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Content Is King

Series: Improving your church website

Improving Your Church Website
Check out all the articles in the series...

[This is my Web Wise column from the November 2005 issue of Good News Etc.]

That was the clarion call in the Internet world in the late '90's. Many people scoffed, as it created huge bloated sites with little direction and awful business plans. Most of them failed.

Unfortunately, as a result, there was a backlash against this 'Net truism. However, it is still about the content.

A visitor comes to your website to fill a need. Period. It's the content of the site that helps them accomplish that. Yes, the navigation and search and other tools help them, but only to get to the content they need.

And what greater need is there on the web for us than looking for divine guidance, for a spiritual home for us and/or our family? Then let's help them with that sacred goal by creating effective church website content.

Churches could learn much from the world of commerce websites, which are focused on maximizing responsiveness for profit's sake. I appreciate the insight of Mark Hurst from the company Good Experience: "It's a single idea, one that I call 'customer experience' and can be described in any number of ways. Focus on the other person's needs. Listen to customers…Create a good experience for someone other than yourself. See the pattern? It takes a certain mindset - that of empathy - to do this work."

Does that sound familiar? Like the Golden Rule, maybe? My variation on that for website development is, "Design websites for others, as you would want others to design websites for you."

But how?, you may ask. Nick Usborne offers this advice: "Help your readers by writing well. Be helpful. Be clear. Be genuine. And write as if you are writing to a human reader - you are." Unfortunately churches many times write like an institution, rather than people-to-people. Keep the tone casual, conversational, and light.

And simple.

Remember the K.I.S.S. Principle? Keep It Simple - uh - Sunshine! That applies to website text as well.

I was reading Jim Seybert's blog recently (Jim's a business consultant.) He shared a story about a marketing campaign he botched to Christian book stores - one he realized later he made way too complex.

So he surveyed folks who received the offer to delve into why no one bought into the program. I loved the response from one of his customers (the man was in Texas): "Jim, this might be a great program but confusion is the mother of indecision and I cain't make a decision if I cain't understand what Ah'm supposed to be deciding." I couldn't say it any better than that! (Deep wisdom from deep in the heart of the Lone Star.)

If someone comes to your site to explore more about your church but ends us confused, they can't make an informed, effective decision. This is why website experts say you have around five seconds to capture someone's interest when they first visit your site. A well organized, clear, succinct approach will help accomplish that mission.

And, you know how you are. You don't like complicated, confusing options, do you? That's why the way you organize your site and the way you communicate on it are critical to engaging site visitors.

Here's a stark reality check from Web content guru Gerry McGovern: "The Web is a selfish place. People don't have time. They scan pages looking for something specific. They only care about what you can do for them. It's about self-service and self-service is about simplicity and convenience. "

Since we are bombarded by choices every day, our culture is driven by quick decisions - but quick doesn't always mean they're good decisions. The simpler we can present our ministry online, the better decisions people can make about you.

Web usability expert Steve Krug points out how we use the Web:

  • scan
  • satisfice (a mixture of satisfy and suffice)
  • muddle through

That's not a very elegant picture, but it's our reality. Krug hits us between the eyes with this observation about our website: "We're thinking 'great literature' (or at least 'product brochure'), while the user's reality is closer to 'billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.'"

Krug's suggestion? "Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what's left." Now, he's not talking about that long page on the history of your church. People do read articles and such online. This is related to descriptions, introductory text, marketing copy, and instructions (for forms or such).

Also, make sure to use short paragraphs and bulleted lists. These allow the visitor to scan more easily, grabbing the needed info here and there in order to make informed decisions.

Another important issue for website content is the text used in links. Visitors to your website need to know exactly what they're clicking on. As Jakob Nielsen (another web usability expert) says, "Remember one of the basics of the Web: Life is too short to click on an unknown. Tell people where they're going and what they'll find at the other end of the link."

And, as you build and maintain your church's website, remember this important principle, also from Krug: "Every time you add something to a webpage, you potentially make that page a little less clear. What impresses you most is likely unnecessary to the successful completion of the core task. Your goal should be to design a website that even an adult can understand."

All of these guidelines come down to one thing: Simplicity. It will take a team of good communications people in your church (or an agency) to help you achieve that vital goal.

Repeat after me: "I love simplicity. Simplicity is hard."

Check out the website for Mike's company at www.uneekNet.com (helping your organization succeed on the web).