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What Does Having a “Visitor-Friendly” Church Website Really Mean?
By: Kevin Bettinger

Imagine you're visiting a church for the very first time. You open the door and begin to step in, but the head usher stops you halfway. He says that you must watch a two-minute video presentation before entering the building. Reluctantly, you oblige.

Proceeding through the doorway, you are immediately assaulted by a startling drumbeat. The music continues as you enter and survey the foyer, which is surprisingly cluttered and disorganized. You see books for sale on a large prominent rack, and a massive wall-size video presentation of last year's Christmas Cantata, but you still cannot figure out what class your children go to. You're not even sure when the service is supposed to start! 

You consider leaving, but finally find your way through the confusion and enter the auditorium where you sit down to enjoy one of the most refreshing services you've ever attended. The church really has a lot to offer, but the experience almost ended before it began, due to a very poor initial impression.

Does this church-visiting experience sound extreme or far-fetched? You would never do that to a visitor, right? 

Unfortunately, many churches put visitors through a similar experience on their websites. All too often, the wonderful people, great sermons, and enriching programs do not shine through, and the visitor ends the experience before it ever had a chance to begin. 

So, how does one create a church website experience that is both appealing to visitors and engaging for active members? And, what does having a "visitor-friendly" website really mean? 

Carefully consider the content.
Your website is valuable real estate, especially the home page. Fresh, relevant content should be given the most visual weight on website pages (yes, it is more important than the logo). Let the website visitor quickly find out what is going on at the church. Allow them to really get a feel for what the church is like. Include pictures of people and events at the church to help visitors make a connection and to create a sense of community for current members. Allow visitors to listen to a sermon sample, but don't force-feed content upon them the moment they enter the site. 

Make sure there is appeal to first-time visitors and to current members alike. Members will appreciate the time you take thinking about their needs and answering their questions, as well.
Keep the content fresh! Don't stop with the initial design and development of the website. 

Make updating the church website as much a part of the plan as designing it. Too many church websites live and die with one church member's technical ability and willingness to build a site.  Make sure your website plan includes regular content updates. The challenge of keeping website content fresh is a major reason that so many churches are switching to content management systems, allowing them to easily keep the website updated.

Also, consider the load speed of your pages, especially the home page. That awesome intro video is not helping if the visitor has to wait for it to load. Test your website on multiple browsers and consider the challenges of visitors trying to view church websites with older technology. A flash-heavy website is a nightmare to view on many computers, not to mention the fact that it will not display properly on mobile devices. Also, don't forget to make the files you offer people widely consumable; remember, not everyone has Powerpoint and Publisher installed on their computer.

Keep the content organized.
Have you ever been to a church website where the main menu system was of no help, forcing you through a labyrinth of pages in order to find even the most basic information? 

A better idea is to keep it simple. Your main navigation menu should not overwhelm a visitor with options. No matter how many menu options you use, two things are certain: they must be organized logically, and important content must be easy to find. Ask an impartial person, preferably someone who doesn't attend the church, to look at your site and give you some feedback on how easy it is to navigate and how well-organized it is. Don't be afraid to get rid of menu items and pages that do not contribute toward the goals laid out for your web outreach.

"These suggestions are so obvious, so simple," you say. I agree! And, yet, there are still multitudes of church websites that need to hear and to heed these simple suggestions. Is your church website "visitor-friendly?"

Kevin Bettinger is with FaithConnector Church Websites, www.faithconnector.com.

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