Church Website a Buzz, or a Business?

Via Simon, Andrew Lim wrote in Sydney Anglicans on buzzing your church using a well-designed, well-optimised, well-marketed, and get this -- well-monetized church website. If done right, Internet can be a very good ally of Christian churches. With marketer's cap on, Andrew listed out 3 points.

  • Custom Signatures: Church staffs should put church website address inside email signatures to raise awareness and might attract more "click-through's". I guess it also means a "professional looking" email signature. I have received enough business emails during the day and I know it meant business by just looking at the colourful HTML signatures with image attachments (+ page long disclaimer, of course).
  • Church Website: Make a modern looking website with lots of media and up-to-date items. Sermons, MP3, blogs, etc. That's the whole point of Andrew's article -- get more visitors to your website.
  • Google: Make your website easy to find by the search engines, because organic traffic usually translates to repeated traffic. There is also no point to have a beautifully designed website that cannot be found on the Internet.

I think the whole point of having a church website is to use the web to create a buzz about your church. However, sometimes the strategy is buzzing up the church website instead. To create an effective and functional church website, we need to ask how can a church website help a Christian church to grow?

I won't touch on that one. But I will look at what Simon also has pointed out on his blog, which Andrew has mentioned at the end of his article:

Did I mention better-than-free? I have two words for you: Google AdSense.

Asian Bible Church Website Looking at Asian Bible Church's website, Andrew has indeed practiced what he has preached. Just on that single page, there appears to be:

  1. AdSense for Content 336x280 block right underneath the main heading
  2. PayPal Donation button below the main content
  3. AdSense for Search below links to other stories
  4. Amazon Associates affiliation link at the end of the page.

Wow.

Buzz, or Business?

Even after putting my technologist's cap on, I still think "church" itself should be the "core business" -- that includes evangelising, preaching, pasturing, etc. Whereas "church website" should be designed in the way to aid this core business, instead of being diverged into a money making machine. I still believe that the website should be there to sell the church, instead of being a direct service provider itself (unless of course, your entire church is Internet-based).

By putting large advertisement banner right next to the content, it does make your visitor wondering, hey, what is the core business of this church? When the buzz has evolved into its own business, it would only further confuse your customers and prospects, hmm I mean visitors searching for local churches.

Affiliating with, Whom?

This is mainly addressing contextual advertisement, i.e Google AdSense, which is also Simon's concern. Basically Google looks at your web page, trying to figure out what it is about, and then place text or image banner ads that are related to your web page. Publishers, i.e. owner of that website, gets paid by Google when a click on the ad is registered.

The problems here are, for a church website, that

  1. What Google thinks this site is about.
  2. Whose ad would Google put on your site.

Regarding to (1), it is not hard to provide enough hints to Google, and it gets right most of the time. Simon has suggested section targeting, which personally I do not find it works, nor did Simon I guess as AdSense ads on his site are usually unrelated. However I did hear reports that it works brilliantly for some.

Now, the tricky part is, whose ads would Google put on your church website? Take Asian Bible Church for example, with the 4 ads on the big rectangle, one is a newsletter for youth ministry, one has free Bible study resource, one has resources for pentecostal church emphasised on healing, and finally a dating site, which is completely unrelated to Christianity.

Worse, when I use the AdSense for Search tool, and typed in the keywords "Asian Bible Church", and it came out with one big ad at the top directing you to a website arguing that eternal hell does not exist in the Bible. A heretic site occupying the top spot on Sydney's St. Andrew's Cathedral?

Are these the websites that you want your visitors to go to? Are these websites that you want to be affiliated with? I think with contextual ads like Google AdSense, it simply tries to automatically create affiliations between websites with minimum involvement from respective webmasters. Those visitors who see these well-blended ads might think that these are the links suggested by the site's webmaster, which is not always the case. Dating service a new venture at Asian Bible Church? I don't think so.

