How to Future Proof Your Online Presence

Clear steps anyone can take to improve and win with their online presence.

Russ Cantu is the guy North Coast Church goes to when they need insight into their web presence, where Tithely goes when they need optimized web pages for online giving, and where leaders just like you go to help them identify their struggles and provide a positive path forward. And if you're looking for the audio of this talk as presented at North Coast Leadership Conference, you can buy the entire conference online.

In order to future proof your ministry, I will give you three best practices, the one rule to always remember, and your best, next right step. But let's start off with a few questions I've been getting about this topic.

Can you future-proof anything?

Yes and no, but it's marketing–plain and simple–and I'm a marketer. But for real. People say Covid changed ministry, but it didn't just change ministry; it only accelerated it. You'll hear the term, "phygital". Horrible name, right? The blending of physical and digital. But it negates the reality we've been living in for two decades: the church is equally online and in person. It's just one thing: church. So are we future-proofing anything? Maybe; Maybe not, but we are giving you a right path forward.

Why teach this course?

The pastors role is to be with people not projects. I've done the research and presented the case studies that prove a positive path forward. Covid crushed ministry budgets and congregation numbers, but worse, it made ministry a daily struggle; a struggle to not just stay afloat, but a struggle to have the strength and vision they had pre-epidemic. Today's class can be your silver bullet of sorts. Use it to observe your current state of online affairs, inspire you with a new direction, and allow it to seed your future ministry.

I want to help you establish a new baseline by providing you with three best practices that guide your website.

Best Practice #1: The Rule of Three

Your website should load in three seconds or less, according to Google and everyone else on the planet who uses their phone for like, everything. If your site doesn't load, your audience will go (yeah; share that statement!). 3 seconds is about the max Google allows you. The three second load rule works for your audience and your search index. Test via Google PageSpeed Insights (did you know our Catalyst site loads in less than three seconds and scores 100 in both mobile and desktop versions on this tool). After you test your online experience on Google, pop over to GT Metrix and compare the two. Understand what is slow or broken, and fix it. Most issues I see are related to poor (cheap) hosting (GoDaddy, BlueHost), large uncompressed images (make sure you compress images in post or use a plugin to do the job for you on your website) out of date themes, plugins, source code or php (bad, deprecated code).

Your digital presence should allow your users to navigate everywhere they want to go in three clicks or less. I typically see about a 35-42% drop off per page, so I take this to mean that your audience knows what they want before they visit your website. No matter your marketing efforts or marketing tools, everyone basically knows what they want and your job is to get them there as fast as possible. How are you making their decisions simple, or are you not? Let me ask you a question: If you are only allowed three clicks, what are your three clicks? And if 92% of all clicks are in the main menu and 72% of all users never scroll below the fold (initial screenshot), how is your trust with consumers reflected in what you are giving them right away?

"Paths are made by walking them repeatedly." - Nathalie Lussier

You don't need advanced analytics to tell you that you're lucky if your audience gives you three minutes on your site (well, it's closer to 2 minutes now, but let's stay positive). Because your audience knows what they want, and it's your job to make it easy for them to find it. You have a limited amount of time to get them there, and once they are there... they will only engage with the site ONCE via CTA. So here's the money question that your SEO strategy needs to answer: What is that one ACTION you need them to take

Almost every site is centered around their core values: mission, ministries, etc... That means in addition to clicks and minutes, your audience will give you three pages max of browsing. While some will view more, most will view less. Your bounce rate will confirm this, as most exit your site after a single page (any bounce rate under 60% is performing well). Your job as a website is to present the most compelling case for your cause, because 65% of online users make a decision to visit a physical location based on their website.

Let's wrap up the rule of three by asking a few questions.

  1. What is your cause, and does your cause match your user's intent? You don't need a crystal ball to know what people want; that's why you exist and why analytics provides critical insight.
  2. How are you presenting your case and is your audience accepting it? Is your bounce rate low and is the rule of three proving out across your defined funnels?
  3. Is it easy for your audience to engage, and if not, has this changed your approach to marketing... or ministry online?

Best Practice #2: Your Drivers: Service Times then Affinity Options

The biggest driver to your website are your services. Most people come to your website with an answer in mind and most just want to know how to get to your campus. The problem is that churches make it difficult to find a location. Finding a location should be the very first option (pragmatism works), focusing on in-person services and then online on-demand options.

Let's take a quick tangent: Should you provide an Online Church or Online Option?

  • Say it's a church, but no pastor
  • Say it's a church, but no assimilation process
  • Say it's a church, but no consistent crowd
  • Is your online church on-demand, a service option, venue, or campus?
  • Are your expectations aligned with those of your audience?
  • Do you need an online architect (lead) or an online pastor (care)?

If it's not a campus, doesn't have a pastor, no assimilation process, and not a consistent crowd, it's not an online church; it's an online option.

And an online option isn't a bad thing. But how you are pitching it could be, if it doesn't match expectations to both your audience, and your staff. This is an area where churches are making major mistakes.

Right below your main service driver are your church's uniquely contextual affinity options. Affinity options are things that apply to most demographics within your audience with global actions or missional alignment. While most people come to your site looking for times and directions, they also come looking for something that fits them. But they also come looking for ways to participate in the mission of the church (invitation to discipleship) and participate in the growth of the church (invitation to evangelism).

With this in mind, this means your main menu needs to change to reflect your reality, with service options in the most prominent locations and your affinities next to them.

  • Help them get there this weekend on time.
  • Find a way to get them engaged according to their context.
  • Provide a simple way for them to participate in the ongoing mission of the church.

Best Practice #3: Seo: Fast and First with Intent Driven Content

This is not just the third best practice, it's the key to everything: understanding intent. Search Engine Optimization is equal parts technical and UX (user experience).

