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    Best Practices! - Entries written by Dave McCall

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    WedWednesdayAugAugust31st2011 iMinistries Church Website Content Management System - Version 1.5
    byDave McCall Tagged New Features 0 comments Add comment

    Our latest release

    On the night of August 29th, we put a new release in place. Usually we like to give you a list of all the exciting things you can do with the new release. Usually our releases have new features, tweaks and things our customers have asked for. Unfortunately this isn’t one of those releases. Sure, there are a few things in here that you might enjoy, but mostly this release was something we needed to do.

    We got a little behind. We built our system over 7 years ago and have made a lot of incremental improvements since. But, the technology underneath our system has been growing up around us.

    A couple weeks ago the Firefox group released version 6 of their browser. Upon testing the system we noticed that the editor that is used to build most of your pages didn’t work in Firefox. It was already having some issues in Chrome and Safari so we needed to upgrade. But to upgrade that component meant we needed to upgrade other things.

    So we put our heads down and worked hard to upgrade our platform from the 7-year-old .Net 1.1 Framework to the .Net 4 Framework. To do this, we had to touch just about every one of the over 200 web pages that make up our complete Content Management System.

    This is probably the biggest release we’ve ever done to our system, even without any major feature announcements. I know that it didn’t do a lot of things for you, but it was hard work for us and we’re feeling very proud of it.

    As you can imagine, this isn’t the kind of thing you do without a large share of potential problems. So, we spent a lot of time over the past two weeks trying everything. We ran the whole system through its paces. And we’re glad we did. We found some issues that were introduced thanks to our changes. We found some issues that have been around for some time. We kept testing until we felt like we’d caught everything we could.

    But it’s almost impossible to find everything. You guys do things with the system that we have trouble anticipating. So all day today we watched carefully. We watched for tickets in our support site. We watched for errors in our error log. (Did you know that every time you or one of your users receives an error message we track that and do our best to incorporate fixes?)

    Well, I’m happy to say that we think we’ve got most of the bugs fixed and that we did it all without your website being down for more than 30 total minutes. We had 5 minutes of time today (around 2 pm Central) where sites weren’t working unexpectedly. We had about 3 minutes where Ministry home pages weren’t working. We had a few issues with emails not being sent out of the system. But as of right now, we are tracking down only 2 last issues and hope to have them fixed by tomorrow.

    So what?

    What’s in it for you? Well, we’re using Microsoft’s latest web technology to power your site. That should mean faster sites. That should mean fewer bugs. Hopefully that means a better experience for you and your visitors.

    But there are a few improvements baked into the new stuff. These include:

    • Our new editor is really pretty slick.
      1. It should work in every major browser.
      2. You can now click a button to open in full screen mode.
      3. The image manager is greatly improved including an image editor.
    • We added the ability to upload thumbnails with your Ministry and feature a ministry as a highlight.

    Now what?

    We’ll be working on our normal round of improvements coming up to the system. Plus, we’re already working on our next major release. Internally we’re calling it “iMinistries 2.0” and I can’t express just how excited we are about it. We’re building the whole site again from the ground up to be faster, cleaner and more flexible than ever. Some of the highlights of what we’ve already done include much greater design flexibility, total integration with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and version control. When we’re ready, we’ll provide some sneak peeks.

    Thank You

    As much as I’m expressing our pride in what has been done, we’re not proud that any of you found bugs or had issues today. We are sorry for that. As usual, our customers have been gracious and understanding. Thank you for that. And, thank you for your continued business.



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    MonMondayJanJanuary4th2010 What's the Difference (Between Church Web Content Management Systems)
    byDave McCall Tagged Church Technology 0 comments Add comment
    There are many ways for a growing church to put together a website—even a high-quality website. You might consider:
    • Find talented web designers in your church to create a website for you.
    • Find someone technical within your church to set up one of the open source content management systems available.
    • Hire a web designer or web master to create and maintain your website.
    • Contract with a web design firm to design a template and pages.
    • Use a hosted content management system like iMinistries
    • Use a combination of a few of these.
    A hosted church content management system (CMS) is the right choice for most churches. However, we’re aware that there’s a choice between web CMS's. Why choose iMinistries over other CMS's? Why choose us over one of the more established systems available like Joomla or Drupal? Why choose us over the other church-specific web CMS's?

