When most churches think of a building project, images of bulldozers, fundraising consultants and bricks and mortar come to mind—but rarely a website. But countless studies have shown that the website is the first stop for many people looking to discover more about the church and determine if it might be a place where they could belong. Essentially, the website is a window into the heart of your church. How accurately is it reflecting the values, culture and DNA of your church today? The weekend experience is just that—an experience—which needs to be translated online as well. It’s a direct channel for delivering the heart, vision and strategy of your church.
So where to begin? Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for organizations to focus first on what the website should DO. The features, functionalities, bells and whistles that can help enhance the experience, but should never be viewed as anything more than a means to an end. Otherwise teams run the risk of chasing rabbit trails and end up overbuilding a site or creating something that is difficult to maintain.
Instead, we’ve found successful site planning begins with three key questions:
How do we want to change the relationship we have with our audience today?
This begins with understanding who your audience is and redefining the primary goals of the website. It should be less about driving traffic and more about engaging people on a deeper level. Meeting them where they’re at and helping them to take the next step, whether that’s registering for an event or volunteer opportunity, downloading the prior week’s message or just learning what time the service starts.
What information does our audience truly need? How might those needs change in the future?
Part of understanding your audience is going beyond the demographic information and into their psychographics, or mindset. What is important to them? What are they looking for or hoping to accomplish on your website? This is important to take into consideration when designing the architecture of your site so the navigation feels intuitive for your users.
“Unlimited pages” should not mean “unlimited content.” It’s not possible to be all things to all people all the time. People [especially new people] who feel confused or overwhelmed with information will get frustrated and leave. It’s more important to focus on your primary and secondary audiences and build a website that will work hard for them.
What things do we do well as a church and how does that align with our vision?
Leaning into your strengths helps to give people a taste of what they would experience with your church and ensures you will be able to support whatever is built over time. It doesn’t make sense to build something that utilizes a lot of video if you currently don’t have a video team in place. But if you have a phenomenal teaching pastor or are actively involved with community service projects, it seems only natural to include a podcast of the message or a list of this month’s serving opportunities.
Taking the church’s vision into consideration also ensures the new website isn’t something the church quickly outgrows. Are multiple campuses on the drawing board? Small groups? Resourcing other churches?
Building a website is a lot like building a house. Establishing a set of blueprints in the planning stages will avoid unforeseen add-on’s in the future.
1. Define your primary audience.
For many outreach-focused churches, these are your guests and people new to the church. Make it as easy as possible for them to learn more about your church and how to get connected or take the next step.
2. Employ intuitive navigation.
People don’t accidentally stumble upon your website—they are hunting for information. If they are confused or believe they’re headed down the wrong path they will get frustrated and leave.
3. Technology isn’t the driving force.
Tools and technology are designed to enhance the flavor of the experience and accomplish the strategic goals of the church. Ask first, “What do we want to accomplish,” not “What tools should the website have?”
4. Be authentic.
The website is a window into the heart of your church, so ensure it’s an accurate reflection of who you are. It’s better to under promise and over-deliver than to potentially mislead someone by pretending to be something that you’re not.
5. Keep it current.
Outdated content is considered a cardinal sin in web design. Ensuring your site has a content management system that’s easy to use and flexible is key.
6. We live in a mobile world.
More people are checking your site out on the go than ever before. For many, mobile is used more than their desktop computer. Thinking about how your website translates into the most common screen sizes for tablets and phones is critical to ensure we’re communicating with them wherever they’re at. This is beyond responsive design, where the screen just shrinks down. But instead, thinking of what needs to be communicated in different environments and rethinking the user experience.