Tap your Web site's potential

Tap your Web site's potential

By Anne Boyle

COMMUNICATING WITH POTENTIAL CANDIDATES via the Web may feel cold and impersonal, especially when the work you do as vocation ministers is so very closely connected to the heart and spirit. But electronic communications have become such a part of how young people relate to each other and the world around them that if you are not a part of it, you will not be a part of their lives.

As a 31 year-old Catholic woman I can tell you that people my age and younger are commitment-phobic because we have so many options. When first considering something, young adults would much rather go to a Web site for information than pick up the phone to talk to someone—or, heaven forbid, go somewhere and meet a real, live person. This type of personal interaction comes later when they’ve gathered enough information to make an assessment of whether something is worth their time.

Conversely young people today are barraged with information, so if something doesn’t immediately speak to them as interesting or relevant, it will be deleted or go unnoticed. This means your Web site needs to be welldesigned, readable, relevant, engaging, dynamic and interesting.

A Web site can never replace the personal encounters young women and men have with you, but it is an important investment in your community’s future. Depending on your goals, a good, well-marketed Web site can: let potential candidates know that religious life is a viable option today, possibly help potential candidates realize that the tugging they feel in their heart is a call, and introduce potential candidates to your community.

While an invaluable tool, a Web site alone will not amount to more vocations. Only you and other members of your congregation can truly attract a person to your life. Of course, a call from God plays an important part!

CHECKLIST FOR WEB SUCCESS

Delving into the world of Web sites can be overwhelming, especially since there are so many steps and options. The following checklist and the list of 14 ways to market your site are by no means comprehensive, but hopefully they’ll give you a better understanding of what goes into Web site development so you know what questions to ask as you travel this journey.

►Start with a good foundation

Before doing anything else, you need to clearly articulate two things: the audience for your Web site and the goal of your Web site.

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they want a communications vehicle to appeal to everyone, I would be rich. My response is always the same: by speaking to everyone, you reach no one. In order to capture attention and engage interest, you need to think long and hard about who you can best reach via your Web site.

Don’t just pick an age group and call it a day. Paint a vivid picture of your audience and think of that “composite” audience member through every step of the process. What is she like? What does she like to do? Where does she spend her time? What is her cultural, educational and economic background? Who influences her decisions? Where does she get her information? Is she already familiar with your congregation? Your Web site’s design, messaging and features will be different depending on the answers to these questions.

Remember, you are not the target audience! Neither are other members of your order. Yes, your Web site needs to be true to your community’s identity, but it also needs to be relevant to your audience.

Once you’ve determined who you want to reach, figure out what you want them to do as a result of visiting your site. Letting people know about your community is not a good communication goal. Sure, your site will serve an information function, but a good Web site should motivate visitors to take some action. So maybe your Web site goal is that visitors forward your Web address, or URL, to friends or family who may be interested in religious life. Or, perhaps your goal is for them to complete a contact form or engage in some other activity that will begin a relationship. Whatever it is, your goal should be specific and measurable. You’ll want to ask your Web technician about what sorts of information can be captured about your site’s usage, such as the number of people who visit, where they are from, etc.

Once you’ve set a goal for your site and a way to measure your progress in reaching that goal, determine what features on the site best enable you to reach your goals. Ask some members of your audience what they would like to see on a vocation Web site. Talk to your newer members about what is most appealing to them and how they explored their call. If possible get a group of audience members together to brainstorm site features and content.

►Get some help

You don’t need to know everything about Web sites to oversee development of a good vocation site, but you do need to develop some strong relationships. If your community has them, become friendly with your order’s communication and information technology (IT) staff. Communicators can help you determine what is possible and navigate the process. In some cases, the IT staff may have the capability to build your site or modify an existing site. If your congregation already has a Web site, meet with those who developed and maintain that site. Find out what is already in place and what the possibilities are for customization of the vocation section or, if appropriate, development of a “satellite” vocation site.

If your community does not have a site, you will likely need to contract with a Web site consultant to develop one. Finding a good consultant requires some research. Start by looking at Web sites that have the features you want and find out who designed or developed these sites. Also ask friends and colleagues if they have any experience with a good firm.