    Should your decision be based on a feature comparison, the available designs, ease of use, available support or the cost?

    The answer is "yes," you need to balance all of these. The system you choose should:
    • Have the features you need.
    • Be able to be designed to fit your image.
    • Be easy enough to use that everyone in your organization can use it.
    • Be supported by people who care about your mission.
    • Be one that you can afford to maintain long term.
    Why choose iMinistries? Because our goal is to strike the perfect balance between these priorities. If you explore us, we believe you will find that we’ve done just that. iMinistries provides:
      • A full set of website features needed by churches and ministries and then some. Powerful enough that Steve, your technical volunteer, will be impressed and able to help you get the most out of the system.
      • The flexibility to implement a wide array of designs, including several free designs. Flexible enough to accommodate even Nate, your fussy volunteer designer.
      • A unified user experience designed with church users in mind. Simple enough to be used by Carol in the front office.
      • Free support from people whose passion is to help ministries reach people for Christ and raise up His disciples. Our team will help you get your site up and running quickly and keep it running. Support enough to keep Joe, your executive pastor, happy with the time line and the up-time.
      • Packages priced to fit your ministry. Affordable enough that Fred, head of your finance committee, will be a fan for life.
        In all honesty, we don’t strive to be the best in any one of these areas—we strive to balance them the best. We think you will agree—so will Steve, Nate, Carol, Joe and Fred. Why not give us a try and find out?


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        SunSundayJunJune1st2008 Shortcuts to Success
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Communications 0 comments Add comment
        While I wait for church to start on Sunday morning, I have begun playing a little game. Since our church is an iMinistries customer, I read through the bulletin and look for references to the church website. I've had weeks where the website gets 20+ references. What I am especially happy about are shortcut references.

        Throughout your site you are able to add shortcuts to practically any page. A shortcut allows you to give your visitors a direct, easy-to-remember reference to a page. For instance, if you create a shortcut to a photo gallery which is "potluckpictures," your visitors can access that gallery by simply typing "http://yoursite.org/potluckpictures."

        For our church, this has led to a dramatic change in the bulletin. The ministry team has been relieved of providing every bit of detail for each item and can now offer a small introduction while directing the curious straight to more information on the website. Our research shows that people use these shortcuts a lot.

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        Here are a few tips to using shortcuts:


        Keep them short but descriptive
        People can only remember so much. A shortcut like "mensretreatandworkweekendphotogallery" sort of defeats the purpose--"mensweekendpics" is probably better.

        Avoid acronyms unless they are very well known
        "VBS" is good, since I'm more likely to identify the "church's summer program" as "VBS" than "Vacation Bible School" anymore. But if your church offers a class called "Introduction to Christian Faith," chances are that "ICF" isn't entirely memorable while "introtofaith" might be.

        Shortcuts can only be used once
        One customer has already run into "overlap" with their shortcuts. Last year's New Year's Eve event had the shortcut "newyears" and had to be removed before that shortcut could be used on this year's event. We'd suggest "newyears2008" as a better practice for something you do regularly.

        Feel free to drop the WWW

        Your site is most certainly reachable at both "www.mysite.org" and "mysite.org." When you write your shortcuts, save space and leave off the "www." The URL "mysite.org/shortcut1" is simple to type and takes up little of your valuable bulletin space.

        Don't miss out on using this feature.
        ThuThursdayMayMay1st2008 Fill It Out With Highlights
        byDave McCall Tagged New Features 0 comments Add comment
        We believe strongly that your church website can be a great tool for your ministry and help fulfill your ministry goals. As we've discussed before, two of the strongest contributions your site might make are:
        • To connect new people with your ministry
        • To help current visitors/attendees/members find new ways to "plug in"
        Generally, people will visit your website looking for something specific. Let's call this "what they think they want."
        • For someone who hasn't attended, this might be the service times or your statement of belief. 
        • For a current attender, this might be the times of that prayer meeting or the e-mail address of one of your pastors. 
        • For the member, this might be pictures of last weekend's retreat or your worship music archive.
        But each of these visits also represents an opportunity for you to give them "what you think they need to know. Don't miss these opportunities.
        • When the potential attender looks for service times, why not also show them how to become a believer, information about the new believer's class, and a link to a welcome letter or video from your pastor?
        • When a current attender comes to find out about the prayer meeting, why not offer her some information about your membership classes?
        • When a member comes to see pictures, why not show him a volunteer posting for next year's retreat?
        Your iMinistries website has what we call highlights. Highlights are simply "slots" in the margins of a page where you can place a sort of mini-ad for another item on your site. Each highlight shows the item's thumbnail, the title, and a brief summary. Each page can have up to five highlights. Highlights can be explicitly selected or you can have the system present a random highlight on the page.

