Rolling out your church's digital welcome mat

Remember the last time you used the Yellow Pages to find a church? Me neither. So it's obvious that you need have a digital welcome mat out for your visitors. Before we get involved in social media options, the starting place is your church's web site.

Maybe your church has never taken advantage of what a presence on the web can offer. Maybe it took a stab at it years ago, but the web geek who took care of everything moved with no one to fill his shoes. Maybe your congregation has something up, but it has been neglected or is out-dated. But now your church is ready to give it a renewed shot. Here are some important things to consider.

Before your church does anything else ... if the effort is to have any prayer of success, your congregation’s leadership must stand behind it and make it a priority. Otherwise, getting content for the site and social media channels from members will be no easier than herding those pesky cats, and there will be little or no promotion of the efforts to make the members aware of your site, let alone visitors.

It does take commitment. Commitment to an open-ended project (unless all you are looking for is a simple online billboard). Commitment to promote the channels shamelessly and relentlessly. Commitment from those who accept the responsibility of creating or providing content. I’ll always make the case that the commitment is worth it for both member and potential visitor.

Tell your story

You want your web site to tell a story. A compelling story of the people of your congregation. This can reach two audiences at the same time … your members and your potential visitors. Why? Stories draw people in to your world.

If your story includes upcoming events and news of past events, you have content that will appeal to your members because they will see stories and photos of themselves and their families. In addition, promoting future events and offering online registration for them provides a truly useful tool for your members. When your members grow to trust that the web site will always have the latest information about every upcoming event, it could actually reduce calls to the church office and reduce the amount of information your church must print.

At the same time, that same content provides a window into your congregation, allowing a potential visitor to get an idea of what to expect before stepping past your actual welcome mat, and discover, in advance, features of your congregation that they can connect with or are looking for.

Consider a web address that is easy to remember.

In many cases, members know their congregation by an acronym … ACOC, FMECL, etc. How easy is that for a potential visitor to remember if s/he sees it on your church sign or banner as a web site address? The easier to remember, the better. FirstMethodistSmallville.org, PilotChurch.org, beats fms.org or pc.org. If yours is cryptic, it's time for a new one.

Is the exact name of your church already taken as a ".org" address, or is it incredibly long? Be creative, but don't lose sight of the goal. Maybe NorthClevelandChristianChurchOfTheBrethren is a bit overwhelming. What about NorthClevelandChristian or NorthClevelandChurch?

Another approach is to consider that the perfect name is available if you choose a "top level domain" other than the usual ".org", ".com" and ".net". This fall, you'll be able to choose a “.church”, “.faith” or “.bible” address. So while SpringfieldBaptistChurch.org, .com, .net and the rest are taken, your address could be SpringfieldBaptist.church.

Have a web site that is easy to update

Your site should be the hub of your digital efforts. All your social media channels should ultimately nudge people to your web site. And as I’ve already discussed, keep the content current.

A site in which every page is hand-crafted HTML can be time consuming to update, especially if you have to add features. It's better to use a “content management system”, or CMS. That’s basically what WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are. Using any of these gives you access to professionally-created templates that give you a vast choice of looks, and get you out of the business of writing HTML (or any other web-based coding language). A CMS lets you create content almost as easily as you can write an email, and then creates the actual web page dynamically.

Other benefits include:

  • Automatically adjust the layout of your site for computers AND portable devices, like smart phones and tablets.
  • Eliminate promotions for events in the past automatically. A CMS allows you to post items that can appear on your site automatically at a specific date and time in the future, and then drop from your site at a later date and time.
  • Easily add special features written by third parties. WordPress calls these “widgets”, Joomla, “extensions” and Drupal, “modules”. Many are free. For example, there’s a great Joomla extension that makes it incredibly simple to load sermon audio on your site, display it, and make it available as podcasts.
  • Change the look of your site in a matter of minutes with another template.
  • Joomla, WordPress and Drupal themselves are free, as are many extensions/widgets/modules.
  • Identify the sources of your content

Where do you find content? One place to start is with your printed marketing pieces … brochures, pamphlets, welcome kits. Why write from scratch if you have content ready-to-use or easily adaptable? By the way, this could trigger a long-delayed effort for your church to update outdated printed materials.

Answer the basic questions ... where you are, when you meet, what your particular faith believes, what your congregation's focus or strength is, etc. Think about what you'd want to know if you were the one looking for a church to visit.

Make sure you capture all the essential information about upcoming events ... what, when, where, whom (to contact), how much it may cost, etc. Members may know this, but visitors won't. Along similar lines, avoid using language of insiders ... use terms that the general public is familiar with.

Beyond assembling your initial information, It’s also critical to set up the ongoing plan and process to get news and events as they come up.

Use pictures and videos

Don’t use only text to tell your story. I can’t stress this enough. Use pictures. Your bulletin or announcements-on-the-screen asks members to silence their phones, but I’ve never seen one say “don’t take pictures” with phones. You should put an emphasis on pictures of people. A shot of the building is fine for the “where we are” page, but it should not be the focus of the home page. Well, I might make an exception for the Duomo in Milan or Florence, or the Mormon Temple. Maybe.

If at all possible, use pictures of your members, your activities, your church. If you don't have a decent photographer handy, there are stock images. If you find you need to go that route, choose judiciously. They can look very generic, and I doubt you attend a generic church.

One caveat: Don’t get caught in the trap of feeling compelled to use every photo and every video clip from every person. Cull the best and the ones that support your story.

One don't: Don't use clip art. Those are easier to spot than stock photos.

Identify your congregation's leaders with names and photos. When you go somewhere for the first time, it's always good to have a familiar face. It will also make your leaders more approachable by visitors if they recognize your leaders and know their names.

About video ... predictions are that video will be the number one consumed content on mobile devices by next year. With smart phones everywhere, everyone is dabbling in making their own videos. Channel those members’ dabblings into documenting your events and special occasions. If you have members who can edit those videos, or even who know production techniques, recruit them to help with your online video content. You can also get stock video and pre-produced video with religious messages. Again, if you need to rely on these, be selective.

Post your sermon audio or video

Many churches already record their sermons. Put yours on the web, either with an extension/widget/module or a third-party web-based service. Include as much information about it that you can. If your sermon tool lets you add a description, the series, the reference Bible verses, a handout-as-attachment, tags, use as many of these as you can. Not only will it make it easier for a site visitor to decide whether to listen to a given sermon, search engines will catalog this information along with the rest of your site, allowing folks to find your site based on this information as well as your regular pages.

The next step is to organize your site effectively. Stay tuned.