• A church's digital decision that's tougher than you'd think

    Many churches face a choice businesses normally don't. And it's a harder one to make than you might think. Whom do you choose to build and/or manage your web site and social media presence, member/volunteers or paid consultants/contractors?

    Why can this be a tough choice? Money can be a factor, but it's rarely the primary one because by the time you reach decision time, funds have already been budgeted to, at a minimum, launch the web site.

    What really drives the decision is feelings. Not the feelings of the decision makers, but those of the member whose son or niece or cousin offers to do it for free. This has affected me and others I've spoken to who also work with churches.

    Part of a congregation's function is to look after the well-being of its members. You are considering bringing in a consultant/contractor, but when that member finds out, he or she approaches you to say that either they or a family member knows HTML, Wordpress or Wix and is more than willing to take on the job to save the congregation some money.

    The church leaders suddenly find themselves in a dilemma. "If we decline the offer", the thinking goes, "will we offend the member or hurt his/her feelings? And what if that insult is enough for that member to take his/her family and contribution elsewhere?" Many churches accept that offer, and apologize to the consultant/contractor, asking "what else can we do?"

    I can understand the issue, to a point. But is it possible to do it to the detriment of the congregation's objectives? In this case, I say the answer can be yes.

    Trade-offs

    Putting feelings to the side for a moment, what are the trade-offs in contractor vs volunteer? I can think of four.

    Financial cost. Let's deal with the easy one first. Clearly, that's a win for the volunteer. How can you argue with free labor when your primary source of revenue is the weekly (and also voluntary) contributions?

    Expertise. This should be driven by decisions already made while determining how your digital presence should fit into your church's overall objectives. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, you may need experience in planning, effective web site layout, social media strategy, writing for the web and social media, photography, audio/video, and perhaps more. Does your volunteer already have the skills you need, or will s/he learn as s/he goes?

    Ongoing commitment. This is one I and fellow consultants see lacking in volunteers. It's often fun at the start. Maybe your name is announced during a service. If your web site is more than an online brochure, and you want an active social media presence, the week in, week out nature of this can wear thin, especially for a volunteer. In addition, other personal commitments can easily intrude. Even with good intentions, a week late becomes a month late becomes...

    Accountability. This grows out of the ongoing commitment. When a site security upgrade, a sermon posting, new event promotion or updated content is late, how far can you really go to hold the feet of a member/volunteer to the fire? You can't penalize her by requiring a double tithe or force him to sit on the front row for a month. This can be a particular problem if the volunteer is related to a congregational leader.

    Or the volunteer is a congregational leader. I know many a congregation that has had problems getting current ministry information from ministry leaders and deacons that needs to be posted. One client of mine decided, after a significant delay waiting for ministry leaders to submit content, to put "under construction" on all of the ministry pages in order to launch its new web site. It's been nearly a year since the launch, and nothing has changed.

    A consultant/contractor, on the other hand, probably does not attend your services or activities. There's no friendship or membership at risk because it's a strictly professional relationship. That usually makes it easier to deal with poor performance. Plus, s/he is getting paid for his/her work. An acceptable level of service is at least implied, and I would hope is explicitly agreed upon. Failure to deliver means what it means for any paid service used by a church, or even a family or business.

    Consider a probationary period

    Volunteers are not, by definition, something to be avoided. Remember, though, whichever choice you make, it should be clear that it is a professional arrangement, with expectations.

    Regardless of which way you go, I recommend setting a trial period for your new digital team (or person). After all, this is not a decision that, once made, is eternal. Define clear objectives and timelines that you and your team agree to. For launching the web site, exactly what content and features you want, and should include a target date (be sure to include time for the leaders' review).

    For ongoing upkeep, I would set the trial at four to six months. Define time frames for new and updated content. If your plan includes online sermons, photo galleries and social media posts, how soon should those be posted after the events? If plans include posting event info, and possibility registration forms, how far in advance of the event dates should they be posted?

    Even if you do have paid help for web site upkeep and social media efforts, you will always have to rely on members and ministry leaders for much of your content. Their timeliness affects the ability of your digital team to meet their schedules, so you should get commitments from these volunteers as well.

    At the end of the trial, assess how it went. Did your team consistently meet the schedules? If so, excellent! You made the better choice the first time around. But if the team did not measure up, choose again.

  • Get your church on the phone

    Surveys are showing that greater than half of internet access these days is from mobile devices like iPhones, iPads and Android phones and tablets. It's more important than ever that your web site be mobile-friendly. Here are some relevant numbers:

    • 1 in 5 people in the world own a smartphone (per BI Intelligence)
    • 1 in 17 people in the world own a tablet (per BI Intelligence)
    • Total use of mobile devices to access social media has grown 55% in the past year... that translates to 70% of all social media use is on a mobile device (per comScore)

    So how does your church's web site look on these devices? If it's been a long time since you launched your current site, take a look at it on a phone or tablet. You may be surprised with what you see.

    The more people surf the web on their phones and tablets, the more important it is for your web site to provide a good experience on those devices.

