In a 2013 JWT Intelligence Report, for example, 64% of Indian and Chinese millennials said they want to keep their religious observations and celebrations, in spite of globalisation.
Urban lifestyles have also made live religious visits and events (ie access) increasingly difficult for followers. People don’t have the time to visit temples and churches, special events and festivals or make pilgrimages to religious sites as often as they would like to. Those who are older and want to keep tradition also find it increasingly difficult to gain access at temples or manage long queues and crowded pilgrimage sites.
The need for better access coupled with the ubiquity of smartphones and better internet infrastructure and bandwidths have led to the emergence and growth of a ‘digital faith’ in region. Religions and religious institutions are increasingly embracing social media, livestreaming and apps/platforms as answers to modern-day religious barriers. They provide users with 24/7, on-demand access to their faith that fits in with their more erratic timetables and lifestyles. In fact, what’s most surprising is that religions like Hinduism and Islam have been the first to embrace digital platforms and apps and think like some of the world’s top marketers in how they understand user needs and deliver the right digital solution for them.
Ganpati Darshan in India is an online platform started by a media group that livestreams Ganpati (Ganesha, the elephant god) poojas (religious ceremonies) from across India, including auspicious ceremonies that people would normally queue for hours to attend and fail to get in to due to numbers. The site describes itself as a virtual darshan (virtual occasions where you can see Ganesha ceremonies) and one that’s 'trying to reimagine [religious] celebration with the help of technology'.
Another, Vistaas Digital Media, an actual secular and devotional media and content group, has created DivineIndia, a beta phase portal that streams live content from 60 major pilgrimmage sites and temples across India and offers online purchase of selected temple ‘memento’ or gift shop packs, as well as ringtones and wallpapers. Vistaas also tied up with major telcos in India, to offer livestreaming of the largest Ganesha ceremony – the Lal Baigcha Raja, to people’s mobiles across India.
From the actual ceremony, we move to prasad. Templegoers often buy food to be blessed (prasad), which of course requires physical attendance. Onlineprasad.com takes care of this for you. Its online store lets followers select their preferred foodstuff, as well as one of the top 50 temples in India for it to be blessed at. Their representatives will take the offering to the temple to be blessed, then the prasad is packaged and couriered either locally or internationally to the buyer (a smart move as India is said to have an overseas non-resident Indian population of up to 30 million.)
There are several amazing examples of Islamic apps that have come out from Prayer timetables, to Qibla compasses and Koran/Quran readers. The real game changer in this category though is Urban Qurban, that transfers the entire Eid sacrifice onto your mobile. Via the app you can select an animal that is in “stock” so to speak, to be sacrificed, each order comes with an actual code which then is attached to the livestream video of the sacrifice that you can watch on your phone (so you know it is 100% your animal). The startup has thought of everything in the user experience journey for the modern Muslim devotee. The meat from sacrifices needs to be distributed to those less fortunate, so the app allows you to select community partners and then they evenly divide and seal the meat in hygienic plastic packs and distribute them for you (wow).
It’s clear that faith-based institutions are showing a real understanding of their followers and a true willingness to adopt and embrace digital platforms and technology in a fresh and innovative way, in order to stay relevant and a part of their urban devotees' daily lives. And – as out there as it may sound – it does appear that today’s brands could learn a lot from some of the longest standing ‘brands’ of all – Hinduism, Islam and even Christianity: listen to your followers and always be open and ready to adapt in our ever changing landscape.