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Why Church Websites Are Important

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By Tim Massengale

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Bro. Mark North was sitting in his church office when the phone rang.  On the other end was his good friend, Vernon Baker, who pastored an amazing revival church about a half hour away.

“Hey, Elder!  What can I do for you? … Now?  You mean right this minute?  Uhhh… well, I guess so.  What’s so urgent?”  Mark listened to the elderly pastor for a few moments.  “Wow.  Okay.  I’ll rearrange my schedule and be right over.  See you in a few!”

Forty-five minutes later Mark knocked on Elder Baker’s office door.  He was greeted with a hardy, “come in!”  Brother Baker was sitting behind his desk, diet Coke in hand.  Seated in the chair in front of the desk was a middle-aged gentlemen dressed in business casual.  He stood as Mark entered.

“Mark,” Pastor Baker said, “I want you to meet Tom Hansen.  He attends Bro. Kramer’s church over in Spencer.”  Mark shook his hand and sat down.  Elder Baker continued, “He called last week and I agreed to meet with him.  After we talked a few minutes I realized you would want to hear what he had to say as well.  Like I told you on the phone, Tom runs professional web design company.  He normally works with large corporate clients, but he also does church web sites as a ministry.  I’m considering hiring him to redesign the web site for our church.”

Mark nodded.  “Sounds good.  We’ve wanted to get our web site going again also.  We had one a couple of years ago, but the girl who designed it for us got married and moved away.  No one else knew how to make changes on it and when it came time to renew the hosting service I let it go.  The site was so outdated it was embarrassing.”

Tom listened and nodded.  “That is a common problem, especially with older style web sites.  They were built using the HTML programming language and unless you knew HTML programming or knew how to use a web design program, you were stuck.  But web sites have evolved considerably since then.”

Elder Baker held up his hand.  “Tom, before we get into the specifics, why don’t you share with Mark what you were telling me.  I had asked why I should spend good money on a web site upgrade.  I’m over seventy and all this Internet stuff is new to me.  Money is pretty tight right now and I wanted to make sure the expenditure was really necessary.”

“Exactly,” Mark said.  “I know professional web design isn’t cheap.  I’ve heard these sales pitches before.  I’m still not convinced that web sites are cost effective.”

Tom listened to both pastors and as they were talking, reached into his brief case and withdrew a brochure, handing one to each of them. “This explains about my company and what we offer churches.  But let me quickly go over a few key points.

Why Church Web Sites

“First, over the past ten years web use has exploded.  Research shows that people are using the web today more than they are using the Yellow Pages.  It has become the first place people turn to for finding businesses and telephone numbers.  So if you are spending money on a yellow page ad, you should strongly consider a good web site as well.

“Secondly, a web site is your least expensive and most cost effective form of advertising.  You get more per dollar exposure with a web site than any other medium.  Web sites do more than just inform; they also convince.  Web sites can provide sermons, audio and video clips, doctrinal files, PDF booklets, and more.  They become an extension of your churches mission to reach the lost.

“And that brings up the third point:  a well designed web site is an evangelism tool.  Current research shows that almost half of your visitors, especially those under thirty, will have visited your web site before they visit your church.  If they find no web site, or even worse – a poorly designed site – it reflects negatively upon your church and its leadership.  Whether you agree or not, people will form an opinion of your church based upon your web site.”

Mark held up his hand.  “Wait a minute.  You mean that it’s better to have no site than a poorly designed one?  If so, then perhaps we should just skip it because we no longer have a web programmer in our church to keep it up.”

Tom shook his head.  “Forgive me, but I respectfully disagree.  You are saying either a good web site or no web site.  I am saying you can easily have both.  Web sites have come a long way from the early days when they were treated like a hobby.  Tell me, Pastor North, do you have a church sign?”

“Sure – a real nice one.  Cost me a bundle, too.  It’s lighted and has a nice marquee for messages.”

“Well, your web site will bring you more visitors and will represent your church better than even your church sign.  You see, if you had a broken down sign, had weeds growing in the church yard, grass needed mowing, building in disrepair, this would send a rather negative message to your community.  Well, your web site does the exact same thing.  It directly reflects upon your image. Therefore, it’s worth your time and effort to make your best.

“And that brings us to point number four:  Seventy-seven percent of church visitors that visit because of your web site, state that their decision to visit was influenced by what they saw on the web site.  Now that’s a statistic you can’t afford to ignore. Your site will influence your guests either positively or negatively, and I think you want it to be positive.  In fact, they should leave your web site saying, ‘we should definitely check this church out!’”

Web Design Basics

He paused and looked at both men.  They were slowly nodding in agreement.

