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Web Design for God’s Audience: Learning from Church Web Development

Articles on Web Design and CSSPart of my joy in being an advocate for WordPress is showcasing how WordPress is used around the world. In a fascinating discussion with Darren Hoyt, Interviews with Church Designers looks at web design and WordPress blogs from a unique perspective: Christian churches, specifically American Christian churches.

Like me, Darren admits he didn’t understand the market for christian church websites, nor their design considerations.

Browsing the various CSS galleries is one way to gauge which industries place value on good design. I was surprised these past couple years to see a big surge in lavishly designed church websites. As a non-churchgoer, I wasn’t sure I understood why so many churches suddenly wanted a cutting-edge image for themselves. What especially caught my eye were the dark and grungy styles, something my childhood church (my only point of reference) would have never considered. I began wondering who made these decisions and how they served the church.

I decided to do some interviews with a handful of respected church designers and marketers. I’m not fond of design Q&As that consist of “what brushes do you use” or “who are your influences” so I tried to ask challenging questions. I got some very thoughtful responses and the more I read, I realized it was me who was out of the loop. Churches wanting to look cutting edge was part of a more complicated discussion.

From a business perspective, this interview with web designers for churches tackles many of the issues web designers confront when designing for anyone, especially when it comes to the hard and soft sell. Modern churches are seeing a drastic change in customers, from dying and shrinking patrons and attendance to overflowing pews and demands to “get with it” and embrace social media. They have to accommodate the needs of their current audience while constantly reaching out to the changing world around them.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from such a shifting industry about how they make their pitch on the web and use social media to enhance their standing, visibility, and communication efforts.

Darren is working to build all of this into a project called “The Role of Design in Modern Church Marketing” and I encourage you to read this first draft section. Here are a few points that struck a nerve with me.

Matt Adams (Factor 1 Studios): Generally we find that most of our High end design clients are looking to not only compete with other churches, but also with main stream media. With so much marketing targeted at consumers today, churches continue to feel pressure to earn the attention of a potential church goer away from the likes of computer companies, auto dealers, the movies, and tv shows. These churches also want to be attractional to the unchurched. I’ll be honest and say some try and take it too far…

Matt Adams: We find that most of our clients are trying to communicate how they are different. So many Americans have been burned by church, or turned off by church. Sometimes the reasons why someone no longer attends church is so minor, that often communicating to them how this church is different is the key theme.

The outside perception of the church definitely influences design and tool decisions when developing a website or blog. Are you really clear about how your product, service, or you are judged and damned by others as part of your web development project? The church has to be. James Dalman summed up that point with:

Professionalism, authenticity, knowledge, looking from the outside instead of within.

Church Business is Serious Marketing Business

The church is a business, and as a business, it has to make business decisions on the web that impact its economics as well as social survival. With the growth in church marketing, I was surprised to have Darren point out that there are now major economic publications covering “Christian Capitalism” with articles like Forbes covering Megachurches, Megabusinesses and Holy Real Estate.

A glance around the web found many blogs covering church marketing and business exclusively:

I found a lot of websites offering church marketing coaching, training, web development, and web design, clearly a growing targeted business. Blog World Expo this past fall had a whole workshop track specifically targeted towards church marketing in the new online economy and world.

There is also a growing industry in creating church-specific WordPress Themes, with some Theme developers specializing only in those Themes. There are also blogs that cover how to use WordPress in your church to promote and encourage online social activities.

In The evolution of church marketing by The Responsible Marketing Blog, they highlight some advertising methods used by churches recently, admitting that some of it “ain’t half bad.” One of the ads they explore looks more like an ad campaign for Target than a church, an example of how churches are pushing themselves into mainstream media.

In “What If Starbucks Used Church Marketing?” by Think Christian, Jerod asks:

When I look at a church’s image, I have a big interest in visitor’s perspective. What is it like from an outsiders view when they visit the church’s website, first drive into a church’s parking lot or walk through the front doors? Most likely they have a lot of questions. Where do I go? Where can I sit? Is it safe to leave my kids here? Is it okay that I’m wearing jean shorts?