Use the audience profile and goal you developed to write a request for proposal (RFP). Talk through any technical requirements with your communications and IT staff and include these in the RFP. When selecting a consultant, try to find one who can manage the design and development/ programming of the site. The firm does not necessarily need to have all of the capabilities in house, but it should be able to coordinate the people who do to save you time and unnecessary headaches.

Be prepared: good Web sites are not cheap. While price will likely be one of the criteria for selection of a vendor, don’t make it the most important one. Be sure to interview and check references of the top two or three firms on your list. And, of course, look at their past work.

►Navigate your way to success

Once you know who you are trying to reach and what you want them to do as a result of visiting your site, you need to draw the plans to get them there. Take the time early on to develop a clear site architecture which shows how visitors will navigate the site. You may find it helpful to look at the architecture as an outline that shows relationships within the site. First list all of the possible site pages; then put each page name on a sticky note and group them into categories. Eliminate extraneous pages. (Hint: if a page doesn’t fit easily into a category, it probably doesn’t belong). This can help you determine what your main content categories are and how many levels of navigation are needed. Two or three levels are more than enough, as too many will only confuse your visitors.

Next record your sticky-note outline onto a flow chart, then add brief descriptions of all components on the pages. From here indicate relationships between pages and where content will be linked. This will serve as your guide through the rest of the process.

►Design with your audience in mind

Design is highly subjective and this is where many wellplanned Web sites go astray. If your site is not attractive to your audience, your audience will close the site before even getting beyond the home page.

Designing for the Web is very different than designing for print, so finding someone who knows how to design for the Web is crucial. People read and process Web site content differently than print material. Also, a poorly designed site can ruin your chances of getting picked up by search engines.

Answers to the following questions can assist your designer in developing concepts:

  • What are some favorite Web sites of audience members?
  • What image are you trying to project?
  • What three-to-five principles are you trying to communicate?
  • What are some words that describe the tone the Web site should have?
  • Are there any elements that must be included such as a logo or certain colors?
  • Consider the following when reviewing Web site design concepts:
  • Be sure the site is readable. Pay special attention to the contrast of background images and colors. Unless you have a really good reason, stick to using dark text on a light background.
  • Keep the look and feel consistent throughout the site. Your designer should develop a simple color palette for use across the site and typefaces should remain consistent. You don’t want visitors wondering if they’ve left your Web site.
  • Templates should be used to enforce a uniform page structure. These should be designed per level of navigation.

Again, keep your audience in mind and have some audience members review designs at the conceptual stage if possible.

►Keep content simple

Assuming you have developed a well-designed, easy-tonavigate site, you need to give your audience a reason to stay for a while. Keep your goal in mind and write content that will both appeal to your audience and motivate them to act. Just like designing for the Web, writing for the Web is different than writing for print. Web readers scan, so copy needs to be as short and concise as possible. Bulleted items and short lists are preferred over long paragraphs. Ideally, Web content should contain about half the word count as print text, so eliminate unnecessary words and sentences.

Think of the inverted pyramid when writing: start with the conclusion or the most important information you want to convey. This will not only help the reader, but will also increase your search engine ranking on those keywords which are part of your core message.

Also important is using the language of your audience, so they know you are talking to them. Be careful about using jargon, and if you do, explain the meaning behind the words that are unique to religious life.

Finally keep the content fresh and interesting. The only thing worse than not having a Web site at all is having a bad, out-of-date site. Give your audience a reason to keep coming back by constantly updating and adding content that is meaningful and relevant to them.

►Explore your options

Every day something innovative seems to be happening on Web sites. The possibilities appear endless, but there are a few basic features most visitors appreciate:

  • Searchability A robust search feature will help users find what they need quickly.
  • A site map This provides a snapshot of what content is where on your site.
  • A home page link on every page and “bread crumbs” A home page link enables users to quickly get back to the beginning of your site and bread crumbs indicate the path they have taken.
  • Some way to interact, comment or contact This is obviously very important on a vocation Web site. A contact form is advisable as it will help hide your e-mail from spam spiders and allows you to control how contacts are handled.