Tom continued.  “Okay, now let’s talk about what a good web site should include.  This list is in the center column of your brochure:

  1. Web sites should ATTRACT: It should be beautiful, contemporary, and visually clean. That’s the opposite of cluttered, dated and amateurish.  It should reflect the personality of your church and its people.  That means lots of photos – and the photos should be real, not pulled from some stock photo site.
  2. Web sites should INFORM: Visitors should find needed information about your church.  Things like service times, contact information, directions and maps, ministries and programs, introduce leadership, provide history, explain vision and purpose, share testimonies, and most important:  God’s plan for salvation.  Navigation to all areas of the site should be logical, simple and easy to find needed information.
  3. Web sites should INSPIRE: Preaching and teaching videos are increasingly popular.  Your web site should challenge people to come to church, live for God, and grow stronger in Spirit.  You can offer podcast, MP3 and IPod downloads, as well as opportunities to serve in the Kingdom of God. A recent survey showed that 40% of those visiting church web sites looked for what ministries the church had to offer. Ministry group involvement – ladies, men, youth, children, singles, young married, retired – ranked as one of the highest areas of interest.
  4. Web sites should ENGAGE: Your web site should be more than just a web-based brochure with dry, static content. It should offer visitors the chance to sign up and participate.  This can be done by encouraging visitors to ask questions, participate in polls, leave prayer requests, download devotional and doctrinal files, enroll in upcoming activities and events, and participate in your church’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. If you publish an online newsletter, sign-up should be quick and easy.
  5. Web sites should EVANGELIZE: Visitors should be able to request a home Bible study, enroll in a home fellowship group, or ask a minister to visit.  Many sites offer an online Bible study that explains in a clear way the plan of salvation. You should include testimonies of how God has saved, delivered and healed real people. The world is hurting. Your site should show them how God can help.
  6. Web sites should ANTICIPATE: After years of web site development and tracking what elements selected, there are a number of areas that we recommend to anticipate needs.  These are:  (1) An ‘I’m New Here’ link – visitors should find a welcome page that takes them quickly and easily to all the areas they are most interested in, like service times, calendars, announcements, special events, small groups, ministries, beliefs, and more. (2) A short welcome video from the pastor. (3) Downloadable audio and video files of sermons. We also like providing a link to the latest sermon on the top page of the site. (4) A password portal that takes you to areas reserved for approved members only.  Here they will find things like an address, telephone, email directory and members only announcements. (5) The ability to send emails to all members or select groups in the church. (6) Web site statistics. You should be able to see who is visiting your site, from where, when, and what pages were viewed and for how long. Over time, these stats will help you improve your site. (7) Online giving. You will be pleasantly surprised how often non-church members will give to a site that provides spiritual encouragement and support.

When Tom reached the end of the list he paused and looked up at the two pastors who had been listening attentively.  “Any questions so far?”

Traffic and Maintenance

“Yes.  I have one,” Elder Baker said.  “This is an impressive list and it is obvious that this will take considerable effort to implement.  We have had a web site for some time now and traffic to the site is rather low. If we invest all this work into a new and improved site, how can we increase our web traffic?”

“Excellent question.  I took the time to look over your site, pastor, before I came.  It’s a good site, but mostly a web-based brochure.  It tells about your church – period.  There is little interactive content to encourage people to visit, much less return. If you build your site to minister, you should have more traffic.

“But your site also lacks the basic tools to help you come up in Internet search engines.  When I entered the words ‘apostolic church greenville’ on Google, your web site did not come up until page three – not good.  It should have come up first or second.  My search on Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask were even worse.  A well designed site will utilize SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques to improve your placement.  Key words, meta-tags, and other elements are critical.  I also encourage you to invest in Google Adwords, at least for a year, to bring lots of traffic to your site and push your placement to the very top.”

Mark grinned.  “Wow!  I hope you understood that, Elder, because most of it went right past me.  I can see I will need a bit of tutoring to come up to speed.”

Tom nodded.  “That’s part of the benefit of using a professional web design company.  I will spend time evaluating your needs as well as explaining what the site will do.  I will also train you and your staff to maintain it.”

Mark held up his hand.  “That brings me back to what I said earlier.  We lost our web programmer.  No one else knows how to do this stuff.  So how are we going to maintain this site?”

“You should not need any special skills to maintain the web site we design for you.  Today, professional design companies build sites using a CMS (Content Management System) platform.  What this means is that you only need basic computer skills to maintain it.  If you can surf the web, you can maintain your site.  Photos are uploaded with a few clicks.  Web site text is updated like a word processor.  You can even add new web pages to your site with a few clicks using our ready-designed templates.  Honest, I could train you in less than ten minutes.”

“Uhhh – you don’t know how ignorant I am on computers,” Mark said with a wry smile.  “It will probably take me a bit longer.”

Tom continued.  “I will ask you to appoint a dependable individual in your church and designate him or her as ‘webmaster.’  We will train both you and this individual to update the site. They will be responsible for keeping it current.  They should also have an assistant who can fill in if the need arises.  Each area of site maintenance will have passwords.  The master password will give you total access.  But pages like youth ministry, Sunday school, announcements or calendar can have different passwords.  This will allow you to delegate the maintenance of vital areas to those who are directly responsible.  But your webmaster should oversee the entire site, reminding people as needed to keep their pages updated.” Mark nodded.

What Not To Do

“I have a question,” Elder Baker injected.  “I remember reading an article a while back about common mistakes churches make when building a web site.  What’s your opinion on what not to do?”