        Highlights are great for "filling out a page," but their more important goal is to direct visitors to other potentially interesting content. This is, after all, one of the distinct advantages to the Web as a communication vehicle--users can and will click around to see more information. We track the use of highlights in our sites, and we've found that, when they are presented, users click them. Are you using them?
        SunSundayAprApril20th2008 Spring Cleaning for Your Website
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Design 0 comments Add comment
        One of the premier web usability books on the market today is abruptly titled, Don't Make Me Think. The premise of the book is based on the title. No surprise.

        The author asserts that web users not only don't want to think, but that they won't. Your site's visitors will lose patience if they are made to work too hard.

        With that said, we'd like to make a suggestion. Maybe it is time for a website "spring cleaning." There are certainly ways you can simplify your church website. Here are some suggested places to look for improvement:

        Navigation

        Can your menus be simpler? Are you using breadcrumbs and do they make sense to the user? Are items titled what people would expect, can they find items in the search? For most sites, each level of your menu should offer 4-7 options, does yours?

        Combining/Splitting

        Are there pages on your site that could be combined for simplicity? Are there items which would make sense as two items?

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        Highlights

        Are you routinely using all five highlights? Depending on your site's size, this may or may not be appropriate. Bigger sites should probably use highlights as much as possible to help users get to information more easily. For smaller sites, don't allow highlights to clutter your site too much. Two or three highlights may be enough.

        Purging

        Are there items on your site that are out of date or just need to be refreshed? Is all your content relevant? Is your staff directory up-to-date? Are you using expiration dates?

        As with any communication, try to put yourself in a visitor's shoes. Can they find what they want? Are they finding what they want with help from your site or in spite of it?
        TueTuesdayAprApril15th2008 Our New Site and Logo
        byDave McCall Tagged Company News 0 comments Add comment
        Have you visited iministries.org lately? No? We don't blame you. We haven't done much with it in the last year or two and we don't feel badly about it either. We've been busy working on your websites. We finally got around to an update and wanted to tell you about it. Specifically, we wanted to go over some of the choices that we made which we feel might help you think about your own website.

        First off, we want to point out that we absolutely use our own product. Our site is built entirely using the same tools that you use.* With this being the case, you might choose to use some of the same techniques.

        Simplified Navigation
        We've simplified our navigation to make it easy for visitors to find what they need. We've chosen five simple top-level menu options (right in between the 4-7 recommendation which we will talk about in a future blog entry) and have chosen to have only a single level underneath of no more than five items.

        Using Blogs
        We've chosen to use blogs to highlight our portfolio, system updates and this little feature where we tell you things. This allows us to put each new client out there and to accept comments very quickly, communicate to our users about system updates and get our thoughts out there. Find out how to use RSS and subscribe to any one of our blogs. We feel that you will be glad you did.

        Using Photo Galleries
        We're using photo galleries to provide you with thumbnails that you can use in your own website. These are royalty free so you can use them as you see fit.

        Simplified Homepage
        We have simplified our homepage to offer a little less information up front. We have learned over the years that if you have too much information, it scares people. If you go to a website that has so much information right out of the gate, it seems a little overwhelming. We don't want visitors to feel like there's too much there and have them decide to "come back later." Instead, we have selected specific things to present.

        New Logo

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        Not that anyone has asked, but you might have thought for a second, "What's the deal with your new logo?" We are glad you almost asked. Our goal these days is to provide the most flexible websites for churches and ministries. We want the tools and design options to be flexible. We hope that you are able to use your website for just about whatever you can dream up.