    When a web page can adapt to the device, it's called "responsive". It can tell whether it's on a PC or Mac, an iPhone or an Android, and an iPad versus a Galaxy Tab. It adjusts its layout to accommodate. See what a small church outside of Fort Worth is doing. Visit it here on your computer and your mobile device. If you don't have a smartphone or tablet, just narrow your browser and watch the layout change as the width shrinks.

    At the right is a screen shot of a church web site that is not responsive. It looks just like it does on a PC or Mac. To read anything, you have to zoom in on it. And if it happens to use Flash for its slideshows, they won't work on an iPhone or iPad because Apple doesn't support Flash; your visitor would need to buy a third-party browser. While the page still looks respectable, it's hardly user-friendly, particularly on a phone.

    Marketers know that they must be mobile-friendly and the best have already adapted. You don't think that just because we're talking about a house of worship, that you don't?

    The great thing is that it's not that difficult for your church to have a responsive site, especially if it is using a content management system (CMS) such as Joomla or Wordpress. You can purchase affordable templates that look great, offer a lot of options and provide responsiveness right out of the box.

    Ah, but you say you already have a responsive template. There's one more thing you need to do, if you haven't already: look at your site on at least one mobile device. Why? Because the items that appear around your main article (modules or widgets, depending on which CMS you use) may look great on the PC/Mac version of your web page, but may not be in an attractive order on a phone or tablet. The Fort Worth area church I link to above does a good job of having its modules appear in an effective order on phones.

    Check the documentation for your CMS and template to see how to control whether and in what order your modules/widgets appear on your mobile devices.

    What about smartphone/tablet apps for churches? TechCrunch reports that in 2014, mobile device users are spending more of their time in apps than in surfing the web. Does this mean you should shift your attention away from a responsive web site and toward a church app? I would argue that the answer is, not for the foreseeable future, particularly if you are striving for a visitor-oriented digital presence, or one that balances the needs of visitors and members.

    Visitors who find you via a search engine are going to land on your web site first. What are the odds that someone who doesn't attend your congregation knows about the app without visiting your site first? In addition, the casual visitor is not likely to download an app just to learn the most basic information, such as when and where you meet, and directions to your church building.

    That's not to say that I'm negative on church apps. I'm not. My point is to prioritize. Make sure your web site works well on mobile devices before adding an app.

    I do think that if your budget permits it, that a church app can be a major positive for your congregation's members and regular attenders, as it can make online giving and prayer lists more accessible, provide a special communications channel, and make it easier to hear (or watch) services online.

    In my research for this post, I found a mega-church with an attendance averaging over 12,000 per week has an excellent web site but to my surprise, is not responsive to mobile devices at all. So if you haven't made your web site mobile friendly, you are far from alone, and it's never too late to start.

  • Lessons from a master storyteller for your church's digital presence

    The Sermon on the Mount

    He drew crowds. One was so large that he had to get into a boat and float away from shore in order to share with them. What drew so many people? Probably many things that go far outside my area of expertise, but a major one was that Jesus was a master storyteller. And the story is the most powerful form of communication.

    What made him so effective, and how can you apply those lessons to your church's web site and social media presence? He connected with audiences.

    He knew them. He grew up in the land where he taught and was part of the culture.

    If you don’t know who you’re writing for, you can't be sure that your content will be on target. Before you type that first word, ask yourself:

    • Who do I want reading this?
    • What is their background, socially and economically? How old (or young) are they?
    • What are they interested in and what do they do for recreation? What kind of music do they tend to like?
    • What are the common problems that they face (especially those your church can help with)?

    He went to where they were. He traveled from town to town, often speaking in locales where people gathered (although there are several occasions where they found him).

    Do you know which social media channels your audiences use? You should be there, be active, and engage in conversation rather than simply making announcements.

    His stories had familiar settings with familiar characters... shepherds, widows, religious leaders, poor people. The people of Jesus’ Palestine would be very familiar with such folk.

    He spoke their language. He didn't use religious jargon, he spoke using everyday terms.

    Do your online efforts get mired in church-speak, or do you write using terms and phrases that everyone can understand, regardless of how religious they may be?

    He used visuals … a child, a tree, a wineskin. Jesus used things at hand to enhance his message.

    Your web site, blog and social media should include images and videos whenever possible, but be sure they’re relevant. And be sure you get permission for any copyrighted material … it'd be embarrassing for a church to violate that seventh commandment!

    Per Sujan Patel, VP of Marketing at When I Work, “without question, there has been more than one article you’ve perused just for the pictures — or clicked on because it just seemed to... stand out more than the rest. Good visuals that break up big blocks of text can be the perfect way to keep your audience engaged. If an idea gets complicated or confusing, infographics and simple visual aides can, well, aide you in your explanation all the more.”

    He had a defined message, and it was consistent it with his mission, even when his supporters didn't grasp the full meaning.

    It's difficult to tell a story when you're looking at nothing but the details... promoting an event, posting a link to an article, thinking about your web site a page at a time or your social media posts one tweet at a time. Details are important, but keep your church's mission in mind. Think in terms of telling your story, of what your church offers, and use the details to support the larger view.

    He kept his stories brief. You can read any of his stories out loud, in their entirety, in less than five minutes.

