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The Key to a Great Church Web Site
By: Tim Warren

What does it take to have a great Web site? What comes first to your mind? A knock-out design? A professional marketing campaign? Cutting-edge interactive gadgets? First page search engine rankings? Every one of these can be part of a good site, but none will get you a great site. 

Your answer to the question matters. If you chase after an answer such as the ones above, you can throw away a lot of money and time only to end up with a poor site and truckloads of frustration. Ministries don't usually have the resources to do it all over again, so you may be stuck with mediocrity in what is likely your most visible public platform.

The right answer to the question has nothing to do with the Web. Like anything that is important to your organization, a great Web site requires a great team. (An, take note, the stereotypical Web technical skills are virtually irrelevant.) 

Your team may be several individuals or it may be a "team" of one individual, but the makeup of this team will determine the success of the project. A great Web site team is connected to your organization, skilled for your goals, and resourced to do the job.
When your team is connected to your organization, it shares a commitment that flows from the organization's larger purpose and is in sync with the leadership. Clear goals for the site are an important aspect to this connection, but, more frequently, what is missed in site projects is the commitment factor. The team's commitment cannot be hired or assigned – it has to come from within the organization. 

Too often, a pastor or board will decide that the church needs a new Web site. Lacking anyone committed to that idea from within the organization, next comes an attempt to hire someone or assign a committee to do the job, forgetting about it until it's time to review what's been done. 

However, hiring out a Web site is like trying to outsource all of your Sunday morning sermons. You might get results that impress in the short term, but, before long, the strategy will fall short. A Web site is a central marketing and communication tool for any organization, and it needs to reflect your organization from the inside out. You can outsource many aspects of the project, but the drive that gets the project up, keeps it running, and makes it your own needs to come from within the church.

A team that is skilled for your goals will include the right set of abilities to accomplish the goals of your project. What do you want to create with your site – a technical wonder? Then get the gadget-loving techie. An avant-garde design showcase? Get the designer working out of a loft in Manhattan. 

But, if you want to create a communication tool, make sure your team involves someone who understands visual and written communication. If you want to build an online community, include someone with an interest and understanding of how online communities work. A larger site may also require administrative or leadership skills to keep a larger team on task and working smoothly. They don't need to be professionals, but your team members must be able to recognize what works toward your goals and what does not.

Resourcing your team to create and maintain a great site starts with giving clear authority to a project leader for necessary decisions. The project leader does not have to do all the work, but needs to be involved in the process enough to make informed decisions along the way. This authority includes having access to needed input or the timely support of departments that need to provide content.

Resourcing also includes the actual Web tools and the related budget. This isn't the place to begin, but it is an important part of the picture. You have many options for the tools you use to create your site, each with an impact on the budget. 

Here are three broad categories your team may want to consider:

1. Hiring a "professional" – Working with a Web design firm that provides a fully developed site.
The advantages are that you can get a great-looking site up with a minimum of time commitment from your internal staff.

On the other hand, this option tends to be expensive and may not provide an effective way to keep the site up-to-date. When using someone from the outside, it may be difficult to keep the site in sync with your organization and goals, both in the building process and into the future.

2. Using someone "in house" – working with someone known to your organization who is able to build a Web site. This may or may not be a professional.
This solution is simple, usually involving one person who does all or most of the work on the site.  It can involve minimal cash outlay up front, especially if the person is a volunteer.

If working with a volunteer, quality and service can become a significant issue. Staff or membership transitions can hit especially hard. If it includes one person doing all the updating, work can bottleneck.

3. Using a Content Management System (CMS).
An increasing number of CMS options are available that allow anyone with simple word processing skills to keep a site up-to-date. They can vary widely in capability and ease of use, so expect to take some time comparing features. This option can be paired with number one or two.

The advantages are that it's cost-effective in the long run, and it allows staff or volunteers to keep the site up-to-date. This provides the opportunity to thoroughly make the site reflect your church.

However, there will likely be a learning curve, and the site will be only as effective as your team, although that's true for anything you do.

Evaluate your resource options using these questions:

* What will best allow us to accomplish our goals and convey our message in our unique style?

* Which will make provide most effective management and updating of the site in the long term?

* Which provides the most reasonable cost? (Keep in mind that reasonable is not the same as cheapest!)

Again, don't get lost in the tools. It is the team behind your Web site that will make it great…or not.  Like so many aspects of an effective organization, a great Web site comes back to building a great team. 

Tim Warren is project manager for Elexio, www.elexio.com.

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