So you have your domain name, ISP and hosting site. You have some photos, a newsletter or two and you’re ready to go. Let’s put up a website!
Hold on. There is a critical piece that needs to be done before the website can go up. In some ways this is the most important part, and it can only be done by you. Before one page or image is created and put up, you need to decide what you want to present on your site. This is going to take a little time, but believe me, it will make all the difference in how your site is received and how traffic comes to it.
Ten years ago, having something-anything for a website was probably sufficient. However with the explosion of Internet usage and the shift in how people find information, that theory no longer holds true. It is no longer about having a site, it is about the content. A thrown together site will get you nothing but disappointment. A little planning ahead of time will reap much greater rewards.
Your website is the digital front door to your church. When people come to your church, what do you want them to know about you? The word ‘authenticity’ is thrown around a lot these days. People are looking for authenticity in those things in which they want to be involved. People under 35 particularly have a built-in “BS meter” and can spot imitative and untrustworthy information a mile away. So when you start thinking about content, what do you want to put up that is sincere and honest about your church? You can put your mission statement on the front, but if you do, are you really living it? You can list programs, but are they active? If you put photos on your site, use real members of your church community (with their permission, of course!) and not stock photos of people who aren’t even members. You can put up a photo of your church on the homepage, but if it takes up an inordinate amount of space, what are you telling people about your community? Community isn’t a building.
Your homepage should be like the front page of the newspaper above the fold. This is the stuff you want people to know about your church. It needs to be current, kept up and relevant. Visually stunning is certainly nice, but people will come back to the site if they are interested in the content. Your site may be very nice and effective, but is it presenting the values and visions that have been established for your congregation? The goal is to attract, engage and retain people when they come to your site.
As a starter, your website has three potential audiences:
- Current members of your church
- Seekers/visitors who are looking for a potential church home
- People who are looking for resource information
You don’t necessarily have to address all three audiences, but this is a jumping off point to what you want on your site. When you look at design and content, how does it relate to these three audiences?
Once you have your design and vision in place, have others look at it. Heidi Campbell in her article, “Approaches to Religious Research in Computer-mediated Communication,” refers to these as “critical friends”. They can be the ones to make sure you are conveying the message you want and can point out areas for improvement. They also help to validate that the vision and content are in line with what you are going to convey.
One last thing. Web sites can no longer be a “checklist item” for churches. Just as you keep your building and grounds tidy and fresh, you need to do the same with your web presence. Unless leaders of congregations take their Web sites seriously by putting time and resources into them, these sites will languish and become the work of one person, or a very small number of people, who may or may not share the same vision. Or worse, they become stagnant and useless.
Take heart, however. Once you have your vision and concept in place, the actual implementation is easy to create and maintain.
“Well begun is half done” – Ancient Greek Proverb