• 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.

  • Finding content for your social media channels may be easier than you think! [INFOGRAPHIC]

    I find that many churches are a little intimated by social media because they don't think they have much to post. Others who do participate in social media treat it as simply an online church bulletin or a venue to post scripture of the day.

    It can be so much more, and if you take real advantage of your web site, you can have plenty to post that not only can appeal to members and potential visitors, but can drive traffic to your web site for more information and content.

    It's all about recycling.

    If your minister or other church leaders blog, even if they post to their own site, make sure thoses posts wind up in your web site as well (web sites powered by content management systems - CMSs - like Joomla or Wordpress can use add-on tools that can automatically import those posts). Use individual posts from your site as social media entries. Add a sound-bite-like quote as your comment.

    If you post church information, news and events on your web site, organize the content so that each item can be linked to directly, and post the link to social media.

    Are your sermons online? Promote the series or specific topic in social media, then post a link to each sermon in social media after it is  loaded into your web site. Headline it with a quote from the sermon. Occasionally post a link to the series with something like "have you missed a few Sundays? Catch up on our current series here!".

    Expand the content in your web site by answering questions your congregation's leaders get from visitors or those just curious about your church. Chances are others might be interested in the answers as well. Pick the best questions, and either blog your responses or post them directly into your web site. Now you have more to use in social media.

    Do you have online registration for events? Put the event details on your site, with a link to the registration form, and promote the link to that event in social media.

    Do you find articles by others on relevant church or Christiain topics? Post those directly to social media, again with a comment that draws people to click on the links.

    Be sure to adapt your posts to each social media platform.

    You may quickly find you almost have far more than you need to make your social media channels active, useful, appealing, and effective.

  • 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.