Heal Your Church WebSite


Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

Should I add newsfeeds to my church website?

Should I add a news feed to my church’s website? A couple of years ago, there was quite a bit of discussion about the “Yahoo!-ization” of the web. That is, everything was becoming a portal. This was done by large companies who were hoping to sell lots of stuff and/or online advertising by creating a large base of users who made the portal their homepage.

Which is why I was surprised that in two years of running this blog; I hadn’t received an email on this topic … until this morning:

Hey Dean, I’ve been reading your website for months now, and taking everything in as we begin to design our website for our church. I have a question. I’m thinking about adding rss news feeds for our church (i.e. ESPN scores, [local newspaper online] headlines, perhaps a weather channel update for our city). I’m planning on putting this “below the fold” on the first page. By doing this, I hope to have a place where everyone can get all the information they normally lookup on a daily basis from our site. It will encourage our members to set our website as their homepage. On the other hand, this information has little to do with our church, other than providing a tool for members.

I wanted to know what you thought. Is it worth it, or should I forego the newsfeed idea? Any help you can give would be great!

First off: great question! I’m glad to see someone thinking about how to make their church website more useful to their users. That said, I’m not so sure this is the best way to make people revisit your church’s website … often.

Purpose and Personality

From the get go I’ve preached that the primary purpose of any church website is to convey the purpose and personality of the wonderful people in the pews and up at the pulpit. This opinion is based in large part on classifying visitors into two broad categories, seekers and existing members.

Each group has their own unique and specific needs. It is up to the church webmaster to make the page all things to both parties concerned.

Content is King

I’ve also preached that compelling content is king – note the emphasis on compelling.

One of the major reasons in classifying church website visitors into seekers and members is because of various surveys that suggest the same. Someone is either “shopping” your church website, or they’re looking for specific answers to specific questions.

Now before I get the obligatory comment about the sins of shopping for churches, let’s keep the following scenario on mind:

A person re-locates, let’s say from Rockville, Maryland to Raleigh, North Carolina. For the sake of argument, the person has always attended Southern Baptist Convention affiliated churches.

Now if you go to Google, and enter a query for “southern Baptist church Raleigh” what you’ll get in return is almost 22,000 websites, twenty or thirty of which are links to SBC Churches in the Raleigh area.

Considering it takes a couple of weeks to get the feel of a church, this means I could find myself spending the next year and a half to two years trying to find the right church home. A search process which can be shortened if I can see online, what the church has to offer in the way their theology, their children’s programs, their adult programs, etc.

Along the same lines, if I’m a member of the church, then often I want to know when and where something is going to happen. For example, it’s 11 PM and you’re about to fall asleep when out of the blue, your wife asks: “btw, don’t you have a youth leader’s meeting tomorrow night? I need to know how to plan dinner.” You can’t call the church office, you can’t find the Sunday bulletin … but you can get that information online.

Do Portals Have More Fun?

So getting back to the question, should I “Yahooize” my church website? No … unless you engage in a survey of your church membership and find that their specific needs differ from the average congregation. Even then, I would keep close track of “page exits” via your news feed links to make sure you’re not just wasting valuable front page space and bandwidth proving ‘Metcalfe’s Law in Reverse.’

Personally, I use an aggregator to scan my news, as are a growing number of individuals. Similarly, I think it is going to be hard sell for any church website to compete with MSN, Yahoo Daily New, news.Google.com, Instapundit and the DrudgeReport.

Daniel Will-Harris reflects this sentiment in his article “Et tu, Yahoo? or Don’t let your site lose its identity or Less is Less.

Two Masters

My suggestion is to not serve two masters, but rather put more effort into providing the information that makes your church unique from the other churches in your demographic.

That said, if you really, really want to put a news feed on your website, why not experiment with a “portal page” that isn’t the front page … perhaps including an RSS feed of your own church’s content? Oh, and to avoid copious bandwidth and CPU bottlenecks, check you my article entitled “Using Cron with LWP::Simple and XML::RSS to retrieve news feeds .”

Hope that helps, and thanks for the great question. For the rest of you with an opinion on this topic, leave a comment.

5 Comments

  1. To a given web user, getting to your church site requires the same effort to get to as any other site. Unless you can actually convince people to set it as their home page.

    As an aside, I’d love to see some research around the notion of “home pages”, if they get changed from browser defaults, if so to what, and how long people look at their home page or do they bail while it’s loading because they’re going somewhere else. Other Windows apps don’t have this same “default document” thinking when opening, so on one level it seems strange for a browser to. Anyway…

    If a user wants CNN headline news, why not just go to CNN.com, where they’re sure to get the latest? Most people (I’m guessing) don’t understand the notion of syndicated content, they’ll assume that you as webmaster have to do something to keep those things up to date, so will just head to the source site instead where they’re sure to be more confident of the reliability/newness of the content.

    Your church gets one tiny chunk of the internet to present on it’s home page – even if the content is below the fold. As a visitor to your site, what’s it really say when you use that space for non-church related content?

    Be unique. Tell *your* story.

  2. I’ve been thinking of adding two really geeky things to our site for about a year now, one is an RSS feed of our calendar (considering we have at least 1 event every day, on average 3). The other is a PDA compatible calendar subscription service. To be honest these would fall under the really cool gizmos that only geeks would love, so it’s been on the back burner as more useful additions have been implemented (like Prayer Requests, Daily Bible Verse, Bible Trivia, and Devotionals). It’s still something I want to put in, but probably not for another year. Do you think they would be useful, or should I scrap the ideas?

  3. I have a different take on displaying news feeds on a church Web site. A church’s Web site represents the church to most Internet users. Therefore, it seems a good policy to tightly control its contents. This is also a reason to avoid advertising and public guestbooks/unmoderated comments (moderated comments might be okay if they’re buried deep enough). And when you consider the anti-Christian slant of AP and others, this becomes even more significant.

  4. I think the idea of providing a portal is a great idea for a church to create and keep constant traffic from its members. Can it compete with Yahoo!, MSN, et all? No, of course not. However, you don’t have personal connections to those people, they just provide a service to you by organizing information. So why not do that for your members, along with keeping them up to date with the goings on at your church. Wouldn’t they choose this over one of the above mentioned high-profile portals?

    Obviously, this content would be secondary, not to take away from the main content of the site. But anything to encourage users to set this as their home page does wonders for traffic and usage of your site, IMHO.

    *covers head*

  5. “Wouldn’t they choose this over one of the above mentioned high-profile portals?”

    My theory is, no. I’m guessing that most users of the church site would assume that those CNN headlines on your home page have to be updated by the church staff, and will assume that they’ll get better/fresher headlines by going right to CNN directly.

    One site will never do it all for any one user. Portals are overrated, IMHO. “Home Pages” too, for that matter.

    Don’t waste your precious internet real estate on this stuff. Be the church. On the web. Don’t over think it.

    But – on the flip side, I also don’t agree with “moderated comments might be okay if they’re buried deep enough”.

    Moderation creates work for someone and virtually guarantees that no useful or interesting conversations will ever take place on your site. Fear of comments or “what people might say” speaks to a deeper fear of “looking correct” as a church, one that personally would scare me away from attending.

    Let the conversation happen. It might be messy, but life and life in Christ isn’t neat and tidy. Without open, honest, and guile-less conversations being allowed I don’t expect the site to contribute much to the spiritual growth of the members of the church.

    All, IMHO of course…;)