To Build a Church Web Site: Study the Audience

This entry is part of a series on building church websites. Check out the first post.

Know Your Users

There is a temptation with church people to try and reach everyone all of the time. Some churches egocentrically want everyone to be *their* audience. As a result, Church Marketing Sucks. Knowing and prioritizing your users will get you further than any other single thing you can do on a web project. When you have been diligent in this phase, hard decisions during the stretch become much more simple. Don’t allow your project to move forward until you know the secrets your users aren’t telling.

Church Mission and Vision

In some cases, your churches mission and vision will put you a long way down the road of knowing who you are building the site for. Our mission actually uses the language “All People”, so we did not have the luxury of being handed our target audience. We had to put together a cross-departmental team to profile our audience segments and decide who we would focus the site on. You might be surprised to find out, “the lost” won’t cut it as a target audience.

Who Should Help

There is no shortage of ideas in a mega-church about what a church site should be and what it shouldn’t be. All ministries want representation on the home page. Most ministries would love to have their own site that was executed beautifully. Both of those things are unrealistic for a ministry of any size.

In this environment of competing interests, a tendency some might have is to try to control the audience discussion. One of our executive sponsors on the project expertly suggested that we do the opposite and open the discussion to all the ministry leaders. Our invites were a bit tongue in cheek since we knew many of the ministries would choose not to participate in those early discussions. None the less, it is a great way to put accountability back in their hands for the outcomes of the project. If they opt-out of the discussions because they it’s not a priority, to some degree they lose their voice if they don’t like the finished site. So, we invited everyone and genuinely worked extra hard to take away excuses for their involvement.

Rely on the Pastors

Pastors work hard to understand those they serve. Also, in most cases, portions of their seminary work is spent studying the lost and other belief systems. This domain knowledge can be incredibly helpful when it is time to study your audience. Listen to your pastors. They were instrumental in helping us to profile our site visitors.

Brainstorm Together

We held three meetings with the group over a period of three months that focused on audience. We came prepared for these meetings with agendas and a plan to keep the discussions focused. One way we did this was by using mind mapping software and projecting our brainstorming sessions onto a screen for everyone in the meeting to see. We started by dividing and naming the segments. Then we created a description for each segment. Next, we listed what we believed to be each segments characteristics and needs. Finally, we explored the ways our church could meet those needs by creating purposes for each group. The end result was a profile for each audience segment.

Prioritize The Segments

What we did next might sound crazy to some people, but we voted. Yep, you read that right. We voted. We could think of no more anonymous and untainted way for us to get a starting point for determining what we as a collective group felt should be our target audience. I think we all knew somewhere in the back of our heads that one of our “outsider” segments would be our future target. After all, that is why we wanted to redesign the site anyway.

We had each member of the group list on paper how they would prioritize the segments, with #1 being the most important to focus our site on, etc. We collected the pieces of paper, assigning 8 points for every first place entry, 7 points for every second, etc. We then added up the totals. We then had great discussions about our findings and what would cause us to change the results. Every one had the opportunity to talk about what they thought.

The Findings

Rather than retype our findings, I am going to copy and paste from a few of the project summaries I sent out during this phase. I am giving you a peek behind the curtains here as a means of helping you in your process of building a church site. These discussions were difficult ones that we explored prayerfully. The results match who our church is and what we are focusing on right now. Your answers should be different based on your church and context.

In normal companies, audience questions are solved in business plans, marketing and branding strategies, segmentations of the customer base, strategic initiatives, etc. In our case, we don’t have many of these documents to rely on, so we have undertaken our own process of A) Identifying appropriate audience segments, B) Determining the segments characteristics, C) Narrowing down the needs of a given segment, and now D) Outlining our ministries purpose for each of these segments.

This process has in mind finding out not only why we need a redesign (a conclusion most of us have come to I think), but when we redesign who will we design for. “Design” is not only the color, page composition, font usage, and graphical elements that compliment the former… but also the information design and content creation. Our work here helps us write with a context and a poignance that we would not deliver otherwise, and to understand how we should prioritize certain types of writing over other types. This will become more clear as we move down this path.
__________________
Priority 1: Churched (New to Area)
Description: Never visited SCC. Has previous insider/church experience. Most are believers. Looking for a church home.
General Purposes:
a Provide an authentic view of who we are & how we function
b Facilitate person-to-person contact
c Provide practical and repeatable information about our church
d Make the assimilation and membership process easily accessible/learnable

Priority 2: First-time Visitor
Description: Has decided to visit or has already visited SCC.
General Purposes:
a Convey clear pathways through visitor experience (front door through 2nd visit)
b To assure our love, concern, and safety for their children
c Reassure of our intentions to not embarrass, draw attention to them, or otherwise inconvenience
d Make them feel significant and valued as our guests

Priority 3: Regular Attendee/Member (Worship AND Fellowship AND Serving)
Description: Considered a fully functioning part of the body.
General Purposes:
a Create catalysts and mechanisms to break out of church routine and circle of friends
b Inclusion and to have a voice in the inner-workings of the church
c Meaningful recognition of their service/sacrifice
d Help achieve balance in living out the WIFE model such that they stay involved and not burn out
__________________
5) But then, John drew our focus back to a comment from a previous meeting that Priority 1 and 2 should really be merged into one. The online discussion about purpose kind of died, but offline discussions have continued and we now see two distinct groups:
Priority 1 – New to area and Visitors
Priority 2 – Regular Attendee/Member who is living the whole of WIFE

6) Through these discussions we have come to the conclusion that the balance between these two groups is somewhere between 60/40 and 70/30 with regards to:
a) Content volume, tone, voice, etc. Phrases like “Looking for a church home?” and “What to expect on your first visit!” will dominate our front page over things like “Funerals” and “Volunteer now!”.
b) Navigation scheme and information design.
c) Redesign effort and programming budget.
d) Color and emphasis in the design.

Conclusions

As you might guess, the process to arrive at these straightforward conclusions above took many, many hours. Looking at it now, one might think this stuff is simple, but beware that we have over 300 man hours invested (this includes web analytics work which I will write about in a different post). My guess is that if we had more strategic plans in place for our ministry at large, this burden could have been lowered significantly. Even so, be sure to get this phase right if you want a successful web project. Remember that it isn’t just the answers you are looking for, but getting everyone bought-in to those answers such that decisions during later phases are more clearly made.

Posted in Design, Programming, Web Ministry, Writing

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