Does your ministry have an underperforming website? Or do you have yet to enter into the twenty-first century and Internet outreach? Have you (or your donors) heard war stories and astounding stats from high-flying sites and wondered if you could ever see such results? Take heart.
For eight years it was my privilege to manage content and organizational alliances for Leadership University, a pioneering website in the Internet outreach movement. My colleagues and I saw many lives influenced for Christ. I certainly do not have all the answers, but the following are six lessons we learned along the way that can help others involved in Internet ministry.
1. Post “Ministry Meat” and Have Meaningful Feedback
A medical student regains her faith in London. A philosophy graduate student, harassed by an atheist professor in New York, finds Christian worldview content for a presentation and is encouraged via email by the Texas professor who wrote it. These are only two examples of the feedback we have received.
One commitment the creators of LeaderU.com made was to have personal, non-automated responses to feedback within a few days. As one colleague said, “Ministry is a contact sport.” We need to shift from a publishing–only paradigm to one featuring thought–provoking resources that are followed up by email and chat.
2. Invest Adequately in Resources
Some basic concepts and values launched LeaderU.com into a strategic role during the formative years of the Internet. In 1998 this unique ministry site saw 8.1 million pages viewed by over 2.8 million visitors. By 2001 thirty-five percent more audience members accessed forty percent more resources. This translated to thirty-five ministry materials being seen by fifteen people every minute.
In November 2005 alone, LeaderU.com welcomed 636,000 visitors who experienced 1.25 million free articles, essays, debates, books and reviews written from a biblical perspective.
Your vision may not include such numbers, nor should it necessarily. Maximizing God’s call for you, whatever that is, remains the mission at hand. That often means creating, borrowing or buying materials and posting them to your site. Even if your site is not necessarily “Christian,” it is still important to do this so that some may be saved, blessed, discipled or brought closer to considering faith. The Internet works like an ocean running through filters (mainly popular search engines). To reach intended audiences, you must stretch your reach through these search engines.
It is also important to get connected with others who are doing web ministry. According to Keith Seabourn, who shepherded the LeaderU.com project through technical and visionary leadership, “The Internet is not only a network of technologies, it’s also a network of people who can work together collaboratively to achieve significant results.”
You must ensure your site has enough individuals to meet the demands of success as God blesses. This includes web design and development personnel, content managers and editors.
3. Be the Body of Christ Online
The primary driver of LeaderU.com’s success has been the solid, pithy resources that are shared by a coalition of partners. LeaderU.com became a world-renowned mega-mall of apologetics, a cultural worldview catalogue of high–quality, citable resources. These are accessible through the site itself and through thousands of outside search terms and phrases.
One example of collaborative work is the Telling the Truth Project. Nearly a dozen disparate sites focused on various aspects of the Christian worldview and strategically banded together. No one organization member could have offered such breadth and depth. Once mission agencies eschew proprietary politics, growth and momentum occurs.
The following are suggestions on how to steadily grow your web assets:
- Ally your organization with other like-minded sites, sharing articles, opinion pieces and content, by agreement.
- Use online content from other sites that you find pertinent ad hoc. Many gladly grant necessary permission.
- Hyperlink from the article reposted on your site back to the source. This benefits both sites.
- Share links with well-ranked sites. Great content will invite links.
- Invite writers and other guests outside the organization to contribute original content.
Re-using your brochures and magazines is only a starting point. As Seabourn says, “At the advent of motion picture filming, directors would stand a camera in front of a stage. Plays were the norm. Then they invented cinematography techniques. Likewise, the Church needs to see the web as more than a repository for printed materials and invent new uses.”
4. Feature Solid Content
Studies by web leaders like Jakob Nielsen prove that people read differently online. Changing eye-movement and shorter attention spans are only two factors online editors need to keep in mind when creating web content. Generally, writing for the web demands terseness. It also demands solid content. Adding a PDF version to the site can also encourage more in-depth reading.
Your content can offer enough pithiness to provide a desirable respite for reading or to meet print-to-go needs. This not only provides opportunities to influence browsers but also encourages visitors to suggest the site to others. Viral marketing results as word spreads.
Avoid “stuffing content” (i.e. starting with an attractive site design, then simply adding content to fill holes). Visitors will sense this and leave the site quickly.
The best way to be relevant and pithy is to be creatively true to your message. Doug Yeo built yeodoug.com based on this principle and has seen phenomenal growth and ministry fruitfulness. He answers a formidable amount of feedback and regularly leads people to saving faith in Christ. His site reveals not only technical papers related to his expertise as first-chair trombonist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (USA), but heartfelt, personalized articles about his faith in Christ. For an example, see http://yeodoug.com/articles/text/backrow.html.
The most down-to-earth example of Yeo leveraging his own interests is a bit surprising. His interest in a local sculptor has brought even more traffic into yeodoug.com. This “new topic” often draws people in who wouldn’t know a trombone from a piccolo. However, their shared interest in and appreciation for content regarding their artistic hero leads them to the site.
If you do not possess this creativity, ask for help. Again, this may mean using other people’s content, a humble but effective way to do ministry on the Internet.
5. Highlight Current Events and Share Lasting Truths
On 11 September 2001 I watched as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City. Despite the shock and disbelief, the incident had to be addressed online at LeaderU. It was for such a time as this, when a global audience shared humankind’s deepest questions, that we had put in hundreds of thousands of man-hours at LeaderU. We knew God had given us answers to some of the questions people were asking. What emerged at LeaderU from this tragedy was an all-encompassing online response to everything from the problem of evil to the beliefs of Islam to forgiveness (see www.leaderu.com/focus/worldtradecenter.html).
It was possible to add all these responses because we already had lots of great content online and this seemed to balance out the site. We now are at 132 features and counting (see www.leaderu.com/menus/featured.html).
Seabourn, now chief technology officer for Campus Crusade for Christ International (CCCI), says that an entire genre of online outreach now thrives across its ministries, utilizing the strategy pioneered at LeaderU.com. Allowing popular media to arouse interest, web ministry editors seek to explain biblical Christianity in the context of current issues and cultural icons. LeaderU provides a holistic biblical explanation. Yours may only touch on a few themes.
6. Harness the Power of Deep-linking, E–letters and Search Engines
When LeaderU features a collection of articles and other resources, content-sharing partners win in three ways:
- Existing resources are seen by more people.
- The site's email announcement newsletter, LU–Announce, goes out to thousands of subscribers alerting them to new resources, many of whom forward them several times. More readers are exposed to the links within the text of shared articles that lead back to partner organization’s website.
Much has been made of maximizing pages for major search engines like Google and Yahoo. Seventy-percent of online pages are accessed via public search engines. To get good results you must have: (1) straightforward, keyword-rich titles and content and (2) good metadata, including a keyword list and descriptions embedded into web documents. See Web Marketing Today for help with this.
Reject the notion of creating the be-all, end-all site. The be-all, end-all is the Internet itself. Set up your site in a way that will be found by those who, realistically, would find you no other way.
Were it not for the foresight of Christian Leadership Ministries, sponsor of LeaderU.com, and the vision of founder Stan Oakes, now president of King’s College, the Christian worldview library known as LeaderU.com would not exist, nor perhaps would its successful partners’ sites. Credit to the many professors, partner ministries and writers for its outstanding content cannot be overstated.
Internet evangelism and ministry is a twenty-first century reality. Enjoy it for all it’s worth.