February 1, 2012

Are we there yet?

In a series about search engine optimization, we’ve been driving home the importance of preparing your website so that visitors can find you when they Google.

The problem now is: they’ve found you but are you ready for guests?

Most church websites (from congregations to dioceses to church-wide) face the same issue of audience. The website is designed both for members (who presumably know what a sexton is and come with some familiarity with the Episcopal Church) and visitors (who could care less what a sexton is). How do you develop your website so it meets the needs of these dual audiences?

There are lots of options out there, but I’ll share with you what we’ve settled on in my diocese: www.diosohio.org.

We’ve tried to make the homepage as engaging as possible – warm, welcoming pictures; easy-to-understand tabs; quick links for Find a Church and Newcomers. I view the homepage as primarily for visitors. Members go to the site with a specific need so they probably don't linger on the homepage anyway. Visitors will view this as a first impression; make sure it’s a good one.

If you’re a church site, you want to include a prominent link for contact and location information. I can’t tell you how many websites I visit, church and otherwise, where I have to search forever to find a phone number or e-mail address. It’s frustrating, and I suspect, a turn-off for most visitors.

I’m a proponent of a newcomers section. This is a place where visitors can visit to learn more about your church or organization. It should be written in clear, concise language, stripped of in-house jargon while retaining the meaning and integrity of our tradition. Provide a bit of history with links if people want to delve further (Side note: I think it’s telling when the history section of a church website is longer and more in-depth than any pages about current ministries and activities. Pay homage to the past but don’t live there.) I like having a place where people can ask questions of the rector or bishop. We vet those coming in because sometimes they’re very personal. Then our bishop answers them directly. But other times, the question is just what every visitor wants to know but is afraid to ask.

Finally, make sure to include a place for visitors to request more information. Such a request on our diocesan site triggers a couple of responses. First, we e-mail the priests at church(es) located near the requester. We give them the contact information of the person, in case they want to make a follow-up call. It’s also a nice heads up that there might be a visitor in coming weeks. We also send a packet with a letter from our bishop and brochures about the Episcopal Church (Forward Movement tracts are great for this – not only is the information straight-forward and designed for visitors, the tracts are inexpensive and easy to mail).

For years, I wondered how these packets were received. One Sunday, I sat with a newcomer, a college student, during coffee hour. He didn’t know who I was, that I served on diocesan staff or that I was the priest’s wife. I asked him, as I always do, what made him decided to choose our church. Like a majority of church-searchers, he had browsed the Internet for information. When he happened upon a site he liked, he requested more information. A few days later, a packet arrived in his mail.

The sender: Richelle Thompson.