I feel like churches are really mixed in handling this well and not so well…

And asks the question that faces many church marketers as well as traditional markets, what if Starbucks used church marketing? The funny video answer from Beyond Relevance is a great example of the struggles both face, and how churches must change how they work.

Just as businesses are exploring their marketing strategies online, from blogs to social media tools, learning how churches, experts in conversions, work and the choices they make in their web designs and marketing strategies, can benefit all of us in the web development industry.

This is an example of how American christian churches are changing how the work on the web, but what about other religious industries? Is Islam changing their online and marketing tactics for their members? What about the Jewish community? Buddhists? Wicca? What about christian-based churches outside of the United States? How is your religion and church changing its marketing and communications tactics in this web world today?



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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, the author of Blogging Tips, What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging.

12 Comments

  1. Posted January 21, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Long-time fan and follower of yours, Lorelle, so I appreciate the mention.

    I loved that your post extended the questions from the SitePoint article a little further. I think your third paragraph summed it up nicely – organizations must always ride a wave to stay current with their patrons/followers/audience. That doesn’t usually merit an entire article, but the intersection of spirituality with technology is particularly intriguing. In some ways they blend perfectly, in some ways they seem completely at odds.

    I also wanted to say that it did worry me, as a non-churchgoer, to contact these designers out of the blue and ask questions that might have seemed intrusive, yet they couldn’t have been more generous with their answers. Another everyday perk of the internet age – if you have a burning question for someone you admire, they’re often just an email away. The interviews ended up being a real education.

    • Posted January 21, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      And your article was a huge eye opener. Marketing is marketing, and if it is working for someone else, its worth considering, or at least learning about. You did a great job with this article and I’m looking forward to seeing more come out of of this beyond just the one article! I expect a series as the lessons learned are HUGE.

      Thanks so much for doing this and sharing it with so many.

  2. Posted January 21, 2009 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    This is insightful and a good look at an emerging trend. It brings up several poionts for consideration, in my opinion, they include:
    -what the geographical and online user population of some of the churches?
    -what data and tracking is being done to assess viewership, product sales, etc
    -How much education is being done to get folks who are new to the “blogging concept” to know how to use a blog.
    This is going to happen and happen fast. I am working with my own church in this endeaver but on a very elementary level of training leaders to post then we plan to market and train the members.
    I thank you for bring attention and raising questions about an arena outside of online business conversions.

  3. Brent
    Posted January 24, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this great post Lorelle! This might be exactly what I have been looking for.

    Recently I was saved by Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit has told me to make a blog about how to help other people also get saved. I have been praying for inspiration. Perhaps this answers my prayers.

    I want this new blog to be eye-catching. I want it to get people’s attention. I do believe that content is king, however, it is important to have a good design, so people don’t just pass over the blog for something else, especially if the content is important. In this case, I believe that it is God’s will, so obviously it is extremely important.

    It is interesting to note the church designs as something unexpected. When you think of church, typically you thing of colored glass windows, crucifixes, and while all of that is great, it is also important to remember that the point of this is to appeal to the target audience, which is of course, young people — people without much religious experience (yet).

    Kudos to your post Lorelle. Great work. I hope that this helps me in my journey.

    And by the way, I just want to mention that this does not need to just apply to wordpress. I’m actually going to be using Blogger as my platform for this blog, as instructed by the Holy Spirit. I do not see the platform as being the relevant issue though.

    God bless you and your family.

  4. Posted January 27, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Hi Lorelle – enjoyed your post and came across it while reading your slides from WordCamp Whistler … as fyi, I’ve been building several sites for churches here in New England … one of my first was http://www.saintpatrickbridgeport.com and yes, they use WordPress … two things, 1 serious, the 2nd funny but lets start first with the funny thing …