    A story doesn’t have to be eternal to be spiritual. If a story can be told in one paragraph, or even a sentence, it’s still a story and can still have an impact.

    Once you’ve decided what your content is about, make sure that every paragraph relates back to the central idea or 'story.' If it isn’t helpful supporting your mission, it might be worth throwing out altogether.

    If your church doesn’t have a blog, start one. And don't make the mistake to think that you don't have much to blog about.

    Tell stories about your members and regular attenders … why do they like your church? What drew them to your church?

    Talk about events before they happen, while they are happening, and after they happen. For example, Sunday is Easter... post about preparations this week, and include "sneak peek" pictures or videos. During your Easter service, post pictures of events to social media. Perhaps you could live-tweet the celebration. Then recap the weekend on Monday.

    If you run low on topics, find out what questions visitors are asking your members or staff, and answer them in your blog. Promote events in story form, then re-cap them afterwards (with pictures!)

    If you use social media (and you should!), post links to articles of interest to your intended audiences. And links to your blog. And your online sermons. And your event registration pages. And to your other social media channels.

    A church may have a challenge in building its storytelling skills. You are not likely in a position to go out and hire a writer or a marketer, so you’re limited to your own staff and membership. Find the aspiring marketers, writers and artists. Play your strongest hand, build some skills, and start telling your congregation's story.

    Jesus told his.

    And you might say it went viral.

  • 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.

  • Take more of your church's communications digital


    Your church has a web site and posts frequently to social media, but is it still using printed bulletins and/or classic phone trees to share information with its members? What's stopping you from going where your members are by taking these digital too?

    The web and email entered the public consciousness in the mid-1990s. Twenty years later, 85% of Americans are online and use email. Even more important, predictions are that 72% of us will have a smartphone by the end of this year.

    Switch to e-Bulletins

    My first client, a large church of about 800, had a problem. The bulletin they handed out each Sunday was already a folded 11x17" sheet of paper, yet they consistently had more announcements than they could fit. One result was unhappy ministry leaders whose announcements were left off. Another was that the announcements made from the pulpit, consisting not only of items from the bulletin, but also the omitted items, were taking more and more time.

    Our collaboration led to implementing a program of emailed bulletins. Not just one weekly e-bulletin, but four, to cater to specific interests. One contained general announcements, one covered the teens ministry, one for the children's ministry, and one for prayer requests. Each went out on a different day at approximately the same time. We re-tooled the printed bulletin to be more of a welcome to visitors.

    Leaders explained the plan to members, and everyone was added to the relevant distribution list. For example, retired members with grown children were added to the general and prayer request e-bulletins, but not to the teen or children's ministry e-bulletins. For the e-bulletins, we used a service that offered the ability to post on its web site links to allow members to opt in or out of each type of e-bulletin.

    The congregation also used classic phone trees to get out late breaking important news, such as services cancelled due to bad weather. At the same time it implemented 
    the e-bulletins, leaders committed to a plan by which whenever bad weather cancelled services, a notice would be on the web site home page by 7:00 Sunday morning. 
    (elderly members who did not have a computer would still be called).

    Members who did not have access to the internet were not left unattended. Each Sunday, the church office staff left a few printed copies of each e-bulletin at the office counter. The leaders also arranged for those members to continue to be notified by phone when services were canceled.

    These four things did result, yea five did the church love:

    • The church also eliminated announcements from the pulpit, instead directing members to the e-bulletins.
    • The e-bulletins could include links to the church web site for more information, online registration forms or relevant downloads.
    • The printed bulletin had a cut-off time for submissions of Wednesday, in order to give time for creating the Microsoft Publisher document, having it reviewed and approved by the ministers, and getting it printed by the end of the day on Friday. One problem with this schedule was that prayer requests didn't really conform to a schedule... they came in on Thursdays and Fridays. Sending out the prayer request e-bulletin on Friday allowed for the most current list of requests
    • The online tool used allowed the church office to schedule delivery of the emails, which made it easier to ensure they went out the same time of day each week. This also helped when the office staff responsible for sending the e-bulletins were not in on the day the emails were to go out.
    • E-bulletins reduced paper costs as the church was able to switch to a folded 8.5x11 sheet of paper.

    Text your members

    Another option for bringing the phone tree into this century that I am seeing more churches do is to update members via text messages. And as with e-bulletins, there are many affordable services that would allow members to subscribe and un-subscribe themselves, and the church could text members en masse.

    Friars at a Boston church take it to another level by handling prayer requests by text. Text your need and the friars text a response of support and prayer.

    Use social media

    Don't forget about free social media. If Facebook is popular among your members, create a Facebook group as opposed to a Facebook page. This has three benefits:

    • You can control who joins
    • You can control who sees the posts, especially when they could include prayer requests
    • The default setting is for group members to get an email of all posts.

    Google Plus communities offers similar features.

    It's important to realize that one choice may not reach all, and it's wise not to assume you know the best platforms to use.. Ask your members where they spend their digital time to make sure you are where they are... in email? In Facebook? Texting? If none dominates, you may need to consider more than one venue.