You want to build it yourself, but you're not sure how. You don't want the website to fail like the last three. What are other organizations doing that allows them to succeed? Maybe a bit of what follows. I've been building websites for nearly a decade, and I'm still learning more (like how to use an intro image properly or a page break--see right).
Why Websites Don't Work
Content not updated
The number one reason your website is not working like you want and will not work like you want is because you don’t want to spend endless time updating the site. Tools do exist to make this process easier, but the fact remains that most clients I have worked with have no interest in maintaining a legitimate web presence on their own. They might want a content management system because they’ve heard it’s the way to go, but they really just want a few static pages and a blog, maybe.
The truth is that your site, whether old school, CMS, a Facebook page, or even an app, is going nowhere without updated content. Depending on the system, this can be done by one person or many individuals, but it needs to get done. There are a few tricks that will be mentioned later on, but adding content to a site is the most important task in having a website anyone cares about.
Too difficult to use on both ends
A reason for avoiding content updates might include the difficulty in learning the system, especially if employees are responsible for certain sections or pages. It also might not fit into the main role of the employee. For example, when I was teaching, I needed to create assignments and then add them to the site. That’s an extra step. However, I saw it as a one-time commitment because the assignment would be there next year. Most paid CMS systems are business solutions adapted to church or school applications. Therefore, the parts might not fit perfectly. Most LMS systems (like Moodle) have a very steep learning curve for the user, and I’ve seen more neglected sites using these systems than any other.
My idea, and if you’re a network administrator, you might be able to figure this out, is to force employees to update the page they’re responsible for upon login. You can’t go anywhere in the morning until you update your page. Another idea is just allow static content for those who just want that and provide incentives to those who update their pages. Finally, you could hire someone to provide not only the system but also work with the individuals on their pages to at least create a uniform look and feel, whether updated or not.
Websites are often too difficult for the user, as well. A few years back, many prominent sites started getting away from mega menus in order to clean up the main pages. However, navigation gets difficult. Not all menus show up well in tablets or phones, too. I’d say have the huge menus as people with real computers can get where they’re going quickly. I would also important main page content with links to currently relevant pages, even if those pages are several years old, like a fundraiser you do every year. You don’t need to recreate the page all the time; just bury it in a menu and write about it once a year.
Not a destination
Even if you have current information, people may not flock to your site. In many cases, churches and schools send our e-newsletters completely separate from the site. People rely on these more than visiting the site, which makes the site irrelevant and the content on the site only an archive. This is especially annoying at my church because I have to login somewhere just to read the e-newsletter, but that somewhere is NOT the official website. Rather, it's some paid service that not only gets all the traffic but also probably is allowed to send out its own emails or throw some ads on its site. A CMS will generally have a free way to send emails out. It can also store emails and profiles, which could save you time over other systems (or could add time).
Other options for driving people to your site would be for photos, videos, or other ways for members to interact in a unique way. We all get all kinds of text messages and emails, but seeing a picture of yourself volunteering for church is kind of exciting. You could send out an interesting question that a pastor or principal has answered on the site only. If you are really on a budget but have a little extra time, find out each member's cell phone provider so that you can send free texts out to their phones via email (yes, this works). Conversely, you could opt for refusing to cater to laziness and only put general information on the website. No newsletter or texts or anything, but an updated, relevant website. A combination of these methods is likely the best scenario, which means time and talent.
Since you're trying to reach everyone with you website, you do need to make it a "responsive" design. Some web designers have just made this a default skinny design, which still might not show up right in phones, but probably works most of the time. Of course, these fixed thin designs take away from the professional appearance. Some have made these designs just for the mobile version of the site. However, if you're looking at a redesign or upgrade, just go with one responsive template. You can check out responsiveness by simply resizing a site in your browser to look like the dimensions of a phone or tablet. If nothing resizes and it looks awful, you might need some changes. Keep in mind that sales of PCs and even notebooks are no longer the majority of device sales in America, so you need to plan accordingly.
1. System to Use
A CMS, or content management system, is generally the way to go with websites. New items are generally placed on top and older items are lower on the page or even archived. Like the title says, it's all about content. Static content is the same in a CMS as it is in an older static site. Really, it is. If you're never going to update the content, see if you can get someone to convert your old Frontpage site to something that looks good on a tablet, because there's not real point in going to a CMS. That said, it is recommended if you want new visitors to your site. Add an article per day and the internet will notice, and then people will notice, and then you will notice more people showing up at your church or school who found you because of your site, not inspite of it.
