Which Comes First: Content or Design for Websites?

by Sr. Susan Wolf, SND on February 26, 2013

in website

Content vs. DesignWhen people talk about updating a website for a parish, diocese, religious organization, or religious community, they often start by talking about a new design. They want one that is more contemporary, colorful or interactive. They seldom start with the most important element: content.

Content that meets the needs of our audiences as well as conveys our message is the most important element of web presence and it is sometimes treated as an afterthought or not at all. Obviously, an unattractive website will not draw people to an organization’s message, but a website that does not answer the questions of the visitor clearly and quickly will not be successful either. In most cases, people visit a website because they are looking for an answer to a question. What times are Mass on Sunday? What does it mean to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? How can I get in touch with someone on your staff? How can I find a sister who taught me 30 years ago? How can I get involved?

While people come to a website with a question, they may stay beyond finding the answer if the website offers additional content that adds value to their lives. They will revisit for the same reason. If their question is not answered or they do not find anything worth their time, they will not stay or return.

A 21st century website is a place where we can start and nurture relationships, but only if we serve and engage the visitor first. Content needs to be crisp, clear and reader-friendly. We engage our readers by inviting them to take an action: join us on Sunday; attend our Lenten discussion group, follow us on Facebook, become part of our justice committee; sign-up for a retreat; send us your prayer requests; subscribe to our newsletter; send us your question, etc.

Good websites use design to support content and visitor engagement. If we lock into a design before we are clear about what we want to say and how we want to engage our readers—we will be limiting the effectiveness of our website.

I suggest that these questions be answered in detail before beginning to update a ministry website.

1)      Who are your audiences?

2)      What do they want from you?

3)      What would you like them to do as a result of their visit?

4)      What else can you offer to add value to their lives?

That’s my opinion. What do you think?


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane February 26, 2013 at 1:10 pm

We just updated our parish web site. And I pleased to say we did start with content!

Although we did not have those specific questions before us, we did address the first 2 and the third one in an indirect way. I plan to take the questions and revisit our web site using them as the lens through which I look. Thanks!

Marc Cardaronella February 26, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Thanks for writing this! I was just thinking that myself. I’ve seen a disturbing trend when people talk about parish websites. They design big, beautiful headers with pictures and graphic backgrounds but have very little content and no way to have fresh content that gets people coming back like a blog. Those big headers and graphics increase load times and pull down rankings.

The latest professional websites and blogs are going more minimal with little or no header…just a logo. They have white backgrounds to highlight content. I think most Catholic parishes are going in exactly the wrong direction with the fancy design. Clean, simple design that doesn’t all attention to itself and lets the content shine and is easy to navigate is good design.

Meredith Gould, PhD February 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Of course I fervently and vehemently agree. What you’re suggesting is a strategy exercise, something that precious few churches do but not entirely their fault. In most instances, they either don’t have the strategic communications talent in-house or the willingness to hire professionals…like us!

I know I’m preaching to the choir (you and your readers) when I point out that investing in a communications audit and strategic plan at the outset not only saves time and treasure, but ensures talent is involved.

As for your point about design v. content, my view is that both have to be handled simultaneously on digital platforms because the Internet is such a visual environment. Back in the day, we could (after developing strategy) write content and hand it over to a designer along with a creative brief. These days, we need to write/create content keeping basic principles of online readability in mind (e.g., short sentences, very short and many paragraphs, etc.).

And I’d also add any parish website needs to be designed and populated with content that ensure integration across all communications — digital and whatever print remains. Far too many parishes create or sustain a website that bears no discernible relationship to its social media accounts, e-newsletters, or even the worship bulletin.

So much work to do — most of it in the domain of education. I’m glad you’re writing about these key issues.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND February 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

Thanks everyone for your comments and for sharing your own experiences of websites and their development. One of the big learnings for readers is that there is a lot to consider when when updating or creating a new website. I only touched on one aspect (audiences), but there is much more to consider. It is both an art and a science. It is best to have people who know what is involved either leading or guiding you through it.

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