In 1997, back in the dark ages of the internet, I wrote my first website. I wrote it, but I didn’t publish it because, honestly, I didn’t know how. It wasn’t a great website, but I was proud of it.
I wasn’t even a teenager yet, but I was fascinated by computers and especially the internet. Creating a website seemed like a fun challenge, so I did what is almost unheard of now: I went to the library and borrowed a book about how to write Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the language of the internet.
Going to the library to borrow a book is still a common practice (just ask my wife, who currently has only 36 titles on hold), but learning how to program from a printed book is not. At the time, that was the most important web design skill, and a book was the best way to learn it.
Websites still utilize HTML, but learning that language (and many other web programming languages) is reserved for people who make a living developing websites and online applications. There are hundreds of online resources that help you learn how to code (some of them are even free), so the library has become an afterthought at best for prospective developers.
Today, anyone can build a website using tools that do the programming for you. However, that doesn’t mean everyone can build a great website, and in the world of church websites, there are far more good websites than great websites.
While skills like HTML are no longer a requirement, I believe there are five key skills that anyone can develop to help you take your church website from good to great.
Any form of communication requires strategy, but that is especially true for church websites. With so many optional tools available, websites can become overly complex if they are used for too many different things. If you don’t have a strategy, your website can quickly become a mess. By concentrating on purpose, context, and focus, you’ll create a website that is both strategic and clean.
Your church website should have the primary purpose of encouraging your visitors to take the next action—those specific actions that your communications strategy requires. While tools are available that allow you to use your website for other purposes, like communicating information to members or sharing your media, conversion to the next stage in your journey map should be the primary purpose.
Understanding your audience, including their demographics, background, technical skills, and preferred communications styles will shape how you create your church website. Every church and every audience is different, so as you consider these difference as you build your website, you will develop something that is much more relevant for the context that you are in.
A crucial part of any strategy is knowing when to say no to things that are good in order to focus on things that are great. There will be an endless number of good things you can do with your church website (and even more things that are only mediocre), but the great things are where you should spend your time. By pointing back to your communications strategy, you will give yourself the permission to say, “That’s a good idea, but not something we can pursue right now.”
On many website platforms, you are not required to have any technical skills. However, even a bit of technical knowledge can go a long way, because if you understand what is actually happening on the technical side of things, you’ll be able to make better decisions on the nontechnical things.
Domain Name System (DNS) management is being able to direct your domain name (e.g., www.mychurch.org) to your actual website, which is hosted on a virtual server (did I lose you already?). It’s not too difficult to learn, but it’s such a specialized knowledge that most people never even have to learn the acronym. Unfortunately, the first time you type in your website address and it doesn’t open your site, you’ll wish you knew how to troubleshoot it. Learning a little bit about DNS will help you ask the right questions when you need to figure out what is wrong.
Knowing how to write HTML or Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is not a requirement by any means, but understanding the purpose of each and how they work together can give you a leg up when you are asked to make a change to your site. Some changes are quite simple while others are much more time-consuming, and to the untrained person, it can be very hard to see the difference. A little bit of HTML/CSS knowledge goes a long way in those situations.
While design could be considered the beautiful visuals created using tools like Adobe Photoshop, that is just one aspect of design. There are two broad categories of design that are helpful to become familiar with as you are working on a church website.
User Interface (UI)
In the big picture of website design, the user interface is every visual element on the screen, including the photos, graphics, buttons, navigation, fonts, colors, and more. Each one of those requires a certain level of design understanding. There are many places where you can look at examples, learn some best practices, and apply them on your church website.
User Experience (UX)
User experience differs from user interface in that it is all about the journey map and the ideal next steps for website visitors. How the navigation is ordered, what elements have more visual weight, and the number of clicks it takes to find information fall under the category of user experience. Knowing your audience is a key part of this skill, as it is in so many other skills, but knowing what you want your audience to do is a prerequisite to building a great user experience.
The ability to communicate ideas by writing clearly is an essential skill in all forms of communication, and church websites are no exception. The crucial difference of writing for the web is that you must take into account both your audience and the digital tools used to analyze your website for displaying on search engines (more on that in the SEO section).
Your church’s audience will have different priorities, use different phrases, and understand the culture of your church unlike any other audience, so it is important that you write for them when writing content for your church website. You don’t want to write in such a way that excludes other audiences, but by personalizing it for your primary audience, it will remind them that they are at home in your church.
As Katy Crawford writes, “Stories have the power to connect, engage and inform.” By telling stories, you can impact your audience on a more personal and relatable level, getting past the facts and focusing on what is really important. Storytelling is not an easy skill to develop, but in the church, it has uses far beyond writing for the website.
Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Having analytics skills certainly requires more than being comfortable with managing and measuring numbers, but that’s a really good start.
Through a tool like Google Analytics, you can learn more about your website visitors’ actions, including where they came from and what they do once they are on your site. This allows you to find any surprises, like if some pages are more or less popular than you thought, or if you are attracting more website visitors from social media than email.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the incredibly complex act of improving your website so that it shows up high in the search engine results page rankings, which leads to increased visitors to your church website. This process can be as simple as writing an engaging title for each web page to improving the load time of each page by reducing image sizes. There are hundreds of factors that affect your rankings, but if you focus on what is best for your visitors, that will cover the majority of those factors.
In the broad sense, optimization is all about making small incremental improvements in a continuous fashion. Always look for opportunities to improve your church website, even if you have to go one page or one aspect at a time. Web technologies are constantly changing, so what worked for your site yesterday may not be as effective today.
What If You Are a Team of One?
I know what you’re probably thinking by now: “All of this sounds great, but I’m only one person and I don’t even work on the church website full-time.”
That is the situation in most churches; you are not alone.
If you can find willing volunteers, I recommend creating a committee of people who have one or two of these skills. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find one person with all of these skills, but I am sure there are people with some of these skills in your church. Ask them to help in small ways, and then see if they are willing to grow their commitment as they are able.
Spend some time each quarter focused on improving your skills in one of these areas. Even an hour a month spent learning will help you improve your website in great ways.
Recommended Next Step
SEO is the skill on the list which can give you the best improvement with the least amount of effort. There are so many ways to improve your church website’s SEO, and each one provides value not just for search engines but for your potential visitors, which makes it a win win.
Download the free Church Websites Worksheet today to learn some simple steps you can take to improve your site’s SEO.