Help for Church Webmasters
Issue 17 12/23/02
During this Christmas season I was debating whether to decorate the church page for the holiday season or not. Some years I have done it and some I haven’t. I think mostly based on how busy I am or how I feel. And this year I just didn’t get around to it. There was no particular decision made not to, it just didn’t happen.
As I thought about it (and felt guilty for not doing it), I wondered what other churches and other “gurus” were doing. So I started searching the web, to be honest I had hard time finding any church websites that were decorated for Christmas (I am sure there are some out there but I didn’t feel like going through them all). The gurus didn’t seem to have a lot to say on the subject either. One guru did. Jakob Nielsen (website usability guru) reports that “On average, websites commemorated the holidays on their homepage 21% of the time. Major holidays were celebrated much more than this average indicates: Purim was celebrated on 83% of Israeli sites, and Christmas was celebrated on 47% of U.S. sites and 42% of U.K. sites.”
Why should we decorate our websites for holidays? Even more interestingly, why should we decorate our websites to celebrate special occasions that are unrelated to our main topic? For example, many sites having nothing to do with sports featured special recognition of the Olympics, World Cup soccer, and other major sporting events. Having a sports site tell you who won the World Cup makes sense, but why would a church site feature a soccer ball on its homepage simply because Japan and Korea are hosting some matches?
There are two main reasons for websites to recognize holidays and special events, and both reasons fall under the same general category: To respect users as human beings, rather than simply as counts in our hit counter.
Reason 1: Noting special events is a way for websites to connect to users and be seen as welcoming environments, rather than sterile places with no humans involved. Think about how many times at church current events are mentioned in the sermon or during the welcome. These are things that we talk about and that affect us. One could argue whether a church site should talk about sporting events, I am not going to spend a lot of time on this one. I personally don’t think that nod to the World Series, Super Bowl or NBA Championship (or other regional sports event) that is in your backyard that year is a sin.
Holidays, especially Christian holidays, seem like they must be mentioned. Your church probably had a Christmas Program, a Thanksgiving program, an Easter service, and maybe even something for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. So why shouldn’t we celebrate those days with a little decoration on the website? Obviously some holidays may not be appropriate for a church site. But if you were really serious about outreach, you could probably use those decorations to bring up the issues with those holidays and help point the users back toward Christ. (This type of evangelism could be controversial and should only be done with the knowledge and blessing of the pastor and other regulatory boards at your church.)
Reason 2: A big reason a church website should decorate for a holiday or special occasion is to appear current and up-to-date. Major holidays and special events are important to users, and they constantly see these special days reflected in the real world. A website that doesn't reflect what's currently topical and important to users will feel out of touch. Worse, it might feel stale, and users might think it's outdated in other respects as well.
"This is probably an outdated website since it doesn't
show that it's Hanukkah now."
(Fourth grader from Israel, commenting on an Israeli website)
As webmasters of Christian sites, why would we not want to decorate for Christmas and Easter? These are the two most popular days for church attendance in the year and a time when many people “let their guard down” regarding religious topics. I would recommend that church sites stay away from the commercial aspects (Santa and the Easter Bunny) and stick to Christian symbols. But I believe it is important to have our beliefs displayed on our sites, and what is more important than our Savior’s birth and death?
Holidays that are not overtly religious, Valentine’s Day for example, can also be celebrated. A simple heart and maybe a brief paragraph about Christian love for one another would be very appropriate on a church site. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are also events that are not overtly religious but have great potential for helping us reach the community with what is on their mind at the moment.
National holidays can also be used. In the US, the 4th of July is our Independence Day and a major event. It is not wrong to put a “Happy 4th of July” on your church website. You might not even have an Independence Day service at church, that’s ok. Maybe you could get an article about what it means to be a Christian in America today (or something like that) and tie it in together.
You should try to celebrate holidays and special occasions in ways that do not reduce usability or distract users, and yet still give a pleasant and welcoming feeling to people who care about the event.
Many of the holiday designs on websites are fairly simple, amounting to nothing more than the key placement of a small ornament. Google is a great example. They often change their logo to reflect the season. Some of us are not that artistic and require help (myself included). A simple gif in the corner somewhere is usually adequate. On church sites a low-key holiday design is usually best. It tells everyone that you are in touch with the community and yet does not disrupt the normal experience of the site.
Do not go overboard in their holiday celebrations, adding special, holiday-themed splash pages that users have to pass through before reaching the main homepage. Splash pages are almost always bad and should be avoided for holiday celebrations, except possibly on the actual date of a truly major holiday. Blaring holiday music when the site loads is also a no-no.
You need to make sure the holiday decorations go up and come down in a timely matter. It is worse to have Christmas decoration on your website in Feburary than it is to not have Christmas decorations at Christmas time.
Holidays and special events provide opportunities for websites to brighten up their design and connect with users on a more human level than that typical of the daily grind. There are a few pitfalls to avoid, and, even during the holidays, it's important to focus on supporting users' main reasons for visiting the site. However, when done tastefully and without usability problems, holiday celebrations are a great way of increasing joy of use and making the Web a more humane environment.
If you have a question or something you are struggling with, let me know and I will see if it can be covered in a future newsletter.
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