Whenever I try a new restaurant, I usually do one of two things before I show up to actually have a meal: I look up the restaurant on Instagram or Yelp. I look at photos of the restaurant’s food, explore seating options to make sure they look attractive, check the hours to make sure that they’re open when I’m planning to go, and peruse recent reviews.
Most restaurants these days have caught onto the fact that potential customers have developed these habits. They know that before I show up for their food, I’m going to do some preliminary research. Because they are anticipating this, most restaurants and other businesses have learned to use my research as a means to make themselves more attractive to me so that I am more likely to walk through their doors and sit at their table.
Your digital first impression
Whether we are prepared for it or not, our Families of Parishes make a digital first impression every time someone seeking engagement with the Church ends up on our website or social media channels. Is that first impression a good one? Is it one that would attract a person to your parish campus? Or is it one that will frustrate, confuse, or turn off a person, leading them to seek engagement elsewhere?
You have an opportunity to create attraction through your digital first impression. You can guide a user from being aware that your church exists, through considering engagement with your community, to ultimately deciding to show up to your campus; you can move someone from “seeking engagement” to engaged (see Unleash the Gospel, Action Step 3.2). Here’s how to get started:
1. Get inside the head of a newcomer
While your Family of Parish’s digital presence doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of attracting new users, new users are the most likely to be heavily influenced by it. (It’s unlikely a longtime parishioner is going to stop attending your parish because your website is hard to navigate; but it’s going to be very difficult for a newcomer to be attracted to your community if they don’t even know exactly what you offer). So for the purpose of this article, let’s consider the brand new user who ends up on your website or social media.
He or she is there probably for one of a few reasons: they’re new to the area and are looking for a place nearby to go to Mass, they used to be Catholic and feel compelled to return to or more deeply engage with their faith, or they stumbled upon your church through a community building event. Considering those possibilities, jot down a list of what he or she is looking for that your church can offer.
2. Answer the newcomer’s questions… quickly
With that list in mind, select the most critical questions these newcomers are asking; think, “What would a newcomer ask and be annoyed if they didn’t find the answer?” HINT: this list should not be very long.
Lead with things they’re looking for: Mass times, location, contact information, etc. Make these items easy to find quickly, in order to avoid frustrating the user and leading them to look elsewhere.
3. Feature attractive and approachable images
Because images can be so powerful, the choices you make about which images users will first see on your home page or social profiles are critical. With the newcomer’s thoughts and concerns in mind, consider what images of your parish he or she will want to see. What will attract them to your parish? The good news is that, Catholic parishes contain the most attractive reality: Jesus Christ in our midst. The question then becomes, how does your parish express that reality? Archbishop Vigneron explains that “Effective witness to Jesus has these attractive qualities: joy, hospitality, and generous service to the poor and marginalized” (Unleash the Gospel, Guidepost 8).
With this in mind, what images of your parish serve as that effective witness? Collect photos and videos of smiling parishioners, your pastor joyfully engaging with parishioners, parishioners at service events. Use these images as social and website banners, and feature them regularly on your Facebook and Instagram accounts. For tips on how to build up that library of strong images check out The Power of Story in Parish Communications.
4. Do your housekeeping
Always returning to the newcomer’s concerns, think of what information on your website and social channels needs updating: is your calendar up to date? Do you have items on your homepage that are no longer relevant? Do your Instagram and Facebook pages have fresh content and information? Does your YouTube channel have the most recent livestream listed first?
Digital housekeeping can be a daunting task, but just like household housekeeping, it can affect a first impression. Just like you wouldn’t have people come to your house after letting dust and cobwebs collect for weeks on end, you shouldn’t let stale information sit on your digital platforms.
5. Use inviting language
The Church contains an astonishing amount of unique, nuanced terms that often won’t make sense to a newcomer. These terms are important and belong in certain places, but probably not in your social media bios or on your home page.
When someone lands on your website, they should find language that makes them feel like they’d be welcomed in your community, not language that would make them feel unqualified. Avoid using terms that assume a high-level of engagement with the Church and, intead, use words that will make sense and be attractive to users. San Francisco Solano Catholic Church in Southern California provides a good example on their website’s homepage, where they’ve applied their motto to the user’s experience with the simple statement, “you belong here,” on their banner video.
6. Give your user a clear next step
Once again, with the user’s thoughts and considerations in mind, determine what next steps you should make most accessible to them, particularly on your parish’s website–these are most likely steps to visit your parish, attend Mass, connect with a small group, or learn about children’s programs. Don’t overwhelm your user with the multitude of activities that take place at your parish–point them in the direction of the two or three most important things and give them the information needed to take the step from looking at a webpage, to driving to your campus.
When used properly, our parish websites and social media channels can make our parishes more accessible and approachable than ever. It might seem silly to consider selecting a church under the same terms as one might consider picking a restaurant, but our parishes celebrate the greatest feast, after all, don’t they!? Let’s make sure as many people as possible know they’re invited.