Popular CMS scripts include Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla, but I have used many more. Most of these are free and open source. The downside is that these systems can be hacked, especially if left on an older version without system updating. I've had to deal with Russians and Chinese so much that I feel like a Cold War politician. I've learned a lot about making sites more secure over the years, but they continue to seek ways in. If you want a little more security but an even tougher learning curve and less adaptability, then you can use a paid CMS like Microsoft's or one of those former business systems reconfigured for other purposes. My school district was paying over $10,000 a year for a system that looked like a toy to me and was not nearly as powerful as a fully-configured Joomla site or even a Google site. I'd stick with free, make backups, adapt to limitations, and save the money to pay someone to post content. Many of the add-ons to the expensive CMSs I've seen are worthless as they are a decade old. Please don't get stuck with one of these systems just because someone can promise to add all users to the system. Use Google if that's you main goal.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you email and text and Youtube and Tweet, and you have a site that looks pretty and mostly does its job, who cares if it's twenty years old? However, you will have trouble driving new viewers to the actual site, so you'll want to use those other social media outlets well and maybe embed them in your prehistoric site. It'll actually work.
Do not go with a free subdomain site unless you have a good redirect or aren't worried about people actually finding or remembering your site. Other sites would love for your site to be under theirs so that they get more traffic, but it looks cheap (because it is). If you must go free, I'd recommend Google Sites right now, just because Google offers a hosted CMS for free. Keep in mind that Google does not have huge pool of people developing upgrades or plugins, but some already exist. The biggest bonus is really the simple integration of Google Drive into your site. While these documents are not searchable online, even your least adept user will be able to figure out how to update a document in order to update a site. If Google folds its sitebuilding business, it will also probably offer more of an out than some of the other available free options. Also, unlike most of the free sites, Google does not put ads up for you, which could save some embarrassment for churches and schools. A side note: many ads are based on the places the person using the computer has been, so if a church member complains that your Google ad showed up as a Thai dating site, his own searches led to that ad, not your content.
2. Some Bells and Whistles
If you're not sure about Facebook or other social media outlets, your site can have its own system for this, too. I used something called Community Builder in Joomla when building my wife's site years ago. There are other similar plugins, as well. The point is that you can set up your own internal version of Facebook. You can add forums and messaging, or you could even make ministries into their own pages like I did. People at my church did not fully understand or appreciate what I did, so it was a bit of an overkill, even though it probably still qualifies as one of the best ministries webpage ever created (I am totally not lying).
Forums or sharing
If you want to monitor forums or answer questions, this might be useful. File sharing used to be a bigger deal, but I would go with Google Drive today. Basically, it's nice to provide a space for your users, but it's not mandatory unless you want to compete for their free time.
Embedded videos and photos
Instead of driving people to your Youtube or Facebook pages, those pages can be embedded into the main webpage so that it becomes the destination. However, you must keep feeding the fire with social media tools. The best part about them is that they are free and they give you the bandwidth. The bad news is that they kind of own at least part of the content, so check that out before you post your most beloved professional photos on those sites.
One of my clients does nothing on his site except update his Google calendar. The main page looks updated and the site does its job. Easy and essential to integrate.
You can add little plugins or widgets for just about anything you can imagine, including the receiving of donations. If you see it on another site, Joomla (and likely Drupal or Wordpress) has a solution that will work. If not, there's a code to embed and stick it somewhere on the site.
Browsers on phones and tablets keep getting better as more and more companies pay thousands of dollars to develop apps for those devices. I'd say that unless you have some really cool idea for what your app is going to do for someone (and make some money or new members along the way), wait and see what you need one for, and then pay the developer some money.
3. Social Media
Not as main site
Getting back to social media again, be sure that you do not make a Facebook page your main site. A friend's church did this and made it look like they couldn't afford the electric bills even as they were raising money to build a new church. Really, it's akin to your minister showing up in a rusty, oil-burning 1988 Chevy pick-up with Back Off! mud flaps. If that is the case, then a Facebook page would be fine for you.
Drive to site
Be sure your social media is set up to direct viewers to your website, whether it's Youtube, Facebook, or whatever else you might use. They usually give you the option of adding your own webpage as a link, so do that. Then, embed in your site and promote those cute videos and photos with members. You need a back and forth relationship, but never post an important article that people would want to read on the social media sites. You must post links to articles ON YOUR WEBSITE. Let people like or make comments if you want social interaction badly, but be warned that articles with 0s for shares and likes look a bit lonely.
Hosted for you but not integrated
It's great that someone wants to host the bandwidth for you, but they want their users to stay on their sites. You need to be vigilant about integrating social media posts into you own webpage. A CMS with a useful plugin can usually help.
