Find a site suited to your church
7 comments | Posted: 9 February 06 in General, by Tim Bednar
Two years ago McDonalds announced the demise of Super Size french fries and soft drinks. After designing church web sites for six years, I think it is about time that churches stopped Super Sizing their web sites. Why? For the same reason you should not eat extra large portions of fast food. It is good for you.
My goal in this article is to help leaders match their church with the best-performing web site because there is an exceptional site opportunity for every church. A well-suited web site is the first step toward a better experience, less cost and more impact.
Even if you you rely on the good will of a volunteer designer, web sites cost money, time and energy. A ill-suited web site quickly become a liability rather than an asset. Ill-suited sites are not maintained which initiates a cycle of decay resulting in cost:
- Cost of losing return visitors to the site when they are frustrated by unreliable information
- Cost of losing potential visitors to church when they have a poor web experience
- Cost of lost income when donors give to organizations with a better web presence *Cost of losing of your volunteer designer’s goodwill when church leaders lose interest in the web site
Church leaders should think of their web sites as property rather than as a brochure. Even a small site has more value than a disposable, one-use, paper brochure. To avoid costs and build value, find a web site well-suited to your church, its culture and leadership.
The St. Francis: Five pages of simplicity
I named this type of web site The St. Francis for its simplicity. It delivers mainly text-based information by focusing on web standards and well-written copy.
To execute this kind of site, leaders should spend their budget (if any), time and energy on a copywriter and designer who can create simple, well-formed pages:
- Home should be where news and seasonal information is posted and updated. For example, post your Lent schedule here.
- Location should have a static map, links to Google Maps for directions, copy that mentions nearby landmarks and a description of your community.
- Schedule should have Sunday service times and a basic schedule of weekly programs.
- Pastors page should have nice head shots and describe what each staff member does for the congregation. The point of this page is to help the visitor figure out who contact with questions.
- Photos should have 6-9 photos (thumbnails not necessary) that are well-captioned. The point of this page is to show visitors your church in action so they know what to expect if they visit.
It is important to remember that most visitors will not enter your site through the Home page. So, every page should include the street address, link to Google Maps, Sunday service times, phone and fax numbers and a real email address (not a form—if you are worried about spam use a Gmail account).
Additionally, do not burry this information in the footer, but make it an essential part of the layout. Pages should be between 800 and 1400 pixels long and 750 to 1000 pixels wide, use larger font sizes and white space. When you view the source code, the main content of the page should be the first thing you read.
The St. Francis best suites your church if:
- your current site is hopelessly out-of-date
- you have limited budget
- you do not have a reliable web editor
- you are launching your first web site
This may seem geeky. But start here. The St. Francis is designed for quality. It is easily maintained and optimized for search engines. It is the fastest way to build (or rebuild) equity in your web property.
The Elvis Costello: One-percent Flash
The Elvis Costello communicates the feeling of your church to its audience through motion and sound. Originally, I named it just The Elvis, but I did not want churches building overdosing on the excesses of Flash.
Jakob Nielsen famously said, “Flash is 99% bad.” We have clicked “Skip Intro”. I want Elvis style with Costello substance.
If you just can not abide simplicity of the St. Francis, then the Elvis Costello is for your church. It best suites your church if:
- you want to engage the emotions
- you use multi-media in your services
- you have an sacramental or events-based church calendar
- you have other means to communicating information to members and visitors
To succeed, you need a good Flash designer who will create a small, pointed Flash site that communicates the emotion of your church. You will also need access to quality to audio, sounds, video and images.
One way to implement the Elvis Costello is to create a new Flash site for each church season and provide your congregation with e-mail-based tools to share the new site to friends and family.
You will need this kind of planned promotion because search engines do not value Flash, so if you want traffic then you need to build it without relaying on organic search (a virtue of the St. Francis).
The Elvis Costello is designed to create a vibe. It needs attention from leadership for short periods of time, then can be left alone, but do not forsake it. An abandoned Elvis Costello is the biggest web liability you can own.
The Robin Hood: Wisdom of the laity
The Robin Hood takes control over content from the “leaders” and gives it to the “laity” enabled by a Content Management System (CMS). This decentralized way of maintaining content is summarized by the adage, “Many hands make light work.”
Basically, sites build with a CMS enable the owners of the content to directly create and edit content. Oversight is done after-the-fact if at all. The advantage is responsibility and workload are spread out; it also taps into the wisdom of lay staff and empowers to efficiently execute their responsibilities. For some church cultures, this is NOT a good fit.
To execute the Robin Hood resources need to be focused on choosing the best CMS, training people on how its use and creating guidelines for quality assurance.
All of the basic principles of the St. Francis apply to the Robin Hood, however, the CMS enables large, complex sites to be easily maintained. It best suites your church if:
- your church culture values decentralized leadership
- your leaders do not want or need to micro-manage the site
- you love weblogs
The Robin Hood is designed to tap into the wisdom of the laity and manage complex sites. You can implement an CMS to manage a site without decentralizing control of the content. If this is a better fit with your church culture, start with a St. Francis and add a CMS to the backend.
The Holy Grail: The next Billy Graham will be geek
I am calling my final solution The Holy Grail because it describes an as yet undiscovered type of web site. There are many designers and developers experimenting, but I have not yet seen the Holy Grail: a web site or service that we could define as a “cyber-church”.
Holy Grail sites (or networks) are difficult because they leap over the wall gardens favored by churches, seminaries, publishers, Christian media and denominations. They are experimental and should be the aspiration of the church.
- You ought to create a Holy Grail site if:
- You already have a successful web site
- You believe Barna’s prediction that 10% of Christians will get all their spiritual give-and-take from the Internet by 2010
- Your church culture is oriented toward Kingdom growth rather than church growth
To succeed, you find designer or developer who needs to be nurtured in experimenting. For example, support Michael Boyink’s Stories About God experiment. I predict that the next Billy Graham will be a geek (no offense Mike). This is a start.
Live more simply on the web
All these types can be found in the wild in different forms and degrees of success. I would be ecstatic if 99 percent of churches built St. Francis sites and 1 percent searched for the Holy Grail. As a designer, I would love to work on more St. Francis sites if more churches were willing to live simply on the web.
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