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If your church is putting together a website for the first time, or if you are undertaking a significant overhaul of an existing one, you’ve got your work cut out for you! It can be overwhelming and time-consuming to gather all the information you need from everyone involved. Here is a concise guide to help you do this effectively.
1. Keep your focus on your audience.
Before you start compiling information, stop and ask yourself this question:
“What do our visitors want to know?”
Most businesses, churches, and schools get this wrong right off the bat by starting with the question, “What should we say about ourselves?”
The problem is,What should we say? is an internally focused question. You will discover quickly that there is no end to what could be said, and the website will fill up with overly detailed information that would be of more interest to archivists than to people searching for a church home.
Instead, What do our visitors want to know? is externally focused, and puts you in a position to craft compelling messages about why newcomers might consider joining your church community.
Focusing on user needs will also provide you a way through the quagmire of opinions about what "should" be on the website.
It’s easy to get onto rabbit trails or to get waylaid by pressure from this or that group of people. But you’ll be doing yourself and your audience a favour by creating your website’s content around the questions people need answered.
The best way to guard against slipping into the What should we say? mindset is to give yourself tangible reminders to keep your focus on your audience. The advice you got in seminary applies here, too:
Write your guiding question on a sticky note and keep it in front of you so that every time you look up from your work, you’ll remember what you’re actually supposed to be working toward.
If you have a committee devoted to the website, you might consider hanging your guiding question on the wall so you can keep referring to it as you shape and discuss your website’s content.
2. Keep it concise, welcoming, and easy to read.
Attention spans are short on the web, and most people quickly scan a page with their eyes instead of reading deeply. Remember, your goal in running a church website is to engage your congregation and to reach out to your community — to invite connection. To achieve this, keep your writing tone friendly and personal. Write in first-person language instead of third-person. (“Please come and join us this Sunday!” is much more inviting than “The main worship service at St. John’s is on Sunday at 10:30am.”)
Okay, so you’ve committed yourself to asking, What do our visitors want to know? — Now how do you figure out what questions they have?
1. Ask your office administrator.
Your church’s administrator fields questions about your church every day. Phone calls, emails, drop-ins — these are real questions coming in from your community. Sit down with your office admin and simply ask, “What kinds of things are people looking for when they contact you?” Likely you’ll get a ready list of the most common (and perhaps even the most annoying) questions that come in.
2. Listen carefully to newcomers in person.
When someone new shows up on a Sunday morning, listen carefully to the things they talk about. What matters to them? What impressed them? What wasn’t obvious enough? Where did they feel out of place, lost, or awkward? Where did they feel cared for or anticipated?
3. Ask some open questions on social media.
If you still feel in the dark about what your visitors need to know or wished they knew, you could entrust yourself to the inexhaustible fount of opinions that is social media. Either through your church’s Facebook page or your own account, you might put out questions like, “What is the number one thing you wish you had been told the last time you tried a new church?” Even the silly answers will probably hold a kernel of truth to chew on.
Make a list!
Jot down the things you learn. This list of questions, funny stories, and awkward moments will allow you to address the things people care about. At my own church, we find that over 90% of visitors have spent considerable time on our church’s website before walking through the door. If you can make it easy for them to find the answers they need, you’ll be removing barriers and dissipating anxiety as they step vulnerably into a new church for the first time.
In your sleuthing, you might encounter questions such as:
- Where do I park?
- When are your services?
- Do you have Sunday-morning kids’ programs? (Underlying question: Will it be stressful to be there with my kids?)
- Can I rent your hall for my wedding?
- What is it like to belong to your church?
- Would I be welcome there even though I’m ________?
- Do you do that thing where you make newcomers stand up and introduce themselves?
- I haven’t been to church in years — what even happens on a Sunday morning?
- Can I get around in a wheelchair?
- Who’s in charge?
- How do you use the money people give?
- Who do I talk to about _______?
- I’m struggling with _____ and don’t know who to talk to. Can you help me?