This is Intent-Driven Content

  • Who is your audience?
  • What are they looking for?
  • How are you delivering this to them?
  • Are they coming back?

The more you can accomplish this goal, the more of a domain authority you become. The higher the domain authority, the more often you are fast and first. If they are finding what they need and coming back, you have become an authority in their life and search engines will rank you accordingly. Let's get your going hard and strong with that with our free Website Evaluation Checklist and SEO Checklist. As you apply the principles found within the two checklists, you will feel like your getting an online marketing boot camp, but I guess that's the point, isn't it? This is all about your digital transformation strategy, and these tools will help your digital experiences get there fast!

Download the Website Evaluation and SEO Checklist and help your church improve immediately.

The One Key on How to Future Proof Your Ministry is Online Courses

While churches stressed during Covid, my clients pushed. They created content. They distributed content. They kept people coming back every month. They attracted new users every month.

Uh... how exactly did they do this voodoo magic?

We knew in-person experiences would be minimal, so we had to pivot. We knew people needed a tool to grow on their own, so we developed it. We knew our teams had something to say, so we gave them a voice.

In the midst of the lockdown and while others were shifting their business model, we continued doing what we did well: writing. We created a blog post that discussed how online courses create healthy churches and then another, how online learning platforms will change churches. In less than a month, these posts were read thousands of times and the corresponding courses were shown to hundreds of students. Why? Online courses give us a new way to engage our audience, on their terms.

Online courses meet user's intent with church expertise.

What do online courses really do for you? They keep everyone on the same page (unity), they level the playing field (knowledge), and they provide access to everyone (equity). In addition to the many reasons how they benefit the end user, they are a new gold standard for your internal audience and your administration.

Why online courses rock your socks off: 

  • Save time (not waste time) for your staff and audience.
  • Exponentially available and accessible for everyone.
  • Best bang for buck for discipleship.
  • Modeled after how people engage media.
  • Right for both new believers and seasoned vets.
  • Missionally and strategically aligned for ministry post-Covid.

As we were building courses through Covid, we saw two main reactions. Churches saw online learning platforms as a “band-aid” that would keep their church afloat but would be a temporary effort until things returned to a sense of normalcy. With this philosophy of ministry, efforts are begging. Churches saw online learning platforms as the way forward, that would help their church thrive regardless of a pandemic or not. With this philosophy of ministry, everything is strategically created to have an emphasis on the in-person and online; equal experiences.

Ultimately, online courses created value for audiences and churches alike.

  • No travel: most people travel within a 20 minute radius of your church, and traffic sucks. So don't make them drive to learn something extra.
  • No unneeded extra time to learn: If it can be done in an email, why have a meeting for it? How much time would that save you at the office? Don't put these unrealistic expectations and pains on your audience, when you loathe it too.

Learn offline and affirm in-person. This presents a high value on their time and effort, without draining your staff. It also gives you a reproducible process for moving forward at scale.

Seven Benefits to Creating Your Own Self-Hosted Online Learning Platform

Think about it: If someone told you they could provide a platform that is easy to use and provide you deep insight into your audience at a low cost (time and money), wouldn't you want it?

  1. You own your content, not dependent on another platform that hosts courses (and what if they get bought out or fold up?).
  2. Adjust your content on the fly. Most churches print out materials and disseminate in person. But what if you could adjust your content within a few minutes online?
  3. Align your platform with your church’s branding.  You want to create a resource that provides an instant value to your audience, so make sure it's ALL YOU when they see it.
  4. Entire marketing workflows can run through your website. We know the main menu drives clicks and that most people don't scroll. So if you can create a menu option for courses and match your user's intent (like "How to Be a Godly Parent"), then you can create a automated workflow that attracts and attaches your audience.
  5. And if you attract and attach your audience, the increases in engagement will increase your SEO return, and website users remain on your website, not link off to someone else who is providing valuable content.
  6. Platform is built on a system you are already familiar with.  No one wants to learn another tool, so if you can take away the admin hurdle, then you can give staff and audience a easy win.
  7. Scalable as in-depth analytics show signs of need or want. Yes, analytics. Not only will you have access to all your existing tools, you will be able to see who and how many signed up for a course and track their progress, you can make content adjustments as needed and create new content based on demand that has been data-tested.

How can our church do this on our own?

While I have a proven-process for developing and distributing online courses for churches and businesses, anyone can create their own course. For me, I use LearnDash as my learning management system. I've tried every platform and this is the WordPress plugin I keep coming back to. It's robust in features but simple to use.

"Online courses aren't just the right win right now; they're the best way forward for your church to become future proof and successful, both in-person and online."

Let's put a pretty little bow on this, so you will know How to Future Proof Your Online Presence.

Understand and Implement the Rule of Three: Your audience will give you clicks and three minutes, if your page loads in under three seconds. If you can accomplish this from a technical side of things, then you need to elevate your drivers and preset clear affinity options that are uniquely you and contextual to your demographic. Give them a time and place, and then their context. Remember that everything that revolves around your audience's intent: Meet their need and bring them value, over and over and over again. And if you're still meeting their need, then create online courses that a dd value to your audience and your church's discipleship process. Now you can alleviate stress to staff and church, while scaling to grow your reach and teach. No crystal ball needed; it's all there for you, ready for you to learn and apply to your context. And if you need help along the way, reach out.

Hear this talk and more with the All Access Pass

North Coast Leadership Conference 2021 features seasoned ministry experts for church leaders of all kinds, such as Larry Osborne, Chris Brown, Ricky Jenkins, Rebekah Lyons, Megan Fate Marshman, Mark Clark, and Russ Cantu. Your All Access Pass is sure to inspire and develop your leadership, so you can build strong and stable church ministries.