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Make sure your Web site is multi-site friendly

How three megachurches leverage the Web to manage their expanding campuses.

By Brad Hill

With the multi-site church revolution in full swing across America, much attention is paid to video venues, program development and community outreach. An equal or greater amount of attention, however, should be paid to the digital communications strategy. Whether or not your church is offering its own live video streaming or “Internet Campus” experience, running a Web site for multiple locations is a much different challenge than that of a single-site church.

The good news for a church considering the communication issues around multi-site? Nobody quite has it all figured out yet. Most “multi-sites” acknowledge that it’s still in the experimental phase, although many do agree on some fundamentals.

The challenges facing most far-flung ministries would be familiar to any Fortune 500 company operating in multiple locations. Internal communications, brand loyalty, and consistency of message rank as the trickiest hurdles.

Keep lateral lines open

Dave Adamson at Liquid Church (www.liquidchurch.com), Morristown, NJ, says that keeping lateral communication lines open requires effort from their leaders. It’s not a Web-specific challenge, but it affects every aspect of communications — both internal and external. “It’s easy for silos to be created around individual campuses,” he says, “unless the communication between them is kept open and honest.” Liquid Church operates two physical campuses in the suburbs of Manhattan, and Adamson is the pastor of Liquid’s Internet Campus (which also operates its own Web site, on par with the physical locations).

Parkcrest Church (www.parkcrest.org), Long Beach, CA, operates multiple campuses in the Long Beach, CA area. With 2,500 weekly attendees across three locations, the church asks each of its lead pastors to provide weekly information to their congregations. This can work well, because each pastor can build rapport with his or her parishioners, but isn’t guaranteed to produce uniform results.

Steve Dunham, worship arts pastor, describes the challenge of communicating information through multiple mouthpieces. “Since each campus has a different campus pastor, it is hard to know if the information is being put before the people with the same enthusiasm and regularity,” Dunham says.

Site strategy

Enter the Web site strategy. Using video, images, and consistent content updates across three Web sites and a mini-mobile site, Parkcrest is able to keep its campuses on the same page. Newcomers are greeted with vital information; meanwhile, regular attendees can quickly find updated information on activities, connection points, and media resources.

There’s also the not-all-campuses-are-created-equal problem. For most multi-site congregations, the oldest location is the largest. In a “one church, many locations” model, this poses a delicate dilemma. AnnieLaurie Walters, communications director at McLean Bible Church (www.mcleanbible.org), McLean, VA, says that getting the 13,000 attendees of the church to stop thinking of their first and largest campus as “the mother ship’” is a struggle. She’s helping to solve this challenge with the Web strategy, since the Internet is a great playing-field leveler.

Most multi-site churches quickly outgrow a single Web site. This is especially true for those who operate programs and events at each location. “If we tried to have all that on one Web site it would turn into a supermarket catalogue of odds and ends,” Adamson says.

Walters, whose church operates six video venues with live worship and pastoral/ministry staff, describes the identity balance between the campuses: “We are not identical twins, we are fraternal twins. We have a lot of the same DNA on the inside but we look different on the outside. Therefore, we are committed to reflecting that with our Web presence.”  They solved this by creating a central hub site for all information that is central to the church. Each campus, in turn, runs its own Web site for activities, blogs, Twitter, announcements and newcomer information.

Easy content management

McLean Bible Church wrapped up a major overhaul of its six Web sites in early September. Working with the team at SiteOrganic, McLean implemented a system to feed content from the central campus site out to the individual campus sites. Walters says, “This way, I can create one page in our central site and make that page available to the other campuses for syndication. The content can only be edited in one place, making content management pretty easy. Otherwise we would be creating content again and again for every campus page.”

Liquid Church also uses a syndication model, along with some old-media smarts. “Lead Pastor Tim Lucas is a former English teacher and before coming here I was a TV reporter in Australia,” says Adamson, “so we are the gatekeepers of content quality.”

Like any operation with satellite divisions, the desire to develop unique personalities while identifying with and benefiting from the umbrella organization is genuine.

All three congregations have a consistent brand identity, with some minor variations (color, tagline, etc.) to delineate each campus. Most are also using social media in various ways, since it knows no boundaries or multi-site limitations. “During the lead up to [a recent fundraiser for Africa] we did a series of viral videos that raised awareness in an informal and entertaining way,” Adamson says. “We’ve seen our people use our social media across their own Twitter and Facebook pages to invite their friends. It’s been very successful.”

Brad Hill is founder and president of SiteOrganic, Reston, VA. [www.siteorganic.com]

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