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Creating great content for UU Web sites

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Third case study: First Unitarian New Bedford

Key Concept Statement:

To build rich and deep content on your own Web site with few resources and tiny budget, you don't have to do it all at once -- using feedback loops, add new material and do constant maintenance.

I currently serve as the sole minister, and sole full-time staff person, in a small congregation in New Bedford, Massachusetts. How small? --we have 91 members on the books; this past church year, we averaged about 40 people in church each Sunday. We're talking small.

When I arrived First Unitarian in New Bedford last August, obviously a top priority, for me and for the congregation, was to increase active membership. Knowing how many newcomers find congregations through the Web, I wanted to increase our Web site visibility. However, I couldn't devote much time to the Web site, and since we're so small, all our volunteers are stretched pretty thin too. I figured it was going to be like the old joke about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

In my first month, I set aside one eight hour day, and did a crude redesign of the Web site -- believe me, I'm no web designer, so it was crude. Mostly I went over all the content, familiarized myself with it, and revised a few things to make sure newcomers could find out what I thought they'd need to know before they came to church. That meant redesigning the navigation system of the web site, so that the links that I thought newcomers would want to see were prominently displayed at the top of the web site. My whole goal was that once a newcomer arrived at our main page, he or she would not have to click more than once to find the basic information he or she needed. I used the book Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug to help me redesign the navigation system, and I can highly recommend this book to you, too.

In short, I revised the Web site with a top priority of making it friendly to newcomers. I checked out the UUA Web site for ideas, and found a Web page titled "Creating a Congregation Website" that had some ideas of the minimum information to be included on a local congregation's Web site. I stole ideas from some other church Web sites that I really liked (including some evangelical Christian sites, as they seem to be much more Web savvy than Unitarian Universalists). Remembering that I was totally focused on reaching newcomers, here's the list of things that went on the front page:

The third most prominent link was titled "Our minister and staff." That page had capsule bios of all our staff, and it also had a picture of me, with a link to my blog. My thinking was that if you're going to come to a worship service, you will probably want to check out the minister before you come. If you're a family with children, you'll probably be even more concerned with knowing who the religious educator is, and/or who the child care provider is.

I also paid for a church calendar on "My Church", and placed a prominent link to that site. "My Church Events " isn't the prettiest calendar in the world, but it's very easy to update, allows multiple users, and at sixty dollars a year was basically cheaper than trying to maintain a complicated church calendar on our own.

I finished the basic work on the Web site by the end of August. By the end of September, our Web site traffic had doubled. It has kept going up more slowly since then, but that first month was the biggie.

The obvious question to ask is:-- what has led to that huge increase? When I looked at the Web site statistics at the end of September, I discovered that pages with the most visitors (besides the home page) were the first-time visitors page, the staff page, the "About us" page, and the Sunday school page. Interestingly, next was the "Seven things to do in New Bedford" page. The calendar page also made it into the top ten. No one looked at the history of the church.

I also found that people were coming to that "Seven things to do in New Bedford" page, but they were getting there from search engines, not through our main page. This was great!-- people were finding our site who probably didn't know anything about Unitarian Universalism! On the strength of that, I doubled the content on that page, adding "Seven things to do in New Bedford for families with children."

After about four months, I realized something was missing on our web site: we had nothing about weddings or child dedications. So I put up a sample wedding ceremony, and an introduction of what to expect if you had your wedding at our church; ditto with child dedications. Those two pages quickly rose to the top five or so pages accessed. Here again, I found that many people got to our wedding page via search engines, and it became obvious that many of them didn't know what Unitarian Universalism really was, so that was pretty cool. This also brings home the point that you don't have to create an incredibly awesome Web site on your first try; instead, aim at constant maintenance and ongoing additions to the site.

I do want to emphasize that we're not talking about big number when it comes to the First Unitarian Web site. The first-time visitors page got 84 hits in March, for example -- and those 84 hits probably represent 20 or so unique visitors. Still, in a church our size, that's a good number! (We've been seeing six to ten new visitors each month in church.)

By the way, we do not put our church newsletter online. I've been down that path, and it's very time-consuming. In a big program-sized or larger church, you could devote staff time to that, but we just don't have the time. Maybe some day.

A final key point: we update our web site each and every week. We put the sermon title in for the coming Sunday, and we regularly update the calendar page. Those two things alone make it worth while to check out our web site every week. In addition, I regularly go through the web site looking for things that have to be updated. I feel pretty strongly that the entire web site should have a top-to-bottom going-over each and every year, and I'll be working on that in August. People stop visiting a neglected web site -- worse yet, a neglected web site has out-of-date information that could wind up losing newcomers and visitors for you.

One of the big problems I've encountered in other congregations has been relying on volunteers to update the Web site. Most volunteers need to take time off now and then, so I believe that if at all possible, staff should be charged with doing routine updates like posting new sermon titles. Volunteers can then be freed up to look at the big picture, to oversee redesigns, to add new content, and so on.

From an administrative point of view, what I'm doing is moving towards treating the web site exactly the same way we treat our print newsletter. If you have staff do your newsletter, you should plan to have staff maintain your Web site. I've been training office staff on how to use Web publishing software (which is just as easy to use as high-end word processors), and now our secretary is the one who posts the sermon title each week, and who maintains the online calendar. I'm worried that we won't be able to update our Web site regularly over the summer, because our secretary doesn't work in the summer, and I fully expect to see our site traffic plummet.

To summarize what we can learn from the New Bedford church:

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