The rest should be determined by your audience, goals and budget. Consider graphic features such as flash animation, a photo gallery and video streaming, but be sure your developer addresses any speed issues that may arise from use of these features. You may also decide to invite users to interact with you and others on the site via a blog (Web log), a discussion, chat board, webcasts or podcasts. (See “Present your community to the world with Internet video and audio” on page 31.) If you go the interactive route, be sure that someone can post fresh items every day and respond to comments, as well as monitor content. There are various options for the “back end” of your site as well. One of the most important things to consider is how your site will be maintained. Until relatively recently, updating Web sites meant filtering all content through a webmaster or vendor proficient in HTML, ASP, JAVA or a host of other Web languages. This is still an option, but you may want to consider a site with a content management system (CMS) which provides for content updates in a program similar to a word processing program. Ask your Web developers about CMS options; they may cost more up-front, but they save money in the long run since you will not have to pay someone with technical skills to update your site. 

WEB WORDS

Search engine A program that searches documents for specified keywords and returns a list of the documents where the keywords were found. Examples are Google and Alta Vista. Typically a search engine works by sending out a spider to fetch as many documents as possible. Another program, called an indexer, then reads these documents and creates an index based on the words contained in each document. Each search engine uses a proprietary algorithm to create its indices such that, ideally, only meaningful results are returned for each query.

Search engine ranking A measure of the online promotional success of a Web page or Web site. It determines where your Web page or site appears on a list of search results.

Flash animation An animated film or simple series of graphics strung together which is created using Adobe Flash animation software.

Blog Short for Web log, a blog is a Web page that serves as a publicly accessible journal for an individual or organization. Typically updated daily, readers can comment on submissions.

Domain name A name that identifies one or more IP addresses (an identifier for a computer on a network). Domain names are used in URLs to identify particular Web pages. For example, in the URL www.sistersofmercy. org/vocations, the domain name is sistersofmercy.org.

Web site hosting A Web site hosting company will provide the domain registration, the hardware (Web server platform) and space to store the content of your Web site (Web pages, scripts, images, video, etc.). A site’s Internet connectivity is also provided by the host. Web site hosting can be done in-house, but requires the site owner to implement, secure and maintain the Internet connection, hardware, software and Web content of the site.

—Definitions adapted from www.Webopedia.com.

►Keep the site up and running

It can be easy to get caught up in the navigation, design and content while forgetting that your Web site needs be placed on the world wide Web. If you are working with a consultant, that person will advise you on your options. A few basics:

  • Select an address, or domain name, for your site. If you don’t already own your desired domain name, you can check to see if it is available for purchase by visiting www.godaddy.com or www.networksolutions. com/whois.
  • Be sure to determine how the site will be hosted— do you plan to maintain the server in-house or with a hosting company?
  • What kind of technical support will you need? Unless you have a webmaster on staff, you will likely need some technical support from time to time, even if your site has a content management system. Determine how this will be handled from the start and ask your Web developer to make recommendations.

►Test the site before you commit

So many organizations are so anxious to get their Web site up and running that they don’t test the site with any of their potential users. This can be disastrous. It is much better to learn of problems while they are fixable than to learn about them when the site is live, and you’ve already invested significant time and money in development.

Ideally you should have as many potential audience members involved at each step of the process as possible. However, reality and budgets don’t always allow for this. Something as simple as forming a review group of six to ten potential audience members at the beginning of the project can contribute greatly to the success of your site. Have this group review architecture, design concepts, copy, features— whatever you think makes sense.

Before the site goes live, have this group and other individuals who were not involved in development do user testing. Do they enjoy visiting your site? Do they understand the purpose of the site? Were they motivated to act? Is there an incentive for them to return to the site?

It is also important to make sure the site is usable. Is the navigation system clear and simple? Can users articulate where they are, where they have been and where they can go? Is the navigation consistent throughout the site? Is the content clear and simple? Do users reach any error pages or get lost on the site?

