21stPB

Helping small churches in the 21st century

April 12, 2014

How I Use the Internet For the Gospel’s Sake

Shortly after being ordained into the ministry in March 2008, I realized the potential of using the Internet to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and teach the Bible for the edification and growth of believers. Even though I had a background in web design, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Even so, I was willing to try and I have been through one experiment after another since that time. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned and how I am currently using the Internet for the gospel’s sake.

For me, the process all begins with thorough and careful study of the Bible as I prepare myself to teach it. Perhaps my methods of study and preaching are a subject all their own worth delving into, but I won’t for my purpose here. I will say, however, that I am careful to teach the Bible in such a way that most anyone can follow, understand, and relate to what I teach. I want both the longstanding members of my church as well as new visitors (and eventually podcast listeners online) to learn from me.

Each sermon I deliver is recorded using a very simplified method. I use a Rode SmartLav microphone which is clipped to my shirt or tie and is plugged into my iPhone. Rode also makes an excellent recording app called, Rode Rec. Once recorded, the sermon is moved to my laptop where I use a free audio editing program called, Audacity. In Audacity, I equalize and compress the audio as well as remove noise and excess silence from the recording. This is done to make the audio sound as good as possible.

There was a time when my sermons were uploaded online immediately after being processed. However, I was eventually able to be honest with myself. Using the listen/download stats provided by my media host, Libsyn, I knew not many people actually listened to the sermons. Each discourse received an average of fifty downloads. With some additional podcasting experience, I decided last year to repackage the sermons. New artwork. New title. New theme music. New introductions. New podcast. I called it, Bible Over Coffee.

My new approach to delivering sermons online turned out to be a blessing. The first episode was downloaded more than 1,200 times in the first week. Bible Over Coffee remained in the top three spots in iTunes’ New and Noteworthy section for the entire month it was listed which only helped it to be discovered by even more people.

The audio format is a fantastic way to reach people. It’s convenient as people can listen as they drive, shower, go for a run, or a number of other activities. Audio is also very personal as listeners feel like they get to know the one they are listening to week after week. Even so, audio doesn’t serve everyone.

With this in mind, I provide an outline of each sermon as well as a full written transcript on the website. The idea to have my sermons transcribed came from an individual who once told me that he’d like to listen to my sermons, but he was on a data plan with his mobile carrier that would force him to pay too much each month for the data use required. In response, I hired someone to transcribe my sermons for me. Using Elance, I was able to find a skilled person to do it for only $10 per sermon. I am now able to serve those who prefer to listen as well as those who prefer to read.

Those sermon transcripts also opened up additional opportunities. First, search engines like Google are now able to see the content I provide on the website. Since they cannot index content that is in audio form, the written transcripts give them something to look at and show others in search results. Second, I am able to pull excerpts from the transcripts to be published as standalone blog posts. It’s more content for both the search engines and visitors to my website in a shorter, easy-to-consume format. With the addition of written material, I have watched the traffic to my website increase month after month.

This might be a good time to talk about the website itself. Every church or ministry needs a home on the Web which no one else owns. In other words, it must be your own website and your own domain. As businesses on Facebook have recently learned, the benefits of investing your time and money into a platform which you do not own could be taken away from you at any moment.

Every good website begins with a plan. From top to bottom, it should be understood why you want people to visit the website and what you want them to do once they’ve arrived. In my case, I made the decision to put my focus on verse-by-verse teaching of the Bible. Whether visitors want to follow along in a current study or simply use the site as a resource to find and better understand a particular passage of the Bible, I wanted to provide it for them. I also wanted them to do one thing before leaving the website and that is sign up for my email list.

Web design is far more important than some people seem to realize. As a former web designer, this is where I am able to best use my expertise. I have both read studies and conducted many experiments myself. A website has no more than ten seconds to load and attract the attention of a visitor if he/she is going to stay. They say content is king, but design is queen and she stands at the door to be noticed long before the king.

I can sum up my approach to web design in two words: clean and intentional. There is not a link, element, or image on my website that doesn’t serve a very specific purpose. I want visitors to find what they are looking for without any distractions getting in their way. I also want to guide them through the website with limited choices. Ultimately, as I said before, I want people to sign up for my email list in the end.