    When I first sat down with this account (after I secured the contract), we got together with the primary site stakeholders for what I refer to as “VisionShaping” meeting … during these VisionShaping meetings, I try to equalize the knowledge base of the various players since everybody has different technical (or not technical) set of skills and understanding … these meetings are also part of capturing the intersecting business, communication/brand, and technical drivers … during this meeting, after introductions were made I asked the Pastor if he wanted to go first or me in combing thru the various agenda items … he stopped me and said, “We’ll go first” and with that they said a prayer for their new vendor (me) and our success … I was blown away (a good thing) in that they were actually praying for me … I told them latter that normally most of my clients are beating me up on pricing and timing and this was first time I had a positive, prayerful account commencement … thus the funny thing is, can you imagine if all of corporate America actually took that approach (prayed for highest good) vs the political back stabbing, ego centric alpha-persona approach so common with too many but I digress …

    The 2nd part of the meeting and real reason for this post is about getting in touch with real brand value and not just design … During the VisionShaping process, I often ask questions that sometimes seem really basic like “who is your customer and what do we know about them…” … When I asked this congregation that question, they actually laughed and said, “Chuck that is really a good question.” … turns out they have multiple customers … teens are one, wedding couples are another, death and funerals another, etc … So then we got to the part of what is unique about their “brand” and one of the things we unveiled was their prayer line … They had active phone tree of 40-plus clergy and volunteers so we said, “hmm. what if we automate that process and create a corresponding web application.” … the rest is history, a year plus later, over 1000 e.prayers and their site is getting prayer requests from around the world … e.g., people in Ireland asking for help with depression, people from Ohio who lost their only son asking for prayers to deal with their grief, etc. …

    I’ve found over the years building and designing sites, that many teams get lost in the juice of design – the wow cool factors of flash, etc, when in reality the coolest part of design is getting in touch with an organizations core capabilities, then mapping that to the web … yes, good design is critical, but information design, that process of getting in touch with a brand’s “value proposition” then designing around that = killer win (IMHO) …

    And in spirit of gratitude, thank you for your WordCamp slides and the heads up with Woopra – bravo! … here’s wishing you all to best of ongoing success in 2009 and beyond :>) cordially, chuck scott

    ps – when designing the prayer line application, we borrowed from e.commerce code but had to be sensitive to wording like “Click here to checkout” as often people pray for themselves and “checking out” might be the very thing they are praying for that does not happen :>0

  5. Sal
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you for information provided. I’m not so good in church marketing but it was very interesting to know more about it.

  6. Posted May 28, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    We are running a system called Sky at our church. I wish we would have done wordpress as it is much more SEO friendly.

  7. Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    thanks for all the good work… May God bless you and your family

  8. Posted October 20, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    When I look at a church’s image, I have a big interest in visitor’s perspective. What is it like from an outsiders view when they visit the church’s website, first drive into a church’s parking lot or walk through the front doors? Most likely they have a lot of questions. Where do I go? Where can I sit? Is it safe to leave my kids here? Is it okay that I’m wearing jean shorts?

  9. Michael
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    First of all let me say that this was a great post. Recently I’ve been writing a blog for a client who is trying to advertise to churches (among other business segments). So I’ve had to deal with some of these concerns you mentioned from the opposite end of things and it has been challenging finding topics and language that specifically speak to them.

  10. Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    I just recently got a church as a client and this was helpful. It’s a strange market to be designing for as you mentioned they want very lavish design elements. This one even wants a lead form. But thanks for your post.

  11. Estevan Montoya
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    As a pastor I find that churches need to be where people are. As a graphic designer, I find that when people find you, whether business websites or church websites, you need to have a clean image. Making websites for churches is important to being relevant as we portray the timeless Gospel. We don’t need anymore websites that were made by someone that “wanted to be a blessing”, but has no idea what they are doing. Thanks for the article in insight of people that make church websites!

    Pastor Estevan Montoya


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Church Web Design. Lorelle on WordPress has an interesting article on church marketing and learning from church web development. (See also Darren Hoyt’s Interviews with Church Designers.) [...]

  2. [...] Getting up this morning though I dropped into my Google Reader to see that one of the most well known WordPress bloggers out there, Lorelle, had written a post about the article titled “Web Design for God’s Audience: Learning from Church Web Development“. [...]

  3. [...] more on this, check out Web Design for God’s Audience: Learning From Church Development, on the Blogger’s Blog by Lorelle Van [...]

  4. [...] Web Design for God’s Audience [...]

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