• 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.

  • Is your church's digital presence on target?


    Are your church's web site and social media efforts successful? How do you know?

    In today's world, even for a church, your digital presence plays a significant role regardless of whether you are actively managing it or not. Not only do you need to be active, but you need to gather data that will tell you whether or not it is working for you. In addition, you need to compare that data against your goals, which should be defined by your church's overall objectives (more on that here).

    First, I ask your indulgence as I set the stage a bit.

    How your digital presence fits into the process of drawing visitors

    You may be uncomfortable thinking about a church doing marketing because it doesn't try to sell things to customers. But if it is trying to attract visitors, it is marketing to them.

    The marketing world looks at the process of creating a customer with a funnel analogy to explain the phases he or she experiences.  It is a funnel because the number of people grows smaller as the phases progress. My version of the marketing funnel for churches is:

    Awareness. Someone learns that your church exists. Perhaps she drives by your building and sees your sign with your church's easy-to-remember web site address displayed prominently (Your signage DOES include your web site, doesn't it? And the address is easy to remember, yes?).

    If you're active on social media, maybe she found out about you from social media. How did she do that? Her Facebook or Google+ friends who attend your church liked or shared some interesting or useful content posted on the church's Facebook page or its Twitter account, alerting her to the post . Perhaps it was strategic use of a hashtag that s/he happened to search.

    Discovery. Now that she knows about you, and if there is interest, the next step is to learn more. This will likely involve web searches (will the search results be what you expect?). A look at your web site, perhaps checks of other social media channels, if you are on more than one.

    Consideration. Research done, it's time to decide whether what she found matches her need or preference.

    Visit(s). You might consider this part of discovery because it can be done prior to true consideration. I keep it separate and after consideration because a visit is a more extensive investment of time, and perhaps a sense of risk.

    Commitment. If your visitor likes what she finds, then she may become a regular attender, if not a member.

    Measuring the effectiveness of your church's digital presence

    It would be great if you could track her, individually, from the top of the funnel to the bottom; that's an ideal that professional marketers at all size companies strive for, but that ability is still a bit out of reach.

    Regardless, your digital presence has an impact primarily on awareness and discovery, and there are ways to gain insights to how well it is performing. Your church is not likely to have the resources of a business, so what can you do?

    You use what you can.

    Your social media channels can provide clues about how well you're building awareness. Facebook and now Twitter offer statistics on how many times a post has been viewed.  Are your tweets being re-tweeted and favorited by more than just your members? Take a look at your Facebook, Google+, Pinterest or Instagram pages... how many of your posts have likes and shares? If there aren't many, it may be time to look at the links and pictures you're posting, and how you phrase the text.

    There is a lot of advice out there on how to create the best posts and when to post.  Here's an often-copied resource that may help (An FYI: you do have to provide some contact information in order to download the free PDF, but I think you'll find it worthwhile).

    Be careful how much stock you put into the number of followers you have. That can shed some light, but if your posts aren't getting demonstrable attention, it really doesn't matter how many are following you.

    You can gauge discovery by the traffic to your web site. There are some great tools out there to help you monitor visits to your web site. Most churches have little money to put out towards their digital presence, but luckily Google Analytics is free, and provides far more value than you'd expect.

    Analytics can tell you what pages visitors are looking at, where they are coming from, how deeply they probe into your site, and more. You're vigorously promoting a public event. How many visits is your page promoting it racking up? If few or none, you know you have some adjustments to make.

    Visits? Well, those should be easy to measure, but if you want to connect visits with your digital efforts, you have to ask! If your congregation collects information from visitors, are you asking how they learned about your church, and do the choices include your social media channels and web site?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Your church website could be a digital Swiss army knife

    If your church web site contains only pages of text and pictures, that's a good. Assuming the information is current and relevant to your audience, of course. But why stop there? It can offer so much more, to members and potential visitors alike. Options vary depending on which platform your church web site uses.

    I am most familiar with a platform called Joomla. Joomla inherently offers several useful features right out of the box... For starters, it's free. Out of the box, it offers the ability to schedule web pages to be published (appear on the site) and be un-published at dates and times in the future, and the ability to create a "members only" area of your site.

    It also is designed so that third parties can easily add all sorts of optional specialized features, called "extensions". Many can greatly enhance the usefulness of your web site. Here's a brief discussion of just a few. I am not endorsing any of them; I only hope to spur your imagination to what your church web site could be.

    Put your sermon audio or video on line. Easily organize your sermons, speakers and series, with the ability to podcast built right in. There is a free extension that makes it simple to create robust speaker profiles and series descriptions, and link them to individual sermons. Each sermon can have a description, referenced Bible verses, and downloadable versions of handouts.

    Make it possible to downloadable files. Make forms, posters, budgets, brochures, reports and more available for download. One extension lets you categorize your documents, track how many times each has been downloaded, and offer links to individual documents or categories of documents on any web page.

    Offer online registration for events and classes. There are extensions that support custom online registration forms for youth rallies, seminars, fundraising dinners, Sunday school classes, and so on. Some can handle online payments for events that aren't free.

    Display pictures of events in an online gallery. Pictures draw your members to the site, and can serve potential visitors to show what your congregation is involved in.

    Let visitors see your social media posts in your web site. You're posting in Facebook and Twitter or one of the other social media platforms? Pull your posts right into your web site. Some Joomla extensions will show the feeds separately, and some let you combine them into a single feed.

    Add a password-protected area for members. Joomla comes with the ability to create a password-protected area for members. Any of the features I've mentioned above can be publicly-accessible or in this private area. Candidates for the private area could include budget or other financial reports, planning reports, member directories and detailed prayer lists.

    The first church web site that I applied these things to had a couple of results worth noting. First, this church was one of the very first to podcast its sermons. A couple of weeks after we launched this feature, the church office got a call from a National Public Radio reporter. This led to a story about that church's podcasting efforts on NPR's 'All Things Considered'.

    Second, this church was near Washington Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. One day, the church office got a call from a man who was there for a layover during an international flight. He found the church's web site and contacted it because he wanted to be baptized by immersion. He came to the church building, was baptized, then returned to Dulles and continued his trip. Had it not been clear on the web site that this church did that, he likely would never have called.

    So make your church's web site a digital Swiss army knife and you never know what interesting story your church could tell.