My marketing side has a passion for helping churches use the web and social media more effectively. But first, some context …
I’ve been involved in web-based products since 1995. My first exposure was while I was in a marketing group at Nasdaq. Our vision was to create a brand that was appealing enough so that companies listed on Nasdaq would prefer to stay than to go to that other exchange in Manhattan. My role in implementing that vision was to create true value-added tools that the CFOs and heads of investor relations (IR) could use to understand why their equity shares were behaving as they did. Based on substantial efforts to collect input from our intended consumers, we launched several non-web products, which we then consolidated into what Microsoft told us was one of the first true extranets.
Nasdaq Online was what I called a “benign Trojan horse”. It gave its users a user-friendly strategic equity management tool that they loved. At the same time, incorporated in the tool was an implicit message of Nasdaq’s value to the company. Nasdaq Online was a greater success than anyone could have imagined. Our marketing research staff had data that showed that it had a measurable contribution to company retention. In addition, in a non-scientific poll, members of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) voted Nasdaq Online the number one online resource for IR professionals (In contrast, the NYSE’s offering didn’t even make the top ten).
Along the way, I learned HTML basis as I created an intranet for our account management teams so they could keep up with enhancements, bugs and site usage. Our tech resources were dedicated to Nasdaq Online, so there were few available to help with this intranet. They went out of their way to set up the site, but managing it was my problem, and I had a lot to learn. My first attempt used Microsoft Word to create the web pages. It was a VERY modest beginning, but it got the ball rolling.
It was a bit like a car with no power steering. Very hard to turn the wheels when you’re standing still, but once you’re moving, steering becomes a lot easier. I applied what I’d learned about web sites, gathering customer feedback, and general marketing principles towards a web site for a family member who was a dog breeder. I taught myself Dreamweaver and listened to the questions potential customers had. If those questions came up often and the answers weren’t on the site, we put them there. So what happened? We wound up with a site that allowed that family member to not only build her business, but literally triple her prices and shift from selling dogs strictly to locals to having customers from San Francisco to Greece.
At the same time, I got involved with helping a church with its web site. The leaders gave me a pretty free hand. My thinking was that if you create a web site that is valuable for the members (showing all the upcoming events and showing pictures of past events, for example), you’d have a web site that was simultaneously appealing to potential visitors. The same content would let them know whether the church offered the kinds of features they were seeking.
The results? In five years, the site experienced one million page views, calls to the church office with requests for updates on upcoming events dropped noticeably, and the church leaders reported that nine out of 10 visitors cited the web site as the reason they came. Plus, this church was one of the very first to podcast its sermons, leading to a story on NPR's 'All Things Considered'.
At about this time, Nasdaq went through some rough times, and I got caught up in a major downsizing. So I set up shop as “ELM Associates”. “ELM” stands for “if it’s ethical, legal and moral (and you’ll pay our rate), we’ll do it”.
I kept thinking about the web presence (or lack thereof) of churches. Perhaps there was an unmet need. I found that if you googled “church web sites”, there were hundreds of results from all sorts promising to build your church web site cheap. Their samples proved you got what you paid for. How could I differentiate myself?
During this time, I noticed that the vast majority of church web sites were dead (Geocities, anyone?), abandoned or horribly out-of-date. One church was promoting their Sunday School classes … from 15 months earlier. No one was offering any type of service to keep a church’s web site current. If I could come up with the right pricing model, perhaps there was an opportunity. The insights I gained from Nasdaq and the breeder web site, and the one church site I had done could easily be applied to any church.