The dangers of social media include personal pages that are part of work pages or inappropriate communication between individuals. Your organization cannot fully control what happens on these sites, so you might have some incentive to avoid them. However, a pastor without a Facebook page looks like he's either Amish or living two centuries ago, so it's probably worth the risk.
4. Keep it Going
Your new website is only as good as its content, and your content is only as good as how often you write it. Each article does not have to be a work of art, but it will take some work. You need to be willing to put that time in or else the money for redesigning your site will have been wasted.
Relevant topics with research
The topics for your content should include current events, current people (like new members), and current multimedia (like photos or sermons). Writers need to know what they're writing about, which might mean asking someone else. It's called research, and it might be a bit foreign to those who text, blog, and copy and paste, but it makes site better.
One person or a team
A team of people working on the site seems to make the most efficient way of keeping the site current. However, teams tend to wait for someone else to take the lead, especially if it's a team of volunteers. I'd say give the team a try at first. Ask for volunteers and ask for a weekly commitment from each. When that doesn't work, then you can force someone who works there already to deal with it, or you could pay someone else. Hopefully, you will get a team of volunteers who love mundane activities, a list does not normally include pastors, teachers, or others who actually work at your organization.
Make it evergreen, even with borrowed content
I've been writing content for online publishing for a long time, but I'd never really considered whether or not the content I wrote was evergreen, or something that would last for years as a relevant online piece. For example, this article could have been written five years ago and it will be fairly relevant several years into the future. Therefore, I won't have to update it much for it to continue to be read. Ministry descriptions, biographies, histories, and many other pages work. Just be sure to pay attention to when someone quits or passes away.
If you must borrow content, do it. I’m not talking about stealing. The Free Library is nice because it updates daily and looks professional, but you can find other free content out there, too. You can repost Wikipedia content if you add a link, so you don’t necessarily have to hire research assistants to get some content on the site.
It used to be external links were very important in determining the importance of a site. While this may not hold true the same as it once did, relevant links are still very important. The idea is that you try to get a site with more traffic to link to you if you promise the same in return. For example, if you can get the local library or your church's synod to link to you, you benefit because more people may use those sites or at least have the perception that the governing bodies endorse you.
5. Data, Obviously
It's important, but there's more
What's your goal, anyhow, to collect data? The world as a whole is too hung up on data. It can be useful, depending on your goal, but churches and schools have bigger missions than bowing down to the data aggregators. For example, I'd bet polling data would indicate that the pastor at your church should give shorter sermons. Does that make it the right thing to do? Is it so important that traffic increase to your website by 20% every month? Is that even possible? Do you give up and say Satan won if you fail? You probably want to create metrics to measure if the site is effective. I can't stop you from doing that. However, you might realize that people expect sites exist but don't necessarily make decisions about churches or schools solely based on those websites. While you can maybe drive someone away with a pastor's wife Facebook page, most other incarnations of a web presence are pretty standard.
Match similar sites in area
If you really want to get into the numbers, I recommend you just try to match the similars. Find churches or school with similar attendance and then look up their online rank compared to yours. There are some services that will give Alexa ranks or similar scores. Look around for a free tool that seems to give usable results. Then make it your goal to match the top competitor in the area. Make sure you check out the comparable sites, too. Maybe they all pale in comparison to your new CMS, but maybe a few have items you could use. For example, every car I've ever owned has had one or two features that seem ingenious, and only found on that car. What if someone took all those cool and unique features and put them on one car? Make that your website.
Unique visitors and new visitors
As you are working to get more people to visit your site, pay attention to unique views and new, relevant visitors. Is a hacker looking for a back door to your site from Russia an important visitor? Is your own IP address important? You're looking for people coming from referring pages like those with whom you've exchanged links or from Youtube or Facebook. You're looking for unique search terms that you've somehow captured. For example, before our church got redesigned by a persuasive yet skill-less businesswoman, I checked it's top ranking search terms because she said her company would fix all the problems with the site. Our site was in the top 10 on Google for something like why god or why jesus, and you can imagine that such an obvious search phrase would be awesome to have. However, today the site is a CMS that has been abandoned and the search term longer even registers on Google after I add the church name because that specific static content that had been there for years as a beacon to anyone asking the same question was now gone. Find out what people might be looking for an give them what they need.
Written by Brian Jaeger, owner of Satisfamily, McNewsy, PassivNinja, Educabana, RealWisconsinNews, ManCrushFanClub, WildWestAllis, SitcomLifeLessons, and VoucherSchool.