        Our new logo is supposed to evoke the flexibility of a rubber band. I have to admit, we think it's pretty sweet both as a concept and in its execution.

        Custom Design
        We want to offer a big thank you to Baron3, our design partner. A good number of you have probably already worked with Nate Baron. Nate designed our site and logo personally and we are very grateful for it. We're pleased to offer a professional look and feel. If you'd like to look into a custom design or a refresh of your site's design, please let us get you in contact with Baron3.

        We hope you like our new look as much as we do.

        * I feel compelled to state, for the record, that our Pricing page is a custom-built page we built to pull the pricing from our database so we don't have to update it in two places. Otherwise, we use everything else "out of the box."
        ThuThursdayJunJune7th2007 How Fast is Your Website?
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Technology 0 comments Add comment
        When someone requests a page from your church website, a number of things are happening at the same time.
        • The user's computer checks a domain name server (DNS) server to find your domain.
        • The browser checks its cache to see if it has a copy of your page. If not, it goes to the server and requests the page.
        • When the page is requested from the server, the server does some determination to find the requested page. On an iMinistries site, there are a few steps required to correctly get the right page.
        • Now the browser pulls apart the HTML from the page to see whether or not there's anything else to request. If your page contains any images, stylesheets, javascript, flash or videos, the browser checks its cache to see whether it has a copy of any of these files. If not, the file is requested from the server.
        • The first time a user visits your site, this may mean a significant wait time as each item is downloaded.
        Do you know what a first time visitor to your website has to download? You should.

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        We believe the best way to describe our tools is for you to try them out yourself. We offer a 15-day free trial account which will give you a few days to use all of the features available to our paying clients. There's no risk and no obligation. Who knows, you might even enjoy the new control you have over your very own website.

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        We do everything we can to make the parts of your iMinistries website that we control lean and lightweight. We send relatively little HTML through. We include only the necessary javascript files on your site and we do what we can to maintain lightweight CSS files. However, this is only what we control. What about what you control?

        You can easily find out. We would suggest you visit the following site:

        WebSiteOptimization.com

        Enter your site's URL and see the results. Remember, we're living in the Web world. Most users are too impatient to wait more than a few seconds for a page to load. The good news is that much of the content on your page is going to get cached after the user visits the first page of your site, but if you visit your Site Watcher page, you will notice that it isn't uncommon for a user to move on from your site after simply visiting your homepage.

        My advice is that you ask yourself how important each image and flash file you have on your site (especially your home page) is to the overall goal of your site. Without doubt some will be worthy of your user's wait time. It's up to you to try to determine which items aren't.
        MonMondayJulJuly31st2006 How to Write for the Web
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Communications 0 comments Add comment
        Today, I'm simply going to point you to another website. This article was written by Jakob Nielsen. Jakob is widely regarded as the world's foremost usability expert. As a usability expert, his primary concern is not with the way computer applications (and websites) perform or look, but how easy it is for the end-user to use them.

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        He wrote this guide "How to Write for the Web," that is almost required reading for anyone who maintains a website.

        As I know many people don't have time to read the whole thing, you may want to skip to the conclusions section at the bottom which gives you a summary of the findings.

        For those with more time, spending some of it on the host site, useit.com could be useful.
        MonMondayJunJune26th2006 What RSS is and Why You Should Care
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Technology 0 comments Add comment
        What is RSS?

        RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is a standard created to enable sharing of content across the internet. The goal is to make it easier for people who created internet content to distribute the content.

        There are several ways to "consume" RSS content and different content types are consumed in different ways. Text content is read, audio content is heard, video or image content is seen. The most common way to consume RSS content is using an RSS reader (sometimes called an RSS aggregator). These software applications allow users to consume RSS in a similar way to the way email programs present email. Typically, these applications indicate which items have been read and which have not. There are many very good RSS readers which are distributed free.

        Interestingly, there are a number of other novel applications of RSS. For instance, Podcasting is a technology which uses RSS to distribute audio. Soon we'll start hearing more about videocasting which will distribute video files. Another novel application is to allow sharing between websites. For instance, My Yahoo now allows users to consume any RSS feed on their My Yahoo homepage, putting any RSS content next to the latest headlines, weather, stock prices and horoscopes.