The email list is perhaps the most important part of all that I do online. When someone gives me their email address, they are giving me permission to personally and directly contact them at any moment. They have essentially said to me, “I have been enjoying your studies on the website. Would you please send every thing you publish right to my inbox?” Suddenly, this anonymous person that stumbled across my website becomes a genuine connection to me and my ministry. Our relationship only grows week after week.

When someone first signs up, I want to make sure they know there is a real person who cares behind the emails they will receive. Within minutes, they get an automated email from me encouraging them to reply and introduce themselves. Some will and some will not. Those who do will get a personal reply from me within a day. The relationship is established. While the new subscriber already wanted what I would send them, now they want it even more. On the flip side, the new subscriber is even less of an anonymous person to me.

Since I publish five blog posts a week (all taken from sermon transcripts), subscribers can sign up for daily emails or a weekly digest. The mailing system is mostly automated through MailChimp with the exception of the personal notes I often write and attach to the emails. The emails include my personal note, the blog posts, and links to new podcast episodes with their transcripts.

I also offer free e-book versions of the books I publish to subscribers. This is new territory that I am currently exploring. Since I preach series of messages as opposed to standalone sermons week after week, the transcripts can easily be collected, rewritten, and repackaged as books using the Scrivener software.

My original idea was to do this exclusively for my home church. Even though they have heard all of the discourses I have preached, I wanted them to have a chance to revisit the lessons and keep them in mind. Giving them my books in paperback form would accomplish that goal. It later occurred to me that some people would rather read a book than listen to a series of audio sermons or read the transcripts online.

As a result, I made the decision to make the books available online as well. While the sales of my books will help to fund the website, I’m not expecting to make much of a profit. With that in mind, I don’t mind giving copies away to those on my email list which will only further solidify the relationship I have with them. I may even keep some paperback copies on hand to give to certain people I meet in person.

If all of this seems like too much for one man to do by himself, you’d be surprised what can be accomplished with the right knowledge and the right tools. Of course, I do rely on some help. As I mentioned, I finally hired a transcriptionist. I am also working with someone now to convert the transcripts into multiple blog posts and publish them for me. By the way, that individual has volunteered to do it for free simply because he appreciates my ministry and so enjoys the podcast. There was another gentleman who emailed a few months ago and told me he’s working to translate my sermons into Spanish. He had already finished 75 of them without me ever asking him to do it. Their generosity is incredibly humbling and I’m so thankful for them.

I keep a close watch on the numbers. I track everything I do online. It’s hard to believe that a nobody pastor from a small church in a small town can reach more than 25,000 people some weeks. You’ll not convince me that the Internet is lacking potential. There is a tremendous amount of potential for pastors and churches for the gospel’s sake. It’s simply a matter of realizing the potential and pursuing it. I can only imagine what might happen if there were more resources and more people behind the same kinds of efforts I’ve tried to make.

I do want to make a final note about social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). These platforms can steal a lot of time and produce very minimal results. I have more than 16,000 fans on Facebook, 4,000 followers on Twitter, and 1,200 followers on Google+. I have spent years on these networks and have learned some of the most effective ways to use them. Even so, I can never count on more than 23 percent of my website’s traffic coming from social media sites. Furthermore, the other 77 percent of traffic came without any effort at all other than publishing content to the website.

Certain efforts produce 80 percent of the results I am after, so I should spend no less than 80 percent of my time on those things. Social media falls into the 20-percent category. Friends and followers on social media sites are not like email subscribers. People will at least glance over every email sent to them. How many people read every tweet in the timeline or every status update in the newsfeed? How many of them asked me to contact them like my email subscribers?

Social media is one of those tools which I do not hesitate to put away when I need to spend my time on more important things. With that said, social media does create some opportunities. First, it can be used as a funnel to the website as long as you don’t expect an overwhelming flood of traffic. Second, it can be used to bring some light to the constant barrage of narcissism and other common problems on social networks. I rarely post much of anything unless I feel it will be an encouragement to others. Third, it can be a way to ignite a relationship with someone which you can then take offline. For instance, I keep an eye on local tweets and have regularly met with people I introduced myself to on Twitter. Some of them now come to our church.

