Something about this feels relevant …

… so began the email I received recently from Anna Belle Leiserson, the genius behind the best blog I know for churches about developing websites–

“This” is an article in the New York Times titled “Faulty Websites Confront Needy in Search of Aid.” The bottom line of the article is this: if you think the new website for the ACA is a mess, spend some time poking around the websites for states’ unemployment compensation. In short, it’s a crap shoot.

To those who work with these systems, there is no surprise. Companies, government agencies, and, yes, even churches (large and small) have a long history of making poor decisions about websites at the very earliest stages. And never find their way out.

One fairly large nonprofit I advised in years gone by was dumping tens of thousands of dollars annually into a website that 1) couldn’t be updated by most people in the office, 2) regularly messed up online transactions, and 3) broke down more than a working website should.

And yet, they would never change, and kept throwing good money after bad. The reason? We’ve invested so much, why change now? It’s laughable in print. Not so much in reality.

A Heavy Price

Your church website–though certainly not as complex as that described in the New York Times piece, or even that used by many organizations and nonprofits–must work and work well. And when it doesn’t, you pay a heavy price. Including:

Communications Paralysis. Whether you use a website alone, or have Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and whatever happens to be all the rage in your community, your website probably plays a big role in anchoring the content. I have seen first-hand more churches whose websites are seriously constraining their ability to communicate well. They buy inexpensive programs that limit their number of pages, their ability to adapt their sites, and on and on. As a result, they end up creating a greater communications log jam with each online tool they add.

Lost Income. People love to give online. We pay for everything else online, so why not make our contributions online? But if you set it up poorly, or select poor software, or your software and website are constantly battling one another and keeping people from giving, they’ll quit. Quickly. Out of frustration, or out of security fears. Either way, you and your congregation lose.

Lost Visitors. People looking for a church to attend (or looking for anything else, for that matter) look first to the web. Your website is their primary window into your world. Select one that is cheap-looking, or acts like one that is cheap, and you are costing yourself visitors. And you can measure this. Google Analytics tracks new visitors who come to your site and then go away. See what those numbers are. If your site doesn’t support Google Analytics, you have bigger problems with your site.

No Excuses

There was a time not so long ago that there were legitimate reasons that churches skimped on websites. Hiring private developers was expensive (and no guarantee of success), and they required people who knew how to code.

Those days are long gone. Today, companies like iPage make launching a sophisticated, good-looking website easy and affordable. And you don’t need to be a coder (but you still need to be a tweaker).

Yes, it takes work. No, you shouldn’t try and do it alone. And yes, it’s a bit scary to go from what you have–no matter how flawed–to something new, no matter how much better.

But you must.

Mind Your Communications Models

Church Marketing Sucks has long been a premier forum for church communications. So any studies they release bear notice.

A few days ago, CMS released some preliminary results of its Church Communication Survey, which attracted 766 responses. Two things caught my eye that point to acute issues for any church searching for answers to communication issues. The first was this line:

“Nearly 40% of the churches represented had an average weekend attendance over 1,000. The largest concentrations were in the 200 to 1,000 range.”

Here’s why that matters. According to a study on church size described by Fast Facts About American Religion, published by Hartford Seminary—a leader in studying American congregations—less than 3 percent of the churches that people attend in the US are in congregations with more than 1,000 worshipers.

Why are so many of those surveyed by CMS in such large congregations, when the vast majority of people attending congregations do not attend these mega-churches? In all likelihood it is because the CMS study is not statistically sound in its sample size, as the report profiled by Hartford Seminary is.

This is not a problem for CMS, so long as in the final report they indicate that the report is not statistically valid. But is should give congregations using the final report, when it is released, something to think about.

When planning your communications needs, it’s important that you consider the size of the institutions that you look to for inspiration. Bigger churches have more income at their disposal, larger staffs, and the ability to invest in high-end technology, which gives the illusion of effectiveness—perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t.

it’s important that you consider the size of the institutions that you look to for inspiration.

Looking to these institutions as models can generate a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mindset, while taking your eye off of the things that really matter when it comes to communications success—both disseminating information to, and learning things about, the church you work in.

The second point worth noting is this one: “Design-savvy: We asked what other roles these communicators have had in their careers and designer topped the list. Low on the list? Copywriter and church pastor.” (Find the breakdown here.)

This suggests that design is going to be important in the communications take-aways that come from this study. Again, this is not to suggest that design is unimportant—it matters a great deal, and I am an admirer of well-designed sites.

But should design be the most important thing on your mind when analyzing your communications’ needs? Rather than a first-level concern, I would suggest that it is a second-level concern. Once the communications house is in order, then the finishing touches can be applied, the pretty paints laid down, and the furniture arranged just so. But good design will not take the place of a well-executed communications strategy that produces two-way learning.

should design be the most important thing on your mind when analyzing your communications’ needs?

The findings with the CMS study are preliminary—let’s not jump the gun on what the final study will show or claim. As with everything that Brad Abare does with this group, I am sure that they will be careful with their claims and their data. Moreover, valuable information will emerge.

But when thinking about your own communication plans, don’t forget to be careful that your models for success are of comparable size and focused on outcomes that will deliver not just looks, but substantive information that leads to invigorated ministries.