        Why You Should Care?

        Your ministry's website should serve as one gateway to your ministry--connecting people with events and news that will help them get connected. RSS makes that information easier to get to. Users who are already using RSS (and there are a lot of them out there and more each day) may decide to subscribe to your RSS feed using their favorite RSS reader. In this case, as soon as new news or events are added to your site, these readers will know.

        Free Trial

        We believe the best way to describe our tools is for you to try them out yourself. We offer a 15-day free trial account which will give you a few days to use all of the features available to our paying clients. There's no risk and no obligation. Who knows, you might even enjoy the new control you have over your very own website.

        Create Your Free Trial Account
        The great news for iMinistries customers is that RSS feeds are already available on your site. Your site's blogs, news and events have feeds already available. It is possible that users of your site are already consuming RSS and staying up-to-date with your ministry.

        Get Started Now

        You can get started right now. How? Follow this link and subscribe to this blog right now.

        For More Information:

        See Wikipedia
        See this listing of RSS Reader applications

        MonMondayJunJune19th2006 Your Website Can Make a Difference
        byDave McCall Tagged No tags 0 comments Add comment
        In April of 2004 the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that "64% of wired Americans have used the Internet for religious or spiritual purposes." According to the same research, 17% of Americans have used the Internet to find a place to worship.

        Free Trial

        We believe the best way to describe our tools is for you to try them out yourself. We offer a 15-day free trial account which will give you a few days to use all of the features available to our paying clients. There's no risk and no obligation. Who knows, you might even enjoy the new control you have over your very own website.

        Create Your Free Trial Account
        Your ministry's website has the potential to make a difference. Internet users are doing more and more online. Users are searching for religious information, finding ways to grow and looking for support.

        Click here to view the report
        MonMondayJunJune12th2006 How Search Engines Really Work
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Technology 0 comments Add comment
        How Search Engines Work

        Search engine ranking is often misunderstood. How does one boost his site's ranking on a search engine?

        For most of the current search engines (Google, Dogpile, MSN) there’s very little you can do. When they find you, you get “indexed." In order to get indexed the first time, your site must have a link from some other site that they have already found.

        The main exception to that rule is Yahoo, to which you can submit your site. We would recommend that you submit to Yahoo. Being listed on Yahoo guarantees that your site will be found by the other major search engines.

        Free Trial

        We believe the best way to describe our tools is for you to try them out yourself. We offer a 15-day free trial account which will give you a few days to use all of the features available to our paying clients. There's no risk and no obligation. Who knows, you might even enjoy the new control you have over your very own website.

        Create Your Free Trial Account
        For Google, your rank in the search is determined by a number of factors, but mostly who you "associate with." In this case that means who links to you. The more people who link to your site, the better your ranking will be. Find out more about how Google works by checking out our previous blog on "The Google Monster."

        What does this mean for you?

        Simply put, if you want a good search ranking then you need to keep a great site. People link to great sites. Most importantly, you need interesting and dynamic content. Web users link to sites that they find useful or encouraging.

        Creating online devotionals, journals of thoughts and other candid content will increase the probability that someone will find the information useful. Anything you can add to your site like this will increase your odds of a good search ranking.
        MonMondayJunJune5th2006 Under Construction is Assumed
        byDave McCall Tagged Church Communications 0 comments Add comment
        Apart from animated images, nothing says "this website is lame" better than "Under Construction" pages. The dirty little secret of the web is that every site is under construction. Websites are meant to constantly change. This is what makes websites a valuable method for distributing information.

        Free Trial

        We believe the best way to describe our tools is for you to try them out yourself. We offer a 15-day free trial account which will give you a few days to use all of the features available to our paying clients. There's no risk and no obligation. Who knows, you might even enjoy the new control you have over your very own website.

        Create Your Free Trial Account
        The best way to build a website is to do it a little at a time. We recommend to our clients that they only add a page to their site once they have the information to fill out that page. This saves users from the frustration of following a link just to find out that the information they are looking for is not available.

        Don't worry if you've created "Under Construction" pages before. It happens to the best of us. I've done it. But, we become responsible for what we know. And now you know.