by A. Scott Moreau and Mike O’Rear
One of the earliest editions of “Missions on the Web” offered tips and techniques for those developing their agency’s first website. Surprisingly, most of the principles discussed there still apply.
One of the earliest editions of “Missions on the Web”1 offered tips and techniques for those developing their agency’s first website. Surprisingly, most of the principles discussed there still apply. (You can read the original article and access links from this current article at www.mislinks.org/info/web design.htm).
What have mission agencies learned in recent years about creating more effective websites?
Answer: an incredible amount. Today, most agencies have one or more websites, and many are quite sophisticated. Clearly the Internet is playing an increasingly significant role in recruitment, mobilization, education and funding of a new generation of missionaries.
In the process of co-authoring Missions on the Web the past eight years,2 we’ve had the privilege of visiting a great variety of websites. In this edition, we’ll look at seven key lessons mission agencies are learning in the design and implementation of their sites, pointing to a few examples we can all benefit from along the way.
1. Audience and Purpose Are Primary
Prudent agencies begin with a clear understanding of their intended audience and purpose(s) for their website. They see the Internet as a rich communications medium, and have moved website planning and design from the IT department to the communications department. The leading question has become, What is the primary purpose of our website? rather than What can the technology do? or even What do we want to say?
For many agencies, missions mobilization and recruitment are the focus. Everything about their site is designed to engage new recruits, to spark their vision and passion, to begin and build personal relationships, to answer their questions, to connect them with field opportunities and to lead them to commitment.
Sites with a primary purpose of evangelism focus on being inviting, engaging, even intriguing. Campus Crusade’s Power To Change is a good example of an evangelistic website, and valuable insight and resources are available from Web Evangelism Guide and Cybermissions.org.
Speaking of primary purpose, don’t assume your website will automatically bring in more money to your agency. Most websites are a net financial cost; an investment, for which the return is almost always in non-financial terms. Various cost recovery approaches have been and are being attempted for missions-oriented websites, but the track record is not encouraging. Support team members appreciate mission agencies providing basic, secure financial processing and financial accountability features within their websites (for example, see Greater Europe Mission). However, fundraising sites, including “match the donor with the project” systems, do not seem to have connected particularly well with missions donors yet.
2. Effectiveness Is by Design
Agencies have learned that the design of their website—including color scheme, layout, fonts, graphics, structure and navigation—is critically important. Good web designers are worth every penny you spend. You’ll find Warren Kramer’s3 insightful seminar materials on finding and working with a web designer to be valuable (some are offered free online at www.warrenkramer.com/design).
Last year a group of mission agencies joined together to sponsor the Agency Web Review4 to study the recruitment value of their websites. Some 450 prospective missionaries visited and evaluated the design and function of dozens of agency sites. Sites receiving particularly high marks from the reviewers included New Tribes Mission, Frontiers, (Greater Europe Mission, and Mission to the World.
While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, common themes are evident, including:
• Navigation—Make it intuitive and easy for people to go where they want to go and find what they want to find on your site.
• Tone—The more closely aligned your site design is to your agency’s “personality” and to your intended audience and purpose, the more effective it will be.
• Clarity—Make key information about your agency’s beliefs, philosophy, scope and opportunities easily accessible.
Practical design ideas are readily available. Your local bookstore probably has a variety of good books on the topic. Key websites provide excellent advice on design and usability: check out the articles at the Web Developer’s Virtual Library and the links on WebReference.com. Don’t overlook the valuable 128-page “Research-based Web Design & Usability Guidelines” available online from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Leading designers visit plenty of other websites to gather good design ideas; for instance, take a look at the sites listed on 100 Best Websites. In addition, missions are also learning to actively solicit younger people to critique their site’s design.
3. People Want Real Content
The classic question in the old Wendy’s commercial still applies to too many websites today: Where’s the beef? Smart mission agencies know that the people they most want to communicate with want more than a digital brochure.
Good missions websites have and/or point to the content their viewers want to access. They don’t go “live” until they have critical content available, knowing that they can always add more content later.
Agencies are more frequently making smart decisions regarding what content to include on their own site and what to link to on other sites. Of vital importance is making the content on your site easy to find via intuitive navigation, excellent menus, “Search” boxes and site maps.
Service-oriented sites often need to carefully consider what information to provide free and what to provide for a fee. For example, Joshua Project, Peoples groups.org and Adherents.com freely provide all information on their sites, while Network for Strategic Missions) and World Christian Database (www.worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd) offer some content for free and other premium content for a subscription fee.
4. It’s All about Relationship
Younger generations of missionaries and recruits, along with their support team members, are increasingly comfortable with—even to the point of preferring—Internet-based media (websites, email, instant messaging, chat rooms, etc.) for beginning and building personal relationships. Agencies are learning to intentionally pursue a seamless integration of their high-tech and high-touch mobilization approaches.
Realizing that their website is only one component of their whole communications ministry, agencies are seeking ways to use their sites to foster personal relationships. They make it easy for users to jot a note in their site’s visitors log or to initiate a conversation with a live person in their agency (rather than merely submitting their contact information into a web form). For most agencies, a website is of little value if it is not integrated into a broader, personal engagement with people.