“Glad you asked. On the back of the brochure you will see a short list of what we recommend you NOT do when designing your site:

  1. No background music or instant-on audio greetings. Research shows this to be a total turn-off.  You can offer it as an option if you like.  In fact, a video greeting from the pastor is a good thing.  But people want to select it, not have it forced upon them.
  2. No ‘flash intros.’ These are the slide and sound introductions that were popular ten years ago. Today they have lost their appeal.  Again, if you want one, offer it as an option on your top page.
  3. Limit moving parts. If used carefully, they can add to your site.  But if overused, they become annoying.
  4. Avoid confusing navigation. There should be one main menu (best) or two at the most (top and side).  Links should not be scattered all over the page making visitors hunt for the information they seek. In my opinion, every site should provide a site search utility to help people find needed information.  A recent survey showed 88% of your web site visitors will use this when it is available.
  5. Avoid dated information or errors. They should not find old announcements, broken links, and empty calendars.  Also misspellings and poor grammar must be avoided at all cost.
  6. Avoid confusing verbiage – Write for your target audience – the unchurched. Language on the site should not be overly churchy, theological or wordy.

 

“These are the common mistakes.  I also see a lot of cluttered sites. They simply try to do too much.  I like a site to have lots of options, but they don’t have to all be on the top page.  People enjoy exploring a site as long as they don’t get lost.  So we are always careful to provide ‘back’ and ‘top’ buttons on every page along with the standard menu.”

Web Site Costs

Both pastors continued to look over the brochure which showed various site designs.  Finally Elder Baker laid the brochure down and leaned back.  “I’m impressed.  Now let’s talk turkey.  What’s a site like this cost?”

“I won’t try to kid you.  It’s not cheap.  When I design sites like this for corporate clients it runs into the thousands.  If they have online catalogs, it can be even more.  But for churches, I see this as a ministry.  So here are some ballpark figures.

“There are four areas of expense in web site development:  (1) Graphic design – this is the creation of your masthead, page design, and often involves logo creation if you do not have one.  I feel it’s important for your site to reflect the personality of your church.  So we spend considerable effort to get the look and feel of your site just right.  This can cost anywhere from fifty dollars for a stock template design to several hundred dollars for more complex work.  On average, it will run you around $100.  (2) Web site design – this is the technical aspect of CMS creation.  This takes the graphics and integrates them into the web site to give you a clean, professional look.  A basic site will use a template which has the coding ready to go once graphics are placed.  Cost for integrating your graphics into the template design is around $100 dollars. However, a total custom CMS design can run as much as $2000 dollars or more.  Most churches do fine with a template to start with and then pay for custom elements later as they see the need. (3) Web hosting – this is the monthly fee for maintaining your site on a server and keeping it connected to the Internet 24/7.  Depending on how much storage space you will need, it will cost you anywhere from $20 to $50 a month.  Costs can be considerably higher if you have a large video library of sermons.  (4) Web management – this is the tech support fee of the design company.  Corporate clients pay hundreds a month for this.  We charge churches a fraction of that – usually around $40 a month and that includes a free hour per month of design work at no additional cost.  So a bottom line figure: Expect to pay about $200 to $300 up front and around $40 a month for hosting / management fees.  This assumes you will enter in the web site text and photos yourself.  We will show you how.”

Both pastors looked surprised.  “I expected a much higher cost than that,” Elder Keller said.  “With these prices, no church should neglect having a quality web site.”

Web Site Companies

Tom nodded.  “My opinion as well.  Before I go, just in case you decide to shop around, here are some things to look for in a web design company:

  1. Look for a dedicated web design company with a good portfolio of clients. They should be able to give you plenty of referrals of happy customers.
  2. They should use a CMS platform to design the site, which allows you to easily maintain the site yourself. Not ‘send me your content’ and wait two weeks.
  3. It should be a real company, with real staff, a real 800 number and live tech support with regular office hours. They should not charge for every call or to answer simple questions. Charges should only be for worked performed.
  4. They should offer the most popular web site options in a package. Some options, such as video-streaming, may cost extra.
  5. They should have a 99.999% up-time guarantee. This is now the industry standard.  Don’t settle for less.
  6. Look for a 30-day, money back guarantee. Once a contract is signed it should not take weeks to go live.  But populating the site with text and photos will be your responsibility after the site has been designed.

Tom stood up and shook hands with both pastors and handed them his business card.  “I hope we can do business, gentlemen.  I look forward to hearing from you.”  With that, he left.

Both pastors sat for a moment in silence.  Then Mark said, “That was impressive.  Really.  I am totally impressed.”

Elder Baker nodded.  “What I found most impressive was that he said he could teach you how to maintain your web site in ten minutes!”

“Wow!  You’re right.  This guy has no clue what he’s getting himself into.  You won’t tell him, will you?”    Both pastors laughed at the thought.

 

For a free list of web site companies to consider using that fit the criteria listed in this article, email Bro. Massengale at:  sysop@apostolic.edu.

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