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–FaithAndWeb.com.

“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.

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‘We’re a Church; Not a Business’: The Proper Role of Google Analytics in Church Life

Though I could list several hundred statements I hear people express about church life, “We’re a church, not a business,” has to rank among the most-often heard. There are a number of situations in which I will disagree with this idea (budgeting, legal matters, managing staff, etc.), but when it comes to e-newsletter and website analytics, I’m fully on-board.

This week, I wish to look first at website metrics. Google Analytics, by far the most popular of the website metric tools, is geared toward American business, not American nonprofits and churches. This doesn’t undermine the value of the tool for churches, but it does mean that churches must approach the tool with an awareness of how it can benefit them.

Pathways, not Numbers: Analytics is a valuable tool for tracking visitor numbers and growth. But, churches—especially smaller communities (less that 200 on Sunday)—should worry less about numbers and more about the pathways that people take through their site. Why? Consider architects. Most will tell you that while they work hard to understand how people will move inside buildings they are going to design, and they design with their research in mind, not until the building is constructed and people begin to move through it do they know how traffic will flow. The same is true for websites. And analytics will show you how people track through your site. This knowledge will tell you a great deal about how well, or how poorly, your site is working.

Recency, not Bounce: In the world of Analytics, “bounce” is a four-letter word. Bounce records a person who visits one page and then leaves your site. In business, that’s bad news. In churches, bounce does not necessarily mean failure. Because your users are more likely to be familiar with your site, they’re more likely to bookmark the pages they favor, visit those, and leave. Meaning your bounce rate may run higher. A more important statistic to pay attention to is recency, which keeps track of repeat traffic. High numbers of people who are there for the first time, as well as high numbers of people who come repeatedly can signal trouble for your website.

New vs. Returning: This may be the most important statistic for you to watch. This charts the percentage of new visitors (first-time visitors) vs. repeat visitors. Many churches who feel their website is stagnate are surprised to find out that a large number of visitors are “new.” How to account for this? It could be many things: People sending links to their friends (and Analytics will track this), or people looking for churches who visit your site looking for a home and who leave. There are other possibilities. It’s important to discover the answer.

When it comes to Google Analytics, be aware that it’s a business tool, first. But this does not mean it’s not useful for churches. You just need to look at it through a glass clearly.