Jun 27, 2012

Three Ways to Build a Better Church Website

If you’re looking for a list of features your church website needs, sites you can use for inspiration or website vendors to talk to, this isn’t the post for you. But if you want to build a better church website, these three challenges will help get you there:

#1 Be Yourself

Your website should be a natural extension of who you are. Your church is unique. God made you that way. Nowhere else in the world in history has He brought together the same set of people, personalities, processes and problems in your particular community. The culture that exists because of that uniqueness can’t be replicated.

There is a temptation to look at “successful” churches and model your website after theirs. But this is a mistake unless you understand the WHY behind their WHAT. When you don’t know why they made a certain element more prominent than another, or why that button is there or why those videos on are on the homepage, and you simply duplicate it, you skip understanding. You take a shortcut. But your site won’t be as effective because your goals and culture might be different than theirs.

“I like their website, let’s do something like that…” creates dissonance for your guests. Visitors might not initially realize it, or be able to pinpoint it, but when your site looks, feels and behaves differently than your actual services, or casts a different vision or communicates a mixed message, your church is not a pleasant place to be‚ it’s confusing. And confusing your guests is the opposite of loving them.

Who are you? Get enough stakeholders in a room to determine and articulate that, and work with your team (or an outside vendor) to determine how your church should be represented on the web.

#2 Serve Others

If you visit a restaurant with good food, but they have long wait times to get a table, mess up your order and have rude service while they do it, are you going back? If I visit your website and I can’t find the information I want or your site fights against me, it’s no different.

One of the core principles of good user experience is that value > pain. Whatever you’re asking me to do must be of greater value than the pain it takes to get it. Most of our websites provide too little value with too much pain and, consequently, people visit once, halfheartedly, and never come back. (The same can be said for our church services themselves, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Some churches care more about what their website looks like, not how it works, thinking it’s a huge win just to have a pretty website (or a prettier website than other churches). But that neglects the user experience in favor of the user interface, which neglects users. By all means, have a pretty website, but if it doesn’t serve people, it’s not a win. Pretty websites that aren’t useful simply don’t get used.

Make a list of the most important things you think visitors need to takeaway from your site—location and services times, or teaching resources, or videos, or something else unique to your church—and build your site around that content. Make those takeaways easy to find and use. Always begin with how you’re going to serve people, not with how your website is going to look.

#3 Meet People Where They Are

We’re currently in the planning stages for the next version of www.newspring.cc and the primary constraint is a Mobile First mindset. Every screen and interaction on the site begins with the question, “How does this work on a phone?” and then scales to translate to tablet and desktop views. It’s a massive amount of extra work. So why go to all that trouble?

Because as of February 2012, 46% of US Adults use smartphones (source). Because median smartphone data usage is up 888% on AT&T and 551% on Verizon since 2011 (source). Because mobile broadband usage grew 4.2x as fast as fixed broadband in 2011 (source). And because by 2015 more than 40% of the world’s population will have internet access, primarily via mobile-first or mobile-only means (source). In short, because that’s where the people are, and will be.

We can choose not to design for mobile devices, but that choice will exclude millions of people. What’s the point of having a worldwide platform if we don’t steward it well and try to reach the world? Create a web experience that can be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. It takes more work. It takes more time (and likely more money). But it also reaches more people, right where they are, on their terms. You can start small‚ how does your homepage function in a mobile context? Then begin to tackle the other pages of your site in order of importance.

Be yourself, serve people and meet them where they are. If your website can do those things, you’ll build a better website and your effectiveness in sharing the Gospel through the Internet will increase dramatically.

This was a guest post by Joshua Blankenship, one of our designers here at NewSpring. You can follow him on twitter here.

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