communications

Is your website a welcoming door or a challenging ropes course?

Routinely test your site’s content, organization and navigation (menus) for user-friendliness. Sometimes, all a site needs is less. Photo by Tipu Javed, Unsplash.
Routinely test your site’s content, organization and navigation (menus) for user-friendliness. Sometimes, all a site needs is less. Photo by Tipu Javed, Unsplash.

Some church websites seem like the first clue in a scavenger hunt while others are built like a "members-only" club.

In this hyper-paced world, our attention spans are shorter than a goldfish. If your online visitors have to sift through multiple screens of search results, scrolling past outdated content to find the information they need, you've lost your chance to connect.

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As Paul Steinbrueck of Church Marketing Sucks recently posted in this website checklist, "Nobody intentionally omits important content from their website. Either we don't realize it's important, or we forget to add it."

It's important to have an attractive and visual website. However, easy usability must be the primary goal. Design your website and organize the content so both new visitors to your site — as as well as regulars — can find what they need easily with few clicks. (Consider using techniques such as the squint test to get a high-level view of your site's visual order.)

Routinely test your site's content, organization and navigation (menus) for user-friendliness. Sometimes, all a site needs is less. Think of the continual testing as a refinement rather than a costly and time-consuming overhaul. (If you do need a relaunch, United Methodist Communications has you covered with preparatory training or guidance and help through local church services.) Here's a plan to get started.

Step 1: Define the audiences visiting your site.

Using marketing-style research, identify your primary audiences (or personas), the information they value most, their expectations and goals and how to better serve them through your site. Clearly define each of your top audiences by demographics (who they are) and psychographics (what they value or need).

Some of the groups you may identify through your research:

  • parents of preschool children searching for nursery sign-in information

  • a family with teens from out of town searching for your location and Sunday church school classes

  • choir members looking for rehearsal time changes

  • members submitting prayer requests

Step 2: Discover what each audience needs from your website.

Now that you know who your site serves, think about relevant online content for each group.

The first rule: You are not your user. As a church leader, you deal with "everything." Everything does not make an effective menu for a church website!

Outline what you believe to be the top three content needs of each of your top audiences. Then call or email members in each group to ask what they seek when they visit your site. To get input from a larger sample, consider developing a survey.

Review what you learned versus what you thought. Are there differences? If so, what does that say about your assumptions about the audience or reveal about unmet content needs?

Step 3:  Explore your site as your audience does.

Keeping in mind what you've learned about your audiences, browse your website with empathy for each. What's your initial impression? What seems off? Most importantly, track the time and number of clicks it took to find content your research said is needed. Make note of missing content and plan to develop it.

Step 4: Start the renovation.

  • Take the data you've collected, and use it to reorganize or redesign so it will address each audience's primary content needs.

  • Target content on your homepage as generically as possible to reach your top audiences. Develop clear navigation to direct visitors deeper into your site.

  • Review and, if necessary, change the terms used in your site navigation or menus (elements of user interface). For example, if your research shows that members refer to the church "calendar" but your site lists "schedule," use the label that better speaks to your audience.

  • Trim your menus. Menus are meant to direct traffic to categories of content, not individual articles. Don't make people sift through the site equivalent of "War and Peace" to find the location of the nursery.

  • Trim your content. Archive outdated content.

  • For further study, read Don't Make Me Think, Rocket Surgery Made Easy and The Elements of User Experience.

How your church website looks is important, but how easily your audiences find the information they need is more important. Making your site user-friendly doesn't always mean contracting with a self-proclaimed web "rock star" or "guru." Following these four steps to begin a DIY renovation (or spring cleaning) will make your online ministry more effective for everyone.


Jeremy Steele

Jeremy Steele is the teaching pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, Alabama, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book All the Best Questions, at his website: JeremyWords.com.