The thing to remember is that social media is far more limited than some make it out to be. The social media success stories are generally about those who were already popular offline (big brands, celebrities, etc.). I suppose if a church were to make a consolidated effort to share new sermons, blog posts, and so on across all of the members’ accounts, it might gain some traction. Otherwise, it has to be seen as a 20-percent investment of time and effort.

Moving forward, I will continue to do just as much one man can to reach as many people as possible with the gospel and Bible teaching. I truly believe it’s a worthwhile effort. At times, I feel like I pastor far more than the 60 members of my church. But what a blessing it is to provide encouragement and teaching to so many people throughout the world. There is little more I love than when I am contacted by one of them and they admit that I have helped them to come to a better understanding of the truth. May God receive the glory.

April 3, 2014

Is Social Media Traffic to a Website Worth the Trouble?

I’ve been pouring over the numbers related to my website traffic and discovered something interesting.

Here’s a breakdown of where my traffic comes from:

Search
61.5%

Direct
23.8%

Social
7.3%

Referral
5.4%

Unknown/other
2.0%

Obviously, search is my primary source of traffic by a long shot. Social is hardly a blip on the radar.

However, consider the traffic sources of those who sign up for my email list:

Search
9.3%

Direct
11.8%

Social
23.8%

Referral
21.5%

Unknown/other
33.6%

It is apparent that social networks do not send much traffic, but they do provide quality traffic. It makes sense. Many of them are people I engage with on a semi-regular basis.

The advantage of search traffic is simple. I get that traffic by doing nothing more than creating content for the website. The disadvantage is the low percentage of people who sign up for the email list.

The advantage of social traffic is that I get a higher percentage (not a higher total) on the email list. The disadvantage is I have to take the time and effort on social networks to build an audience and drive them to the website.

Is the additional effort on social media worth it? That’s a tough call. I would say no based on the first set of numbers above. Then again, would I be happy losing 23.8% of my email subscribers? Not really.

What’s the answer?

First, I could allow someone else to handle my social media accounts. This option could cost money though and some might consider it less than authentic.

Second, I could find a way to better promote social sharing from the site. This option might distract people from signing up for the email list though.

 

March 27, 2014

18 Lessons I’ve Learned From Using Twitter as a Ministry Tool

1) Most people don’t want to follow a church’s Twitter account. Even fewer engage with a church’s Twitter account. People prefer to talk to people. They want to see your name and face.

2) Generally, only 1 to 3 percent of followers will click a link you share even if it has the most captivating text to go along with it.

3) Photos added to a link will give your tweet more real estate in the timeline, but the link will not receive any more clicks than if it were posted without an image.

4) No one ever believed the gospel after reading a tweet. However, many valuable relationships began on Twitter and extended offline, providing evangelistic opportunities later.

5) Twitter is a great place to meet and engage people in your local community. Simply search -filter:replies geocode:[longitude here],[latitude here],10mi [add search terms here if desired].

6) Never expect to keep up with every person or read every tweet. Think of Twitter as a giant chat room you engage only when you are available to participate for a few minutes.

7) TweetDeck is the best Twitter tool. It allows multiple columns, multiple Twitter accounts, and has a filter which allows you to mute tweets from certain apps or those containing certain words.

8) Twitter does not typically send your website the most valuable traffic. Don’t rely on it for website traffic. Use it to network and personally engage people.

9) Don’t auto-follow. You’ll regret it. Don’t limit your follows to close friends either. Your “audience” will never grow. Follow those who engage, retweet, and so on.

10) If you want to know what gets retweeted, use My Top Tweet. Type in your account or someone else’s and discover what tweets are most popular. (Hint: People love quotable quotes.)

11) You need a clear answer to the question: Why am I using Twitter? If you don’t have one, there’s not much reason to use Twitter.

12) Your Twitter handle (@whatever) matters. Make it identifiable, readable, and as easy to remember as possible.

13) If you have a website you actually want people to visit, include the link in your bio. Far more people will see it there than in the designated link area of your profile.

14) Disregard the grandiose promises of social media marketing experts. They’ll lead you believe you can turn the world upside-down with a single tweet. It won’t happen.

15) How many followers you have is meaningless. You could pick up 25 new followers in two minutes by tweeting the term, virtual assistant. That doesn’t mean they care about you or the gospel.

