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Back to basics

By Tim Wall

How to build a church website that really works

COUNCIL-ROAD-BAPTIST-CHURCHWhy do so many church websites fall short of their potential?

The issues vary, but it’s common to see a lack of fresh and regularly updated content. Some churches try to be overly fancy. Others have websites that are poorly designed.

But most often, church websites fall short because they fail to focus on the basics. Improving church websites isn’t about adopting the latest cutting-edge web technology; it’s about getting back to basics and mastering oft-neglected fundamentals of great content, great design and timely updates.

“A website is the church’s voice and face for all to see, both members and visitors,” says Brad Mardis, director of communications at Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, OK. “The communication and presentation of your church website can make all the difference to someone who is seeking a church home or looking for resources in their community.”

Mardis’ church got back to basics with its website. For its site re-launch last year, the church employed the help of Nashville, TN-based creative agency Collision Media to develop a site with clear focus on sound content and design. Since then, the church has seen an 88-percent increase in the number of unique visitors, with large gains in page views and average time on site.

Is it time to rethink your approach?
If it’s time to rethink your church’s approach to website communications, then it’s time to start thinking first about delivering the best content and design that you can. A few rules:

Content is king. More than any other factor, the quality and freshness of your content determine the success of your website. Visitors return regularly if they can find new and interesting information and keep up to date with church news and activities. If you have a few static pages that are rarely updated, or if your homepage features an event from six months ago, people might visit once or twice before writing it off as not worth their time.

Unfortunately, the content aspect of website management is often overlooked. The reasons are understandable — it can take time and focus to create and upload quality content. Churches that rely on a single webmaster or a handful of individuals to update their sites can easily find themselves falling behind. Over time, content issues can multiply to such an extent that a major effort is required to freshen a site.

Why is good content so important to a church? It’s the communication between the pastor and congregation, staff and volunteers, and church and community. Good content also improves your ranking on Google and other search engines, driving new traffic and expanding your influence and impact. Blogs, delegating content responsibilities, video sermons and Facebook are several good ways to improve your content quality and freshness.

Add a blog to your site. A blog is a terrific way to highlight fresh content and give a timely, lively voice to your church. After all, your pastor and church leaders focus on delivering messages and insights to the congregation — why not use a blog to communicate those messages, as well as church achievements and news? A web platform with a built-in blogging feature makes this easy, without the need to maintain a separate blog site.

Engage new content owners. One way to improve content freshness is to delegate content updating across more staff and volunteers. Rather than saddling a few people with site responsibilities, look to engage leaders of your youth ministry or fundraising or
community outreach to contribute their own content.

website-platform-lightCMSA key here is to use a web content management system (CMS) that’s exceptionally easy to use, so people can add content and images about as easily as writing an email.

The complexity in some web content platforms is a leading culprit behind erratic and outdated content. If your website volunteers need HTML training simply to upload a photo, you’re using the wrong web platform. With the right approach and platform, you can achieve the ideal of daily site updates that drive repeat visitors.

Record and upload sermons. Churches that record and upload sermons find that those videos are among the most-viewed content items on their sites, among congregants and those who couldn’t make it to church or moved from the area. Putting your pastor’s sermon online doesn’t need to be a Hollywood production.

With a commodity camera, it’s easy and affordable to film a sermon.

Once you’ve captured the sermon, it’s equally easy to upload it to YouTube or Vimeo. Tip: Don’t even think about using propriety video management software that you need to manage. YouTube and Vimeo are trusted video hosting services available for free or for a nominal fee that enable you to embed videos in your website pages and on Facebook, as well.

Make the most of Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, is your church making the most of the highly popular social networking site?

Facebook posts that link back to your site to highlight a new event, an uploaded sermon or blog post are a great way to reach members of your congregation who might spend many hours a week on Facebook. With a bit of investment in Facebook, you can easily see a double-digit rise in website traffic.

Pay attention to content quality and consistency. You’ll get the best results when your content is well written and mostly free of typos or grammatical mistakes. Of course, writing abilities vary, so you can’t expect that each of your contributors is going to deliver flawless prose. It’s a good idea if you can engage an overall site editor with good writing skills to review and wordsmith the contributions from your content owners. At the least, take advantage of spelling and grammar checkers to minimize mistakes.

Good design complements good content
You might have the best church content out there, but your reward will be diminished if it’s not matched with good site design —one that’s clean and uncluttered, with color schemes, typefaces and images that appropriately reflect your church’s brand. Bottom line: The simplest path is usually the best path.

As an example, most churches have an “About Us” page that might highlight leadership, history or ministries. A common weakness in some church (and commercial) sites is the use of unnecessary individual “About” subpages, forcing readers to navigate multiple pages to read content that could easily be contained on a single page. The simpler, better approach in most cases is to feature all of your “About

Us” information on a single page, using bold subtitles for each section.

Invest in a professional web designer. An attractive and inviting design from the outset lays the foundation for website success. Hiring a talented web designer is one of the best investments a church can make in its site. Be sure anyone you hire has real web experience, rather than merely print or ad agency experience. There are tons of qualified web designers out there who not only know how to make things pretty, but make pretty things work.

If you can’t afford a web designer, a content management system with a selection of prebuilt templates can be a suitable option that streamlines your design with proven best practices.

Welcome mobile device users. Besides prebuilt templates, your content management system should feature capabilities known as “responsive design,” which enable your site to adjust automatically to smartphones and tablets. With the rapidly growing use of mobile devices, delivering a quality experience across any device is becoming a must. If your site looks messy on a tablet or smartphone, your visitors won’t stay long before moving on to other sites.

Of course, mastering the basics of your website shouldn’t cost a fortune. Depending on the size of your site, you should expect to pay between $20 and $100 a month for software licensing and hosting. Your platform should also allow you to accept online donations and sell goods, and offer access to an unlimited number of users.

By revisiting the basics, your church can strengthen its web impact and lay a foundation for success for years to come.

Tim Wall is marketing manager for LightCMS. Prior to joining the LightCMS team, he served as full-time pastor of technology and communications for Sugar Creek Baptist Church in Houston.

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