The number is climbing, but here’s the most commonly reported stat: at least 85 percent of first-time church guests visit a congregation’s website before they make their initial visit. For some of you, this should be a terrifying thought. Recently, I’ve visited church websites that are still advertising Easter Sunrise Services, introducing their new pastor (who’s been onsite for over two years), and including other unpardonables – at least from a first-time guest’s perspective.
One of a local church’s most valuable assets is their website. A website is cheap advertising, and on a typical church website, if you invest as little as forty-five minutes a week on it, it can be one of the most effective marketing tools the church has.
Unfortunately, many congregational leaders believe that the church’s website exists for the members. In reality, typical church members visit no more than two pages on their congregation’s website: the calendar page and the newsletter page. Beyond that, they rarely bother with the About Us, Directions, Times of Services, Who We Are, What We Believe, or even the Pastor’s Blog page (really – most of your parishioners aren’t actually reading it). The fact is, the majority of effective church websites exist for one primary audience: prospective guests.
Church leaders who understand that their site exists primarily to be invitational for prospective guests tend to lay out their church’s website differently than most churches. The content is different, the tone and vocabulary are different, the image choices are different, and even the navigation priorities are different. And none of that takes into account the move to Web 2.0 and beyond.
It would take more than a simple blog post to deal with the majority of the above issues; however, many church websites could be significantly improved by simply embracing the following five church website effectiveness rules.
- Ensure the two most important guest-savvy information items are on your home page – or exceptionally well marked by links: (1) The church’s location; and (2) the worship service times.The two things every guest needs to know about you is where you are and what time they should show up. If they can’t find this information almost immediately, they’ll likely find a different church to visit. I’m always amazed how deeply buried this information is on many church websites. I seriously had to search for over 10 minutes on one church’s site to find their worship times – most prospective guests won’t be so persistent. A map is nice, but in today’s online culture, most users know how to put your address in a Google map. On the other hand, if your address is a part of your logo or if you’ve put it into a graphic, it’s impossible to copy-and-paste it into a search bar, so make sure your address is in regular HTML (i.e., it’s not a part of a graphic image).
- Keep your website’s information current.Just a couple weeks ago, I went to visit a congregation in worship. I started with their website and it said their “Contemporary” worship service was held at 9:30. I arrived “on time” only to discover the “Contemporary” worship service had been cancelled almost a year earlier for lack of participation (a casualty of trying to start a contemporary service too early in the morning) and had been replaced by an informal traditional service. I was disappointed at best, and a bit ticked that their website was so woefully out of date.When a congregation’s website is outdated, it says quite a bit to a prospective guest. It suggests the church is likely to be irrelevant to culture, since it can’t even keep its site up. Even worse, though, is that it implies that guests aren’t a priority – although everyone knew the contemporary worship service had been cancelled, the scope of everyone went no further than insider church members. That leaves the outsiders on the outside.If you’re stuck as the lone website keeper and simply don’t have time to make updates, then consider making your web presence a “static site.” In other words, a site where virtually nothing ever changes. If you always have worship at 9:30 and 10:45, except during the summer when your church cancels the later service, then say that and leave it on the site all the time. And don’t advertise the Women’s Christmas Bazaar or the Youth Car Wash. It is better to not advertise at all than to leave outdated information on the site. Of course, it’s BEST to keep the site info up to date.
- This may sound counterintuitive and/or trivial, but it’s the truth nonetheless. When it comes to the main graphic on your home page, it’s a huge mistake to feature your church building. Huge. Mistake.There are a number of theological reasons for this, of course (church = people, not buildings, etc.), but the main reason is because your building is not an inviting image. It’s a building – nothing more, nothing less. Buildings don’t invite people in; people invite people in. Your church’s main image needs to be people focused and should feature smiling, inviting faces. These faces don’t actually have to be church members – you can buy lots of images for your site at places like http://123rf.com ($2/website quality image and you can legally use them on the site and in your publications), but if you’re going to use purchased images make sure they reflect the general age of your congregation. If a prospective guest sees only thirty-something families in your images, but then find that almost everyone in the congregation has either no hair or blue hair, they’re likely to feel misled at best. (By the way, purchasing images is a great way to advertise that you have children in your congregation without endangering any of your church’s kids.)
- Keep updating your website.You may think I’ve just repeated myself, but not so! The best church websites have content: lots of good content to entice a prospective guest to stick around and find out more about the congregation. There are a couple of great ways to do this. First, if you record the weekly sermon, post it online as an MP3 (audio) and if possible an MP4 (video). Provide a brief overview of the sermon, not just the title, and include any handouts you may have used. Archive the sermons and you’ll build a content-rich site. Second, get your pastor to create a blog post at least weekly. A blog post doesn’t need to be more than half of a Word page (400-500 words max), so a pastor should be able to whip one out pretty quickly. These blog posts should generally be on the chatty side, though don’t shy away from good theological reflection either (just keep in mind the prospective reader – keep your vocabulary in check). Both of these options will allow a prospective guest to get to know you before they visit.
- Check your SEO. Okay, I know, I just moved into geek speak. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and, in short, it means getting your church’s website to the top of a search page. For instance, if I do a Google search for “church Columbia, MO,” the first church that comes up is First Christian Church and the second largest church in the city doesn’t show up until you get to the third page. The reasons a website gets to the top of a search page are complex and there are a lot of people making a lot of money helping businesses getting to the top, but there are a couple of very easy ways to ensure your church isn’t on the bottom of the pile. First, your site URL (domain name) is important. One of the reasons First Christian Church shows up on top is because its domain name is FirstChristian.org. When your domain name reflects the likely search terms, it’s likely to show up pretty high on the list. Using logical, but not descriptive, URLs isn’t going to be helpful here: a URL like FCCIC.org for First Christian Church in Chicago won’t win any Google prizes.Second, content is key. That’s why having a blog page and a sermon page with descriptions can be helpful. Within reason, the more related content you have, the more likely you are to climb in the search engine ratings.Third, page titles are critical. Every page should have a real page title – not a coded title that looks like: www.mychurch.org/index.php?id=375. A good page title should look more like this: www.mychurch.org/about_us and so on. In addition, titles should be descriptive when possible – the About Us title is a good example. Again, there are many other factors in getting higher on a search engine’s page, but just following these tips will help a lot.
Engaging these five suggestions on your website can be significant in attracting potential guests to your congregation. And since it’s most likely that any guest that walks through your door started their journey with a walk through your website, it just makes good sense to put your best foot forward.
Question: How do you make your church’s website welcoming for potential guests? Share your ideas and suggestions – and links to good website examples – in the Comments section below.