The Audiences of Parish Websites

by Sr. Susan Wolf, SND on September 17, 2013

in parish, website

Parish WelcomeIn reviewing random parish websites, I am sensing that the content on many of these sites was written consciously or unconsciously for active parishioners. But active parishioners are not the only ones looking for information from parishes. The Internet provides a platform to go out to the highways and byways and bring others in. Some parishes are making an effort to welcome visitors and attend to their needs. However, using the website in this way has not occurred to others.  I categorize parish websites as addressing three different audiences.

1.      Websites for Passers-by

These are websites that are online versions of a directory listing or a Yellow Pages ad usually created by third parties, diocesan agencies or bulletin publishing companies. There may be an image along with some very basic information: names of the pastor and staff, Mass times, address, phone number and a link to directions. This type of site is sufficient for visitors, travelers, and people passing through looking for a church for Mass. Many parishes have this type of website, unfortunately for some of them, it is their only website.

2.      Websites for Active Parishioners

a. The news and information version of this type of website usually has a lot of pages with details about ministries, organizations, and activities. It contains calendars and schedules and publicity about upcoming events. This type of website was most evident where the welcome letter by the pastor began: Dear Parishioners. These parishes are enthusiastic about themselves and the good work they do. They provide insiders easy access to information.

b. The adult-faith formation version of this type of website includes content which is updated regularly and enriches the spiritual lives of members. It invites feedback and online discussions.

Both of these sites are often supported through social media sites. These websites are helpful to staff and insiders, but outsiders, strangers, people on the margins or new comers may not find any genuine welcome or care about their needs here.

3.      Websites that Welcome Others

The third type of parish website shapes its content around the theme “Welcome, we are here to serve, we are disciples of Jesus.” These websites anticipate the needs of visitors and offer hospitality. They are quick to answer the visitor’s questions: What are Mass times? When are confessions? How do I get there? Do you have a Catholic school or religious education program? How do I arrange for a funeral, a wedding, a baptism, or someone to bring Communion to a home bound family member or friend? How do I register? How do I get a baptismal certificate or a sponsor’s certificate? What good word do you have for me right now that will lift my mind and heart to God? How do I become a Catholic? How do I return to the Church? Who do I call for information? What are the office hours? These are evangelizing websites.

This type of website also includes information about parish activities and the necessary details for those in ministry, but that is background to the more important welcome message to those who don’t belong or aren’t part of the “inner circle.”

What do you think of these categories? Whose questions does your parish website answer?



{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Sylvester September 17, 2013 at 9:42 am

Thank you for this article, Susan. We are always open to ways to improving our parish website. Our staff is also discussing the content of a WordPress blog. Your website is helping me improve my website literacy.

Dr. Mary Amore September 17, 2013 at 11:58 am

Excellent article, as always. I wanted to let you know that Mayslake Ministries is launching a mobile website October 1st which will feature daily reflections, a blog, and a library of 2-3 minute inspirational videos that are meant to be shared with family and friends.
Susan, your work in social media has inspired me to create this project. Thank you so much and please keep up the great work. You are transforming the world in Christ.
We, at Mayslake Ministries, hope to do the same. Blessings, Dr. Mary Amore

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND September 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Thanks, Pat. As you know a blog is a stand alone website or a section of a larger website. A blog can have a niche (geared toward one particular audience) or serve multiple audiences at once. Agreeing ahead of time on the audience or audience(s) of your blog will help writers stay focused. A blog can be a very effective ministry tool. It engages readers and invites comments; can be shared via social media; and adds new pages to your website every time a new post is published (this is good for Search Engine Optimization). Allowing subscriptions to your blog insures that subscribers get value content either in their Inbox or as an RSS feed which means you are reaching them on a regular basis with information they want to receive. Good luck!

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND September 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Mary, Thanks for sharing your new mobile website and ministry. I wish you and all at Mayslake Ministries the best.

Dave Byers September 20, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I would add one item to your excellent list of questions, Susan. “Is your parish an inclusive Catholic community that welcomes people with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities?”

I hope Ohio is treating you well. Washington misses you!

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND September 20, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Very good point, Dave. Thank you for adding it to the list. I am doing well in Ohio and have great memories from DC.

MeredithGould (@MeredithGould) September 21, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I think these categories make a lot of intuitive sense, although the websites I redo/build tend to blend #2 & #3 — but only after engaging in a strategy exercise during which I (attempt to) find out what the parish wants website visitors to : 1) learn, as a result of landing on the site; 2) do, as a result of landing on the site.

In my experience, most parish (and diocesan websites) are waaaaay too copy-heavy, use images that are distracting/irrelevant; bury important information (e.g., worship times, directions), and fail to invite visitors to continue a conversation via social media (e.g., Facebook).

As you know, I think it all needs to start with strategy: knowing audience, determining goals, crafting messages. Lord, have mercy!

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND September 22, 2013 at 7:16 am

Thanks, Meredith. I think the important phrase in your point is “after engaging in a strategy exercise…” That step is missing in the creation or updating of many organizational sites. Many simply ask “What do we want to say/post?” The content of the site is leadership/staff driven and is about output–not the questions/needs of visitors. That is why there is so much copy and so little engagement. As more and more organizations actually think about their audiences, the more they move to craft messages and select designs which respond to their visitors needs.

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