Effective church websites have images. No one wants to read a plain text website. But images are one of the biggest pitfalls for churches.
If you look at the mistakes congregational websites make using graphics online, there are three common mistakes: Flashy graphics, unattractive snapshots, and stock photos.
Lots of churches have well-designed, attractive websites where the front page is a banner graphic, or possibly several rotating graphics. Usually these are slick sermon series titles and illustrations, or stylized small group logos, or even fancy event flyers.
When the first thing I see on a site is fancy graphics, it tells me a couple things. First, it tells me the church cares about their website. They’ve obviously invested a lot of time and effort into making slick graphics. This is probably somewhere that takes outreach to visitors seriously, and cares about making a good impression. Maybe there are better ways to use money than on slick, fancy graphics, but visitor outreach is important, and I like churches with professional webpages.
However, these fancy graphics don’t tell me anything about the people who make up the congregation. I don’t know what to wear, how to fit in, or even if I want to come visit. Before I make the commitment to come visit a church on Sunday morning (and just stepping through the door is a huge commitment!), I’d like to have some idea how big the church is, how old or young the attendees are, and what sort of atmosphere to expect. Perhaps that’s asking too much, and I’m being unduly judgmental by basing my decision to attend on the age or, worse, the class of the people there, but realistically, I think those are factors most potential visitors consider, even if it’s subconscious. And if all I see is fancy graphics, I don’t have the information I want and I’ll look elsewhere. This isn’t just hypothetical – read here how I picked a church based on the photos on its website.
The opposite of a website based around church sermon graphics is one filled with unattractive snapshots. Yes, it’s authentic to show pictures of your members, but you still want to put your best foot forward and show an attractive side of your congregation.
If your website is filled with blurry photos of posed groups of people standing against a blank, beige wall of the fellowship hall, that’s at least as off-putting to potential visitors as too many fancy graphics.
As Richard Reising writes on page 48 of his excellent book Church Marketing 101: Preparing Your Church for Greater Growth, “To the extent that your materials are outdated or have photos with hairstyles from another decade, you are saying that about yourself as well.”
Visitors to your website are looking for active, vibrant communities where something is happening, not a club where people just stand in painful looking poses.
And of course, any photos should be of good visual quality. If it’s going on the website, it needs to be in focus, not cutting off the subject’s head, with good lighting, etc. If you don’t have good photos of your congregation members doing active things, go take some. If you’re not a skilled photographer, odds are you have someone in your congregation who is. If nothing else, you could hire a professional photographer from the community, but for the majority of churches, this isn’t necessary.
Church Stock Photos
The third major mistake churches make with website graphics is using stock photos. This is a tempting mistake to make, since you know you ought to have photos of people on your site and maybe you don’t yet have good pictures of actual congregation members. Maybe you’re trying to show the best possible side of your church, the ideal you’re aspiring to be.
“In creating a church website it is like we are trying to capture a snapshot of the church…We want to put our best foot forward, but at the same time we don’t want them to be shocked when they visit the services.” (Timothy Fish, Church Website Design: A step by step approach, Page 33)
But when a visitor comes to the site and sees only photos of smiling, flawless people, it’s intimidating. No one actually wants to go to a place made of perfect people. Visitors want to go to a community that will accept them. Perhaps it’s unfortunate, but it’s true: People are looking to be a part of a community with others like them.
Or diversity. Many congregations want (rightly!) to become diverse communities, so they put nice pictures of diverse, multi-racial, or intergenerational groups of happy people on their website. How disappointed or even unwelcome will a visitor feel when they show up on Sunday morning and there’s no one there who looks like they do?
Don’t be guilty of false advertising. Visitors can tell when something looks too good to be true. If the photo on your youth group page shows a group of perfect teens sitting in a circle under a tree, no one will actually believe it’s your youth group, and they might even wonder what you’re trying to hide.
The key is to be authentic in all your church communications. As Yvonne Prehn writes in Six Strategies for Effective Church Communications (see my book review here), “Don’t be guilty of bait and switch in your communications wherein you send out some slick, fancy printed piece, or display an over-designed, glitzy website if you’re a little church plant meeting in a basement.”
What does it say about the Gospel message we’re representing if people feel deceived when they walk in the door and don’t see the perfect people on the website?
Beyond the more important issues of authenticity, it’s also possible that your site will rank lower in Google for using stock images. Here’s a video from Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, talking about the effect of stock images on search engine optimization (SEO).
Remember that people visit your website to find out about your church. Take a minute and look at your church’s homepage and see what message you’re sending.
“If your website is effective, it will create a bridge to a visit by giving people visual clues that you have common lifestyles and values. In other words, this is where they will learn if they ‘fit’ in your church. Remember, people are likely to look at ten or so church websites; they will attend the one or two church that connect with them the best.” (Church Marketing 101, page 43)
Using fancy graphics doesn’t tell visitors about the people of the congregation. Unattractive, posed snapshots aren’t appealing to visitors. Stock church photos are misleading and inauthentic. Take the time and effort to get good photos of real people doing real, engaging things. Visitors are worth the effort.