Most people will form an opinion about your church before the service ever begins. In fact, they will have already drawn some conclusions about your congregation before they turn into the parking lot. Statistics show that most people check out a church’s website before they check out the church.
This means that getting your neighbor’s brother-in-law’s son to create a cheap website for your church is definitely not a wise decision. It is important that your website is a thoughtful and creative expression of the mission, vision, and values of your congregation.
So where should you begin? The most important factor in developing an effective website is to have clear and compelling language that expresses the distinctives your church has to offer.
People make choices based on difference not similarities. There are many things about your church that are the same as other churches – but what is different? What is distinctive? This is what will motivate seekers to become visitors; visitors to become attendees; and attendees to become members.
If you don’t know what your distinctives are, it’s time to do a little work to clearly define the unique assignment God has given your congregation. These distinctives are expressed in terms of your unique ministry niche, style, or message. Is your church program-oriented, relationship-oriented, discipleship-oriented, etc.? Is your worship formal or informal; contemporary or traditional; doctrinal or devotional? Why do people attend your church? What drew them? What keeps them there? Dig deeply to discover what you have to offer that no one else in your community brings to the table.
Once you have defined your distinctives, it is time to develop a graphic identity that reinforces your unique message. This involves the development of a proper logo, color palette, pictures, fonts, and type style, as well as supporting graphics.
At this point, we know what sets you apart and how you will reinforce your distinctives – now it is time to develop content. Begin to list everything you want to incorporate into your site. Do you want to list all your departments and organizations? Will you have an online bookstore? Will you offer online giving (highly recommended)? Will you provide any interactivity to your members for items like calendars, sermon outlines, giving records, etc.? Will you provide streaming media, media clips, or RSS feeds? Will you offer free downloads or charge for them?
Spend some time surfing the web to check out other sites that you like. Examine features, content, mapping, page flow, etc. Once you have this extensive list, begin to focus and prioritize your own content and features, realizing that the more complex the site, the more expensive the site will likely be to create.
The next step is to develop a site map for your website. The site map determines how users will interface with the information on your site. It is important that the information path is as simple and easy to use as possible. Do not approach this process with preconceptions. What works in your head may be complicated on the site. If it isn’t easy to navigate, most people just won’t bother sticking around.
Be sure that in your planning you discuss a content management system. While it is important for your designer to manage the overall look and feel of your site, a content management system allows you to update information without having to pay your designer to do it for you. This is quite helpful for managing calendars, special events, uploading media, etc.
Armed with these ingredients, you can now begin to build a website that will both draw newcomers and serve your congregation. When looking for a web design firm, look for one who understands your vision and that has created sites that are similar in scope and style to what you want to create. It is always wise to talk with several firms about their services and prices. Share your research and ask them for their creative input. A good firm should be able to significantly enhance and expand upon your ideas – while still maintaining your distinctive message. If a firm doesn’t bring a creative edge to your site, keep looking.
While a great website alone won’t solve all your branding challenges, it is certainly a critical step in creating a compelling and consistent identity to highlight the unique and incredible opportunity God has given you to eternally impact lives. You have a unique message and your message matters!