A Church Website Redesign in Real Life

Series: Improving your church website

Improving Your Church Website
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[This is my Web Wise column from the June 2005 issue of Good News Etc.]

I mentioned in this column last fall that my church was just starting a website redesign. Well, we finally launched the new site last month! Go to the website now.

I did a homemade site for the church back in 1997. It was fine for the time, but it just did not work well the last few years. Only I could update it and my time was limited (as it is with most volunteers). So we dove in to a full-blown redesign. I was excited to apply some of the stuff I've been talking about in this column to our own site.

First we had to decide what type of site this would be. There are typically two types of church websites:

• The first is an online brochure (or brochureware). This means the site stays the way it is - static, no changes. Now, there's no reason to be ashamed of a brochure site. Many churches just don't have the resources to maintain a dynamic site that's continually updated. And it's much cheaper to create a site like this.

• The second type of site is more extensive with features like a calendar, photo galleries, store (for donations, event registrations, etc.), and community tools like email lists and message boards. It also typically has what's called a content management system. In its most basic sense, this gives anyone assigned by the site administrator the ability to change the content on a page. Usually that system is as easy as working in Microsoft Word, so you don't have to know HTML (the usual language of web development).

Our church wanted the second type, but didn't have the budget to do one from scratch. So we decided to use one of the companies that provides online services specifically for churches. We chose Truewell for their extensive tools and reasonable prices.

However, you need to understand that there is almost always a trade-off when choosing a service such as this. Templated services will naturally have some inflexibilities in their systems. In this case there were some limitations in navigation, design, page structure and other, more minor, things.

We started the redesign process with a meeting of the church staff. We discussed the purpose of the site (information and outreach) and shared ideas. I then proposed a structure for the site (navigation and pages in each section), which they signed off on. As I started the early process of building the site at Truewell, the staff wrote the content for their respective sections and sent it to me. They also gathered photos from the last couple of years for me to use.

Once the site was built and content added, each staff member reviewed their section and sent me any changes or additions. Then when we all felt the site was close enough to done, I emailed about 30 people who attend our church and asked them to simply go through the site and send me their comments and suggestions.

This is user testing at its cheapest (free!). Most churches just can't afford serious testing (in a lab, video tapes, fees, etc.), but this is a decent alternative. We got anywhere from "The site looks great!" to much more indepth feedback, some catching mistakes and problems. This was a critical step in our site being ready for prime time.

We then launched the site in early May and began announcing it in our weekly email newsletter, the bulletin, the monthly newsletter, and other venues. In fact we intend to cut the length of the newsletter now, mostly pointing folks to get more info on the site. We included a form in the May issue that must be filled out if people still want to receive the printed newsletter each month.

There are a few distinctives of the site I want to point out:

• In the navigation we chose the term "Programs" for what is normally titled "Ministries," as the M word just isn't understood well enough outside the church community.

• We had fairly typical, churchy content on our About Us page. One of our testers pointed out that it would be pretty irrelevant to seekers. That pushed our pastor to write one of the best pieces I've seen (okay, I'm biased) and reflects the vibe of our church much better.

• There are a lot of photos. There's just no better way to communicate what a church is like than with photos. And with digital cameras, this is a much easier element to add to a site.

• For the Maps/Directions section, we included a graphical map with directions to the church from every direction in El Cajon and from the freeway. We also used Google's new satellite mapping service to show an overhead view for those more visually oriented.

• In relevant areas on this site, we included short quotes from folks who attend our church. Testimonials are one of the most powerful marketing methods in the commercial world. Same holds true for churches.

• On our Service Times page (in About Us), we added text about what kinds of clothes to wear to our church. (In our case, just about anything!) But this is a good thing to let visitors know so they aren't embarrassingly under- or overdressed.

• Truewell's calendar system is awesome! When someone becomes a member of the church website, they can join user groups (like adult choir, high school, missions, etc.). Then when they log in to the site, they can view events on the calendar for only a particular group. Pretty cool.

The best statement I ever heard about websites is "You never finish the race, you only finish laps." A website is never done. It's fluid and changing, as will our church's site be…and your's.

Mike's Marine son returns home this month after a 6-month deployment and, boy, is the family excited! And you can check out the website for Mike's company at (helping your organization succeed on the web).