I guess it works okay with product review sites. In my conclusion I can say I prefer Widget A than Widget B, but I would not mind to see advertisement of Widget B on my page -- after all it is just a matter of opinion. However, if I am the manufacturer of Widget A, there is no way I want to see Widget B advertised on my company's product page. AdSense usually don't work that well this way, if the website is directly assisting your core-business.

Which is the case of church website -- it is there to sell the product, i.e. the church. It is not a "review" site, where coming to this church or going to that church might just be a matter of opinion.

Moreover, when truth is concerned, it is not just opinion anymore (unless you are "everything is right" kind of liberal). When the eternal damnation is right there in the Bible and one of very significant teachings of Jesus, I do not think I can affiliate with anyone else with "other opinions".

So Much Distraction!

Alright. Assume that Google is super smart and has done all the contextual guessing right. It also holds conservative Christian theology and will only present you the "right kind of ads". But would you still put the ads there?

One question I guess that needs to be asked by all church webmaster who is thinking about AdSense -- what ads do I want to see here? And honestly, besides those who you are really affiliating with (sister churches, related ministries, etc), I really do not think anyone else should have that premium spot.

Again, the function of church website is to "sell" the church, but ads simply provide a quick exit for the visitors. Believe me, many Internet users actually have not yet discovered the Back Button, and once they have wondered away from your website, you lost one web visitor, who is potentially a visitor to your Sunday service! A big skyscraper or a big rectangular ad block just provide too much distraction to lure visitors away from your church website.

That again, is a big No against advertisement on a church website.

Cheating the Game

Here is another tip for those who are thinking about AdSense -- good paying ads are usually the ones that target visitors who wish to spend. Someone wants to spend money (buy something, hire a service, travel, etc). He searched on the web, landed on a website with good related information, and the ads are just there providing convenience for him to spend his money.

In that regard, "Christianity" is probably not a good paying keyword. Most advertisers just want to provide free services, and they are not willing to spend lots on AdWord marketing. Therefore, if someone insists a good return from AdSense on his church website, he either has to:

  1. Write something else that might trigger good paying keywords.
  2. Cheat the game by encouraging more clicks.

(1) is again diverging the website from church as core business. (2) is the one that I sometimes worry about. Hosting costs money, ministry costs lots of money, and I can see the picture that "clicking" is somehow encouraged as a mean to support the ministry. Even if it is not suggested by the webmaster, your Christian visitors who do not understand how CPC-ads work might also get that impression. Regulars might drop by every now and then and click on multiple random ads, counting it as part of the tithe towards weekly church giving.

Consequence? Two weeks later the webmaster found out his AdSense account banned due to click fraud. Not good.

Conclusion

I believe church website can be a buzz for the church. It helps to sell. It brings public awareness. We actually have people coming to our church because of our website. However, I do not think we should change the church website so it becomes a business itself. It confuses visitors. It is not part of core business. However, what about just making enough to sustain the ministry?

Should I have Google AdSense on my church website?

A big No. It is very difficult to control who will advertise there. It is distracting. It will not do well monetising your church website.

Should I have Amazon Affiliates on my church website?

It is easier to control what you want to sell with affiliations that pay on conversion. However, even if you get Amazon to show all kinds of ESV Bibles, it is still (1) stray from church's core business (2) won't do well in Australia. Maybe it will be better to have something equivalent to Amazon in Australia, so your local visitors can be more interested to purchase through your affiliation link.

I still don't feel "right" to have Amazon on a church website though. I think the best approach is -- create a separate church affiliated website that does not directly try to sell the church, but can provide useful information in order to attract advertisement.

For example, having a separate blogsite that reviews Christian books. Link to the main church site can be all over the place, and the site is also fit to sell advertisement for book stores.

Should I have PayPal Donation button on my website?

Giving to the church is encouraged, however sometimes I am not sure whether we can just put a PayPal donation button on the church website, without further explanation.

I think for churches with special needs, a fund raising program with PayPal donation and a page of clear explanation will probably work. For example, a church might say that it tries to raise $2,500 for a new projector because it will be very useful for student ministry.

But just having a PayPal button? That only spells out "Money Gimme Money".