A church website has a purpose. Maybe it has multiple purposes. If you want your website to stand apart from the rest, you need to clearly articulate that purpose, and vigilantly guard that purpose against every idea that gets in the way of that purpose.
A Brief History
- In 1998 when I built my first church website, church websites were all about “cute and stupid”. Websites didn’t really do much in 1998, they had pages and images, and most people were still on dial up, so images had to be small.
- If your website was good, you had some kind of consistent navigation, and maybe a good looking brochure for your church.
- By 1999, I had started writing an extensible menu in PHP code, and by 2000 we started putting searchable sermon notes accompanied by streaming audio on the site.
- By 2001 we had adopted a content management script, and had started to build youth oriented “portals” that had blogs and forums, and articles with comments – the beginnings of the social web.
- By 2004 we had changed hosting companies 4 or 5 times, each time getting more storage, and capabilities.
What does this have to do with your website’s purpose? Nothing, other than to help explain that when something is new, nobody expects very much, and anything you do above that expectation sets you apart. When something is now the norm, you are competing for people’s attention with many, many organizations or with many other on-line experiences. I want you to understand that I have been at this for a very long time, have watched this thing evolve. and that there are some things that church websites have that are different than other websites, but that is not what sets them apart.
Whether your website is built to attract people from the community, to provide information to your membership, or to provide resources to the larger community of faith – that doesn’t matter – what matters is that you (and everyone who visits your website) know what the purpose is. You know because you decided that purpose, and have painstakingly ensured that it is designed to fulfill that purpose. Your visitors know because it does that purpose for them. They don’t know how much time and energy that you spent making it fulfill that purpose, they only know that it makes sense, that it is easy, that it is clear and obvious and intuitive. They know because it leads them. They get an immediate sense that someone cares about this purpose, that the purpose is part of a larger pattern of intentionality that stands up and yells “WE CARE!” about this purpose.
Regardless of the purpose you select, you must also define an audience. You must define an audience by its breadth and diversity or is focus and homogeneity. Your website is about communicating with this audience. It needs to follow this audience, and understand how it thinks, and what messages resonate or what messages bounce. It needs to anticipate their questions, doubts, concerns, and needs – it needs to provide a reason for them to come, and reasons for them to come back. It needs to be safe for them to refer others like them to, and it needs to enhance their reputation as a referrer.
Regardless of the purpose and the audience, your website has a message. Not only does it communicate this with words and pictures, but with organization. Where things are displayed, and how easy it is to find them communicate volumes about what is important and your intentionality about your purpose. Your audience learns how much you care about them firsthand, by evaluating how intentionally you designed your website, with their needs in mind. Your website is organized in a way that tells them (without them knowing it) what you think is important. They (without knowing it) compare that to what they find important.
How do we tell them we care, by organizing our website?
The formal term is “information architecture” It is a discipline that may have originated in library science, and the design of card catalogs… but has definitely applied itself to training materials and now website design. It starts with understanding your audience, and what is most important to them. The things that are most important to your audience get the most “prominence” on your site. That means they are the first and biggest elements of the site. If it shows up on the front page and is top, center or left, and pretty big – it is important. If it is middle to lower half of the screen or is small, less important. If you have to scroll to see it, not that important. If you need to click more than one link to find it, it is completely irrelevant. Then each page is like that large to small, top to bottom. Using images to re-inforce concepts is good, but not images that are the only communication of a concept. Its hard to search for pictures.
What is my favorite church website?
http://www.moodychurch.org/ – There in the upper left corner, is the first thing any newcomer wants to see – service times and directions. The rest of the navigation bar is ordered newcomers on the left, and current attenders on the right. There is a “flipper” which displays clickable adverts for events and programs (I am less enthralled with flippers, but everyone seems to need one these days.). Then there are some boxes connecting to upcoming events and relevant programs. As you move from top to bottom and left to right, the page is organized to favor newcomers – but has relevant content for the current attenders as well. I can tell by observing, how much attention they paid to these details. If I want to attend Moody Church, I know in 1 second that the most relevant information is 1 click away. — The one thing that I couldn’t find that should be there – is child care and sunday kidmin information. As a parent, my first question about a new church is – what do I need to know to get my kids integrated so I can focus on the worship without too much concern for them.
How is your website organized?
So let me leave you with a few questions:
- If your website has a message for people you want to “attract”, what is it?
- What message is there for your current attenders?
- How does the organization of your site tell your audience what is important to you?
- How does that compare with the message that you want to send to them?
- How does that message align with your purpose for building your website?