As part of the Agency Web Review, a “mystery shopper” individually emailed initial inquiries to each agency website. The agency responses varied widely: the most appreciated responses were immediate personal emails or phone calls, while the least appreciated were automated email replies, responses that simply directed the inquirer to other web pages, and “no response” (some twenty percent of the agencies contacted!).
Increasingly, missions-oriented sites are seeking to build community among their users. Such Internet-based communities can be valuable and satisfying, but they require a significant, ongoing commitment of time and initiative to keep the relationships growing. Examples of community-oriented sites include The Network for Strategic Missions and ICTA’s A Place of Koinonia.
5. Continuously Improve
Continuous improvement is critical to effective Internet ministry. An agency’s website is anything but a one-time investment; if you don’t keep it fresh and dynamic it can soon become counterproductive. Of course, one of the strengths of Internet media, in contrast to printed material, is how cost-effective it is to continuously change the message. To make smart changes, leading agencies are getting more systematic and sophisticated in how they evaluate their sites.
Real-world evaluation of websites—asking the intended audience to judge how effective the site is in accomplishing its intended purpose—is indispensable in determining high priority enhancements. The prospective missionary candidates participating in the Agency Web Review told agencies, among other things, that:
• Easy, intuitive, well-organized navigation, even more than content, is key to overall site appeal.
• Small text is a real “turn-off.”
• They are most likely to pursue agencies whose service opportunities are clear and detailed, allowing them to connect their heart with the agency’s vision.
You can get good input for improving your website in a variety of ways.
• Assign someone to routinely and systematically go through your entire site to click on all links to ensure they still go where intended, and review the timeliness of all content to see what needs to be updated or replaced.
• Make sure people can find you via popular search engines. Envision yourself as a member of your primary audience, go to a search engine and enter words or phrases they might use in trying to find what they’re looking for from a mission agency, and see how high up in the list of hits your site appears.
• Incorporate a pop-up survey into your website to facilitate receiving evaluation feedback from your users (email: email@example.com for more information).
• Solicit your own testers (potentially interested but uninitiated members of your intended audience) and observe them browsing your website looking for information of interest to them. Take notes on how they navigate and what they respond to positively and negatively, resisting the temptation to guide them or interact with them.
6. “Wait” Is a Four-letter Word
Web surfers are terribly impatient, constantly demanding greater speed. Research indicates that on average, Internet users view a web page for less than sixty seconds.5 If they have to wait more than a few seconds for a page to display, they soon move on to a more responsive site.
Agencies have learned to reduce user frustration by:
• optimizing their html code and reducing the size of their photographs and graphics
• limiting the amount of text on any one page to what can be read in a few seconds, with plenty of menu choices and/or annotated links taking the viewer to more content of immediate interest
• using Flash and other graphics-intensive features conservatively, giving users the option to view the site version most appropriate to their Internet connection speed—note how TEAM gives users this choice throughout their site
• not forcing people to watch a promotional video before entering the meat of their site
• warning users ahead of time of approximate file size or wait time if clicking on a link will automatically download a large file such as a PDF or video
• occasionally reviewing their site’s performance on a dialup connection
7. Work Smarter Not Harder
Mission agencies are learning to invest wisely in tools, training, systems and specialized help in pursuing their site’s development and maintenance. Specifically, leading agencies:
• employ specialized technologists (whether in-house or outsourced) to help develop their site or to do initial design and setup;
• use a content management system (CMS) for more interactive, content-rich sites (see www.opensourcecms.com or www.cmsmatrix.org for links to CMS resources) and to enable non-technologists to add to, edit and update the site on an ongoing basis
• become familiar with one or more of the popular web authoring tools (such as Dreamweaver) and image optimization tools (such as PhotoShop/ImageReady or Fireworks)
• use cascading style sheets (CSS) to establish a consistent “look” for the site, enable the look to be changed on a site-wide basis and add visual interest without increasing loading time
• use XML and XSL or content storage in a database to separate site content from presentation, giving freedom to redesign the site without re-authoring content
We hope you find Missions on the Web articles practical and helpful. As always, we value your comments, critique and suggestions; send email to the authors using the “Contact Us” link on the MisLinks home page.
1. “Weaving your own Web site” appeared in the April 1999, Vol. 35, No. 2 issue of EMQ.
2. The first Missions on the Web column appeared in the October 1997 issue of EMQ.
3. Warren Kramer played key design roles in the founding and development of Gospelcom.net; he now runs a commercial graphics firm, Kramer and Associates, and presents valuable seminars on web design.
4. Conducted by GMI Research Services.
5. The latest Nielson ratings show an average of fifty-eight seconds per page for business users in the U.S. and fifty-two seconds per page for home users. Other studies report that surfers average less than fifteen seconds per page.
6. Available only to members of the Gospelcom.net community
A. Scott Moreau is editor of EMQ and chair of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College Graduate School (Wheaton, Ill.). His e-mail address is A.S.Moreau@wheaton.edu and the Wheaton Missions Department web address is www.wheaton.edu/intr
Mike O’Rear is the president of Global Mapping International (Colorado Springs, Colo.), which is dedicated to providing access to information for church and mission leaders, especially in the two-thirds world. He also serves as Lausanne senior associate for information technology. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and the GMI website is www.gmi.org
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