Finally be sure that your site works well at various screen resolutions and on a number of different Internet browsers (e.g., Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox). Pay special attention to whether the most important content is visible when the page loads and that all of your text and graphics display correctly.

►Update, update, update!

You may be tempted to sit back and relax once your site is built. Hopefully you’ll enjoy good feedback and many visitors to your site in those initial weeks post-launch, but if you don’t keep the site fresh, they won’t come back, and they won’t encourage others to visit. Every Web site has some static content, but those which keep users coming back offer something new every day. Whether it is through a blog, chat board, news release or interesting story, you need to keep your users engaged to show the vibrancy and appeal of your community. Regular, fresh, quality content can also increase your site’s search engine rankings.

You also need to remain vigilant about maintaining the site. Check it often for outdated information and broken links, and update them right away. Make sure any technical problems are resolved quickly.

Determine early on how often your site will be updated, who will do the updating and how it will get done.

Developing and maintaining a good Web site takes time, commitment and money, but a good Web site is a tool no vocation minister can live without.

DRIVE TRAFFIC TO YOUR WEB SITE

Building and maintaining a Web site is hard work, so it’s not a surprise that many well-meaning organizations build fantastic sites, but are left wondering why few people visit. A Web site is a long-term commitment, and part of that commitment is driving traffic to your site through marketing. To determine how to market your Web site, you need to consider the various ways a visitor can end up on your site. She or he can:

  • Go directly to your Web site by typing the URL in an Internet browser address bar,
  • Click through to your Web site from a search engine results page,
  • Click through to your Web site from another Web site or advertisement on another Web site, or
  • Follow a link in an e-mail, blog, discussion board or online chat.

Effective marketing of your Web site means getting your site featured prominently in each of these places. Large corporations use Web site marketing firms to do this work for them, but most religious orders do not have the budget to do the same. The good news is that time and research is most of what you need to begin marketing your Web site. The following is an overview of possibilities for attracting visitors to your site and hopefully, increasing interest in vocations.

The obvious

It amazes me how many opportunities to drive traffic to Web sites are missed by neglecting to include a Web address on every piece of communication. Make it easy for people to connect with you by directing people to your Web site as much as possible. Put your Web address on everything, from your e-mail signature to your giveaways at college fairs. Here are some suggested communication vehicles on which your Web site should be prominently featured: stationery (including business cards), e-mail signatures, brochures or handouts, giveaways, signs or banners, pins, buttons or stickers, advertisements, press releases or articles you submit for publication. In addition to prominent placement on external communications, it is good to place your Web address on internal communications; it never hurts to remind members of your congregation about your Web site. Another obvious but often overlooked way to keep visitors coming back to your site is asking them to bookmark your site or add it to their favorites.

Search engine optimization

“Google” became a verb for a reason. One of the great appeals of the Internet is its effectiveness as a resource for doing research, exploring topics of interest and connecting with others. People rely on the Internet to help them find information quickly and easily.

Most people are familiar with search engines—Web sites such as Google.com and Yahoo.com that have a feature that quickly combs through the Internet and delivers sites relevant to the keywords you provide. Search engines enable much of the research magic to happen, so learning how to optimize your site to appeal to search engines is vital to driving traffic to your site. Most people only view the first or second page of search results when using a search engine, so if your site does not appear here for the keywords that are important to you, your audience is not likely to find its way to your site.

Keywords Keywords are exactly what they sound like— key words with which you would like your Web site identified. They are one thing search engines use to rank Web pages. More importantly, they can drive traffic to your site. Catholic orders of women and men religious tend to have fairly unique names, so often the name of the order ranks first when performing a search (e.g., go to Google.com and search “Sisters of Mercy” or try your congregation’s name and see where you rank). Don’t be satisfied with this— it should be a bare minimum. To play the keyword game, you need to get inside the mind of your audience and understand how they use search engines. Odds are that someone at the initial stages of exploring a vocation will not search for a specific congregation by name. Instead, she or he might search with keywords such as “vocation,” “Catholic sisters/priests/brothers” “volunteer opportunities,” “spiritual calling,” etc. How does your congregation rank on these words?