16) Twitter is an extremely social social network. It’s like 24/7 water cooler talk. It’s not merely a broadcasting tool and probably shouldn’t be treated as such.

17) Tweeting too little is almost pointless. However, don’t tweet just to tweet. Tweeting too much will annoy people, especially when you tweet a lot at one time.

18) Despite its popularity and this need you might feel to be on every social network possible, Twitter may not worth your time at all. But it is a great way for the public to connect with you.

March 22, 2014

Hotlinking Images to Save Website Load Time

The design of the Angier Church website features a massive image on the homepage. This is a bit problematic for the website’s load time. Frankly, the site looks ridiculous and confusing when the image doesn’t load right away.

There are a number of ways to reduce the load time of images. You can reduce the quality of images using pretty much any image editing software. You can compress images using the Smush.it plugin for WordPress. You could install a caching plugin like WP Super Cache.

If you want to take it a step further, you could make use of the CloudFlare service and/or MaxCDN. I use both on my Bible teaching website. However, CloudFlare is only free for one website and MaxCDN would charge extra for a second website.

Angier Church’s website is hosted on a Bluehost shared server. The hosting plan is sufficient, but it isn’t especially accommodating of large downloads or super fast load times. Large images on the website require a certain amount of server resources with no way to make it faster.

It occurred to me that I could host the large homepage image elsewhere. I could simply hotlink the image to Flickr, Google+, or some other website where photos can be hosted.

It’s the same concept as embedding a YouTube video on your website. When you embed a YouTube video (or hotlink an image), it uses YouTube’s bandwidth (or the image source) rather than your own website’s bandwidth.

Assuming you hotlink an image stored on a much faster server, you’ll save website load time.

I uploaded the image to Google+ (they do not restrict hotlinking at this time) and replaced the link on the Angier Church website. Rather than the image link being angierncchurch.com/whatever, it is now lh4.googleusercontent.com/whatever.

The website and homepage image now loads significantly faster.

March 6, 2014

Pastor, Have You Considered Hiring a Virtual Assistant?

Small church pastors often face a dilemma. Our first priority is the teaching the Bible. The study and preparation that goes into it can easily consume our time each week (and it should). Let’s not forget visiting and other responsibilities we have as pastors.

So, what time is left for publishing sermons, blog posts, and so on?

Small churches and small church pastors generally do not have the resources to financially support servants to the servants (think of Luke or Mark in the Bible as they served Paul). One option is to find someone in the church willing to help.

However, I have personally found that difficult. Sure, there are people willing to help, but time is a factor for them too. They have jobs and families. Other volunteers may not be qualified or experienced to do the things we need.

But what if you could hire someone to do a particular job for you each week at a reasonable rate? Maybe someone could simply edit and publish your sermons. Maybe you have other tedious work in mind that you’d be willing to hand over.

If you have those kinds of jobs in mind, giving them to someone else might clear up at least a few hours here and there. It would allow you to focus on things you need to be doing and are better suited to do.

Of course, potential expense is a huge factor in hiring someone. I’ve considering hiring a virtual assistant many times before but I kept thinking to myself, “I don’t think I can afford someone.”

I was wrong.

One of the most mind-numbing tasks I do each week is transcribing my sermons. Frankly, I hate doing it. It only takes me about an hour and a half and I strongly believe it’s worth doing, but I hate doing it.

This week, I got behind. I was facing the prospect of transcribing two sermons in a day rather than one. It motivated me to finally look seriously at hiring a virtual assistant.

I went to Elance.com and posted a job opportunity requiring 3-4 hours a week transcribing two sermons. I was clear that I needed each transcript within two days and could not pay more than $20 per sermon.

By the way, the going rate for transcriptions is $1 (or more) per minute of audio. That’s $45 for a 45-minute sermon.

Within an hour, I received messages from fourteen freelancers willing to do the job. I was messaging back and forth with so many people that I felt like I needed to hire a virtual assistant just to hire a virtual assistant.

Three hours later, I hired a woman from the United States willing to transcribe two sermons a week for less than $20. While I can’t report yet on the long-term quality of this new arrangement, my hopes are remarkably high.

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