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What’s the point of a website

30 November 2012

. . . if you don't keep it up to date? A website is a critical part of any organisation's identity. Sara Batts picks a few holes in the Church's web coverage


JUST over 20 years since its invention, the web has changed the way we shop, find information, and interact. Social media might grab the headlines, but websites are still vital communication tools.

They provide access around the clock, and are increasingly the first port of call for anyone who wants to find out what an organisation is about.

For "organisation" you can also read "church". Many, perhaps most, people who want to find out more about a church will start with a Google search. This puts a con­sid­er­able onus on churches to produce web­sites that deliver the in­for­mation that enquirers are looking for.

As part of a Ph.D. thesis, super­vised by the Department of Informa­tion Science at Lough­borough University, I have been researching churches' online presence, in order to discover what they are offering. I looked closely at 147 church websites, and also talked to Christian leaders and web masters. Here are some of my findings.

Not all churches have a dedicated website, but - as of December last year - 66 per cent of English churches, across a variety of denominations, do. That is up from 41 per cent two years earlier, but is unchanged from 2010.

Having a website is a good start, but for this to be an effective "shop window" for a church, it needs to provide a range of essential information, both for visitors and members. That includes: how to find the church; times of services; how it sees itself; how to book a baptism, wedding, or funeral; and so on.

CHURCHES would not think of handing out last week's notice-sheet at the door - yet this, in effect, is what more than a quarter (27 per cent) of church websites are doing, because their information is out of date. Only 37 per cent of the sites I researched were as current as a weekly handout. Twelve per cent of them were more than three months out of date, and, for 20 per cent of them, it was impossible to say when they had last been changed.

Sites that had been created by a professional company rather than church members were not necessarily more current. More than half of these presumably costly websites were potentially less useful than a pew sheet. Visitors to websites expect the information to be trustworthy, so to publish unreliable details -- for example, recurrent calendar events that are not deleted when a meeting is cancelled - is a quick way to lose credibility.

There were other omissions. A small number of websites (five per cent) did not include the times of Sunday services. More (22 per cent) failed to include a map. Only about a fifth provided any information on what the names of the services mean. Although the majority of the sites provided both an email address and a telephone number, nine of the sites included neither; so how are online visitors supposed to make contact?

Church websites tend - perhaps out of necessity - to focus on regular, visible activities that happen every Sunday morning. There may, therefore, be a tendency to think about the building and the Sunday service as what defines "church". But it is hard to capture the intangible qualities, such as grace, love, and community, which draw people to a congregation.

One way that websites attempt to portray such hidden qualities is through its use of images - of the church, and its people. Anglican churches tend to focus on their buildings rather than the people, by about two to one.

 One church was planning to use a video film, because it was felt that this would provide a better sense of the liveliness of the worship to be found within the medieval building.

ALMOST half (48 per cent) had explored their church's architectural features in some detail - not surprising in churches of historical significance, particularly rural ones. And the same proportion included the details of the family records that can be found, which is a useful way of reducing the amount of time that clergy or administrators spend on this sort of routine enquiry. (To put a full database of archives online is, however, not a simple under­taking.)

It is rare for websites to include material specifically for visitors - those new to the area, or people who are unlikely to have much prior experience of church services. Only nine sites had a separate page for visitors, and on each of these there were, on average, more than seven uses of church language or jargon - words such as "genuflect", or phrases such as "spiritually ready to receive" - with no subsequent explanation. None of these are calculated to put potential newcomers at their ease.

Information on "welcome" pages mostly fell into one of two categories: describing what the church does, or explaining what people do. So, in the first case, it might include details about the kind of musical tradition to be found; and, in the second, it might give visitors an idea of when they should stand, sit, speak, or sing.

Churches are less likely to include information on funerals (14 per cent) than they are on weddings (35 per cent), or baptisms (30 per cent).

IN THE case of social media, of the websites counted, eight per cent had a blog, and 16 per cent were linked to some kind of social-media service for its church. These probably under-represent the true picture, because websites and Facebook pages, for example, may not be formally linked. This was certainly the impression gained from inter­views: some church leaders delegated responsibility for the youth-focused social media to different groups.

The majority of church websites are - like many church activities - in the hands of volunteers. But where, say, a gap in the Sunday-school rota is a problem, a neglected website is less obvious.

A number of leaders told me that websites were discussed in PCC or other meetings while they were being set up, but less frequently afterwards. Other elements in the research findings suggest that the volunteer webmasters' skills, or awareness of new publishing tools, may need updating. In particular, the rise of mobile access to the internet on smartphones or tablets, and the related demands, mean that there is a need to think about mobile-friendly sites.

Creating a website, or revising an existing site, that will meet the needs of the community involves thought, but there is much guidance available. Thinking through the purpose of the site not only gives a framework for creating content, but also provides a structure for thinking about what not to include. Both are of equal importance, if you want to com­municate clearly.

Try asking yourself these questions:

Why do you want a website?
How can you translate your wishes on to a web page?
What do church regulars, visitors, potential visitors, researchers,
  or strangers want to know?
What is your preferred method of contact?
Who are your key audiences?
How can you prioritise information for these groups?
What can you leave out?
Who will be responsible for writing content?
Who will update your site, and how often?
Who will monitor, and respond to, emails received from the
  website? What guidance can you give your contributors in
  order to receive appropriate words and images?
What ratio of pictures of the building to pictures of people do
  you want?
Can you include audio-video content?
How will you keep up with web trends?
Where can you receive training?
Is your site accessible to people with visual or other disabilities?
What can be done to make your site accessible to people with
  smartphones or tablets?

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