To determine which keywords are important to your congregation and to your audience, start with a list of terms by which your congregation wants to be identified. What words describe your mission, charism and overall identity? To what issues would you like to be connected? Then, think about what terms someone in your audience group might use when exploring a call. Ask newer members or ask a few members of your audience what words they used or would use when exploring a vocation.

Develop a comprehensive list, including related words or phrases. Then, try to prioritize which are most important to you and most likely to be searched by your audience. Some online tools tell what words and phrases are searched and how often they are searched. A few worth trying are:

  • Free Search Term Suggestion Tool   www.keyworddiscovery.com/ search.html
  • Google AdWords Keyword Suggestions  google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal
  • WordTracker wordtracker.com

Content  As I mentioned earlier in “Checklist for Web success,” writing for the Web is different than writing for print. One reason is the need to incorporate search keywords (see “Web words” on page 13) into content. Search engine “spiders” will read your copy to determine what your pages are about, so the copy must be written with references to the keywords and phrases you want hit.

In addition to making sure the right keywords are in your copy, you should place the most important content high on the page—think of a newspaper and what is “above the fold.” Search engines expect that your first paragraph will contain the important keywords for the document. Also, avoid using text inside images when possible, as it will be invisible to search engine spiders.

Most search engines crawl the Web constantly and rank sites with newer content higher in their search engine results, so it is important to add content on a regular, consistent basis. The bottom line is that the more often you add quality content, the higher your site will rank on search engines.

Get referred! Search engines also crawl the Web looking for links to new sites. “Link popularity” is an important part of the ranking process for search engines, and the more incoming links you have from other sites, the higher your site will rank in search engine results. Obviously links to your site from others—especially those of interest to your audience— also increase the chance your audience members will find your site.

So how do you get other sites to link to yours? First, be sure that your Web site is linked from your sponsored ministry Web sites. If it isn’t, call the ministries and request that your Web address be prominently featured. Next, ask other organizations with which you work or partner to link to your site.

Ideally, your site should be linked from sites of interest to your audience. Since you might not have relationships with the organizations that run these sites, you may consider requesting reciprocal links.

Of course, you will want to be sure the sites to which you refer users are ones your congregation can support, so spend some time on the sites first. It is also a good idea to include a disclaimer about not being responsible for content on another site since it is impossible to constantly monitor content on other organization’s Web sites.

META Tags META tags are descriptions of content written into the code of a Web page. META tags used to be more important than they are now, but they are still used, and adding them increases the chance of being found on the Web. Ask your webmaster or vendor about how to add META tags to each page. Generally, you’ll need to provide a sentence or two describing the content of each Web page, using the main keywords and key phrases on the page.

Submit your site

Search engines are not the only way people search for information on the Web. Two other popular places for finding information are directories and wikis.

Directories Unlike search engines, Web directories are most often maintained by human editors and rely on individuals and organizations to submit content. They are essentially the Web’s version of the yellow pages, but instead of phone numbers and addresses, they provide links to Web pages which have been submitted to the directory. Submitting to key directories can both help your search engine ranking (namely because of the incoming link) and drive traffic to your Web site. Some popular directories are:

  • Free Open Directory Project— www.dmoz.com
  • Yahoo! Directory—dir.yahoo.com
  • About.com— www.about.com
  • Uncover the Net—www.uncoverthenet.com

Wikis In essence, a wiki is a collaborative Web site that allows anyone to edit, delete or modify content. A wiki can take many forms, but some of the most popular are similar to online encyclopedias, ranging from broad to specific content areas. Submitting information (including your Web site address, of course!) about your order, founder, vocation program, etc. on a wiki is a useful way to drive traffic to your site. Some to try include:

  • • www.wikipedia.com
  • • www.thecatholicwiki.com
  • • http://www.catecheticsonline.com/wiki/