1. Written Content
If you have successfully turned your website committee into a team of hungry “visitor advocate” warriors, then you’re ready to get creating some content.
This is by no means exhaustive nor the only set of content you might consider, but your website might include:
- Service times, address of physical location, interactive map to make it easy to get directions
- Quick access to next upcoming events
- Featured list of links with newcomers in mind (e.g., “What to expect on Sunday”, “Youth and Children”)
- Strong statement of welcome — big colourful image with a short paragraph, or even a brief video
- Up-to-date list of upcoming events
- Individual event pages with good descriptions that seek to equip visitors with all the knowledge they need to participate
- A page about “What to expect on Sunday” - see my church’s as an example
- Information about accessibility and parking
- A page about “How to get involved”
- Ministry pages describing how you serve people (“How baptism works”, “Getting married”, “Funerals”, “Youth Ministry”, etc.)
Since service times is one of the most basic things people will need to know, times should be accessible in multiple places, such as in your website’s footer. You could also devote a page in the website’s navigation so that it is easy to share by email or on social media.
Describe how people can give to your church. Include downloadable documents for preauthorized giving, and links to your profiles on services like CanadaHelps or PayPal Giving Fund.
Staff profiles to allow newcomers to quickly find the person they need to talk to, or to be able to recognize you when they see you at church. Don’t just list paid staff — list volunteers as well, since they are just as integral.
- Profile image
- List of roles
- Brief bio
- Contact information for each person, or at least for ministry leaders
- Full mailing address with postal code
- Public-facing phone numbers
- Main office email address
- Street address (and at least a link to a map to get directions)
- Links to your social media channels
- A simple contact form to allow people to send you an email through the website (Tip: Use as few fields as possible. You want people to be able to send you a message in just a few seconds. If you don’t absolutely need a field, drop it.)
Location landing pages
If your website serves a set of churches, such as a multi-point parish or hub with satelites, you might consider creating landing pages for each location where you can list location-specific ministries, meeting times, staff, office hours, and parking arrangements.
Choose pictures with people in them. People-pictures are always better than “venue” pictures. And real images are always better than stock images.
Smart phone cameras can do a decent job these days, but you might consider hiring a local photographer to join you on a Sunday morning to get a set of really nice candid-community photos. You’ll be able to use these high quality photos for years to come in event banners, posters around the community, blog posts, website imagery, fundraising campaigns, and more.
It is important to put some thought behind the images you use. Psychologically, when people see people in pictures, they begin to suss out whether or not they belong. Your use of imagery plays a role in the invitation you extend to visitors.
Off to a great start!
Remember that web content doesn’t need to be perfect-for-all-time, since a website isn’t a printed magazine. Your website can continue to be sharpened and improved over time.
To become true champions of visitor-advocacy, publish a first round of carefully-considered content, and then:
- Pay attention to website analytics to see what sorts of searches are leading people to your website, and which content is most accessed. (Don’t forget to check in periodically with your office admin to compare notes. And of course, continue listening carefully to your in-person visitors.) Keep a list of the questions and queries you find.
- Create content to answer new questions that have arisen, and fine-tune existing content so that your website continues to be a reliable and lively source of answers.
- Share your pages on social media whenever you have new or revised content that addresses identified questions. (And keep a list of questions that arise from your social media posts so you can make intelligent decisions about website content during your next revision cycle.)
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 forever and ever. But not too obsessively, since you have a church to run! Set aside some time at least twice a year to make sure your website’s content is up to snuff.
Overwhelmed? It’s okay if you are.
This guide is meant to show you how can make your website more and more valuable to your community over time. A well-run website that provides thoughtful answers to burning questions is one of the factors that will help visitors to grow their trust in you.
If you have a lot of revision work ahead of you — or if you are organizing website content for the first time — and are feeling a bit lost, please send me a note. Believe me, I care very much about the health of your church and would be glad to help.