David Bourgeois, a professor at Biola University, is author of the forthcoming book, Ministry in the Digital Age: Strategies and Best Practices for a Post-Website World. He recently presented a webinar with the Christian Leadership Alliance on several topics covered in his book.
The following seven insights shared by Bourgeois may prove particularly helpful for churches trying to sort out their digital strategies:
1) It's a post-website world–but you still need a website. A church website is still essential, but the primary ways your church will interact with people are through numerous streams of communication, including e-mail, texting, and social media, Bourgeois says. Some will find your church through its website, but more than likely, they'll find it through a friend on Facebook or Twitter who recommends the church, points to a video or story on the church's website, or some other form of word-of-mouth communication.
Every church needs a strategy that decides which streams it will use to reach beyond its website. Researching preferences within the congregation is the first place to start. Understanding your church's demographics in relation to those preferences should then help you choose the two or three it will pursue (you can't do them all, he adds).
2) Mobile matters. More people are doing their computing on smartphones and tablets, and the inflection point is nearing for when mobile computing will surpass the traditional computing done from a desktop or laptop. This means your church's website must work on small screens. "Run your website on a mobile device and see if you're satisfied with what it looks like," he says.
Bourgeois also says churches should be cautious before pursuing mobile apps–software created to operate on a smartphone or tablet and offered through app stores operated by Apple, Google, and other companies. Developing these apps often cost several thousand dollars. "The return on those, depending on what you want to do, can be pretty low," Bourgeois says. There are cases where an app may be the right solution, but many times, a different approach based on your congregation's preferences, can do the job, such as a texting campaign combined with a mobile-friendly website.
3) Don't forget e-mail. Most everyone understands how to use e-mail. "There are very few people that won't check their e-mail at least once in a while," Bourgeois says. To leverage it as a stream, churches need to formalize it. Services such as Constant Contact or MailChimp (free if you have 2,000 recipients or less) allow your church to create mailing lists and schedules, to provide opt-out capabilities, to use professional-looking templates, and–perhaps most importantly–to track statistics. You can measure who receives the e-mails, who opens them, and what gets clicked. If no one opens them or clicks on what's inside, then e-mail may not be an effective method for your church.
Use your e-mails to point to specific places on your website. If you need volunteers to sign up for an event, for instance, create a customized web page and point to it directly from your e-mail so that your reader doesn't land on the main home page and then get lost trying to find the sign-up page, Bourgeois says.
Collect e-mail addresses whenever possible, and make sure your lists are current, he also says. A place to sign up to receive e-mail from your church should be visible on your website, too.
4) Optimize your site for search. Think about the words people will use to search online to find you. Usually it's a combination of your church's name, geography, and keywords that represent your church's focus. Once you identify these words, use them on your website multiple times. Search engines like Google will "crawl" your site's pages, reading them and indexing them so that it can match user searches with what your site offers. Some ways to maximize these keywords include:
- Using keywords in the titles of pages;
- Using them in headers and subheads on pages;
- Using them in the URL (for instance, Bourgeois obtained his church's name for the church's URL, but also obtained the city's name plus the word "church" as a secondary URL that redirects to the church's website).
Also, get other reputable outlets to link to your website. This helps search engines determine the importance of your site. The best way to get reputable outlets to link to your church or ministry is by offering compelling content on it.
5) Be selective with social media. As Bourgeois notes previously, "don't try to do everything." Large churches may be able to support many streams, but most churches need to do their research and focus on the one or two streams to learn and master. Video is critically important, with YouTube now a leading search engine in its own right, Bourgeois says. People want compelling video, and if your church offers it there, it gives people an opportunity to link to it and share it. Photo-sharing websites, including Flickr and Instagram, should also be considered.
With Facebook, Bourgeois advises churches to use a church-sponsored page to develop relationships and provide updates. The church website should contain the quality information and content, which the Facebook page points to and highlights.
Whatever your church chooses, fully integrate the choices with its website.
6) Consider "A/B" testing. Google is known for running two versions of the same results page (for instance, an Option A for a search on politics versus an Option B for the same search) to determine which one "polls" better with users. Churches that aren't sure which home page approach looks best, or which e-mail template works best, might consider running "A/B" tests over a period of time to determine how their congregations respond, Bourgeois says.
With e-mail templates, for instance, a "B" version could try different phrasing, hyperlinks, or types of content included for half of the mailing list. Perhaps a traditionally text-heavy approach sent to the other half of the mailing list loses (in terms of open rates and click-throughs to your site) to an alternative that uses more video. Such an outcome would encourage your church to use more video in future e-mails.
7) Time is precious. With limited staff and resources, churches may turn to volunteers for help with social media or e-mail campaigns. That can be tricky if the volunteers aren't guided on how to use the medium within the church's overall communications strategy, so training is essential.
Also, whether using staff or volunteers, a well-planned strategy can work to your advantage. Put high-quality articles and videos you already have onto your church's website, so that there are always valuable things to point to from your social media and e-mail channels, Bourgeois says. Encourage your staff and volunteers to use scheduling tools in Facebook and Twitter that allow you to post updates in advance, which helps keep updates on a regular schedule and limit the effort to one or two blocks of time each week.
Does your church use social media? If so, it may find Using Social Media Safely a helpful training resource from ChurchLawAndTaxStore.com.
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