Advertising

Banner ads When audience members have many dozens of choices—or when you are trying to reach an audience on information overload—search engine optimization isn’t always enough. For some keywords, you’ll never get that number one slot on page one, but paid advertisements are another way to offer audience members opportunities to find your site. If you have a good idea of what Web sites are frequented by your audience, purchasing banner ads can be an excellent way to meet your audience where they are. Banner ads are graphic advertisements on a Web site which is linked to the advertiser’s own Web site—Web banner ads tend to be much less expensive than print ads and, for younger audiences, are often much more effective. Not all Web sites accept advertising, but those that do usually have a section called “advertisers” or “advertising opportunities” which details rates and specifications for ads. If you can’t find this information, contact the site webmaster. Remember to advertise where your audience is likely to be. For example, if your audience is younger, Catholic newspaper Web sites are likely to be a waste of money, but Facebook, MySpace and volunteer matches may be worthwhile.

Text ads Another option for very focused advertising is text ads in e-mail newsletters targeted at audiences likely to be interested in vocations. Many small Web publishers offer attractive rates, so text ads can often be a bargain. The best way to find out which e-newsletters to research is to ask your audience. Again, ask candidates and newer members or a small segment of your audience which e-mail newsletters they receive. Then join those mailing lists and contact the publisher to learn more about ad possibilities.

Pay per click ads If you can’t get your Web site to rank high in search engine results for certain keywords despite your best efforts, pay per click (PPC) advertising may be for you. Here, you only pay for qualifying clicks through to your Web site based on a per-click rate which you determine. The ads appear as featured links to the right of search engine results for your keywords.

The ability to control the cost per click can make PPC ads a very cost-effective way to get traffic to your site since you only pay when someone actually clicks on the link.

Most major search engines now offer PPC advertising campaigns with sophisticated tracking programs which allow you to manage multiple campaigns and track your progress over time. A few to try include Google AdWords (adwords. google.com), Yahoo! Search Marketing (searchmarketing. yahoo.com) and Keyword Advertising MSN (adCenter. Microsoft.com). Depending on the keyword, you may have to compete for the top spot, which you can do by setting a maximum cost per click for a particular search word. You can start and stop most PPC ad programs at any time, allowing you to experiment without making a major investment.

Viral or buzz marketing

Viral or buzz marketing may sound unpleasant, but it is essentially word-of-mouth marketing on the Web. It uses the pre-existing social networks and communities of the Web to encourage people to voluntarily pass along information. Information can spread very quickly on the Web (thus the term viral) and placing your vocation message and/or Web site address in the places your audience frequents can be a very effective promotional tool. Using the knowledge you’ve gained of your audience, submit articles to blogs, enewsletters and Web sites they are likely to visit.

You can also promote your Web site in online forums, chatrooms and groups. Use Google Groups (groups. google.com) or Yahoo! Groups (groups.yahoo.com) to find appropriate groups, join the discussion, and be sure to include your Web site in your “signature.” Not only will you drive traffic to your site, you’ll also get to know your audience better—and give them a chance to get to know you—by participating in the discussion.

Track your progress

One of the beautiful things about the Web is that everything is instant, trackable and easily changeable. There are several tools available to help you track your promotional efforts so you can determine what’s working and what’s not.

The best free tool I’ve encountered is Google Analytics at www.google.com/analytics. It provides a wealth of information, including how many hits each page of your Web site gets per day; where those visitors come from, including referring sites; and how long visitors stay on your site. Whatever tool you use, tracking your progress is essential to determining whether the tactics you are using are worth your valuable time and resources. Pay particular attention to spikes in traffic over time. Do they correspond with significant moments in your congregation’s life? When referral sources change, can this be tied to a new partnership or efforts to get reciprocal links?

All of these tactics are important to driving traffic to your Web site. However, they are all time consuming, so start by selecting two or three to try for a while, then add on as time allows. Consider getting an intern to help with these efforts —many high school and college students are incredibly adept at working on the Web and can likely do many of the tasks outlined in this article.

Whatever you do, continue to invest in marketing your Web site to make it work for you.

Anne Boyle is the director of communications for the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, where she works closely on vocation promotion with the new membership office. Anne oversaw the revamping of www.sistersofmercy.org last year and has been part of Web site planning for several nonprofit organizations.

 



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