Rule 1: a huge, ugly slider front and centre, with poorly chosen stock photography, out of date text and a link that doesn’t work…
Joking, I am!
The following post is illustrated with screenshots from the upcoming redesign of Lansdowne Church’s website (shush, it’s a secret!)
Church websites not only serve newcomers, but also those who are well established in the local church, with details and updates on ministries and events, as well as resources, media and encouragement.
All of this means that church sites are pulled in a hundred different directions, with so many ministries fighting for space: this is seen no more clearly than on the home page.
This tension, then, is why we so often use sliders, using a big chunk of space on the main page to highlight 4-5 ministries or events.
The problem? Sliders are terrible. ‘Heresy!’ I hear you cry!
Look, I really don’t like them, besides they’re not in the Bible… 😉 They don’t look good, they’re outdated and data suggests sliders are ineffective.
So, with that to one side, what important features does your church website home page need?
Church website home page – essential features
1 – Service Times
Make them clear, easy to spot, and easy to understand. Oh, and keep them up to date.
If you’re organised enough to use church management software (ChMS) then you may be able to pull your next service times and location in directly from the church calendar, with the help of a talented web developer!
2 – Locations
Like service times, this is your bread and butter; make it obvious how to find you!
Include your town name within the body text, as well as in the page’s <title> tag. Not only will this help visitors to get an immediate idea of where you are, but it’ll make it blindingly obvious to Google too, and will help with your SEO efforts towards keywords such as ‘[town name] churches.’
Whilst having a Google map showing your location can be a really helpful feature, I’d advise that your homepage isn’t the best place for this – just make sure there’s a prominent link so that people can find this extra information.
3 – Navigation
Whilst this generally lives in the page header, and will feature on every page of the site, it’s essential that your site users can find their way around, right from the start. Your site navigation acts as a channel in to the other areas of the site.
For church websites, this is far easier said than done (or, at least, done well).
What good navigation doesn’t look like is a link on your homepage to every ministry page. You’ll end up with a page full of links that nobody clicks. Instead, you’ll need to put together a navigational hierarchy, splitting the site in to sections.
This is something that you’ll need to spend some time on – churches are complex beings made up of many ministries that often have very little crossover. How do we go about categorising these?! Another blog post for another time, I’m afraid, but start by listing all of your ministries, and seeing how they fit together in to groups. It’s also important to think about the main things your web visitors will be coming to the site to find, which leads me neatly on to…
4 – Next Steps
In the least patronising way possible, web users are like sheep without a shepherd – show them a button and they’ll probably click it. An over-simplification, perhaps, but these details are important!
Your ‘next steps’ will be dependent on the types of people viewing your site. It’s helpful to think of these ‘calls to action’ as the main reason this user visited our website today. This will be very different for a first time visitor, who may want to find your services times; or a small group ministry leader looking for this week’s study notes; or someone who has just moved to the area and wants to find out what your church believes.
It’s so important to be realistic here – we need to acknowledge that you won’t be able to serve everyone equally from your home page – there just isn’t enough space, and if you try, you’ll end up diluting the effect for the majority.
You’ll need to spend some time identifying and prioritising these ‘people types’ – all the different people visiting your church website home page with all of their different motives. These can also be referred to as user personas. Sit down with a few others in the church and work on listing as many as you can, and what next steps you might want each of these to take within your website – or indeed beyond it.
5 – Search
Despite your best efforts, no matter how good you get your site’s navigation and next steps, there will always be things on your website that users struggle to find. Search can help here – users should be able to spot a search bar a mile off, and use it to find pages or content on your church website.
At Lansdowne Church, we’ve found that displaying a full search box, rather than a ‘magnifying glass’ icon, has encouraged users to search more, when otherwise they may have closed the browser tab in frustration. I know this to be the experience of others, too!
Install a good quality search plugin (it’s easier than building it yourself!) and test it thoroughly with your users.
It’s worth keeping an eye on your Google Analytics all the same, as well as listening to your user feedback – if there are pages that come up again and again as difficult to find, or pages that are always accessed via your search bar, maybe you need to revisit that part of the navigation!
6 – Branding
Branding is more than mere vanity!
It’s important that your church website home page should feel like your site. Moreover, it’s important that your website should feel like your church.
Your homepage should feel like your site; your website should feel like your church #branding
This isn’t just about your logo, either, though a strong logo is important. This includes every element of your homepage and carries through to the rest of the site.
Branding encompasses your corporate colours, the pictures you choose, your writing style, which fonts you use and more beyond. All of these should be decisive and consistent, in order to enforce a familiarity between your brand and your audience, with the combined purpose of communicating who you are as a church.
For more on branding, here are a couple of excellent articles on Church Marketing Sucks:
7 – Photography
This goes hand in hand with the previous point. Pictures are so important in communicating the ‘feel’ and culture of your church.
With this in mind, I beg you, please choose your photos carefully! If this is the only thing you take from this post, I’ll be a happy man!
Pictures are so important in communicating the feel of your church: choose them carefully!
Choosing the right picture can be so rewarding and can change a user’s perception of the whole site. For this reason, choosing the wrong picture can instantly send the wrong message, alienating your site visitors who may otherwise have read more of your content, or even attended one of your events.
I’ve written on the importance of the right kind of photography a few times before on the ChurchTrain blog, so I won’t push the point, even if it is a passion of mine! You can find them here:
8 – Social Links
Including links to your social networks is vital for drawing attention to the wider online presence of your church.
Connecting with individuals across multiple networks increases the chances of your messages reaching them – clearly a very important thing, otherwise why would you create content in the first place?
Inline text links are helpful here, as they can include a call to action such as like my Facebook page (go ahead, I dare you), however it’s common practice to include a couple of social links in either the header or footer of the page. This is really great when people visit your site with the sole intention of finding, for example, your Twitter account (double dare you this time). It happens!
As I said, keep it to a couple, don’t go overboard!
9 – Contact
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: you’re not going to be able to cater to everyone’s needs, be it due to your oversight or due to their technological ineptitude (apologies, a surge of honesty broke through!).
When this happens, make sure there’s a clear way for your site users to get in touch.
An email link works just as well as a contact form, and some will prefer it – there’s no harm in having both options. You can link to your contact form (like that) or have a mailto link like this: email me here (just put mailto: in front of the email address and there’s your link).
Whatever you do, just make sure that it sends to the correct address (test it regularly!) and monitor the inbox, making sure to reply to every genuine enquiry as promptly as you can. The amount of times I’ve sent a message through a website only to never see a reply…