Did you like The Lord of the Rings series better as books or as movies?
Whether we are considering books, movies, theater, websites, brochures, posters or mobile apps, each medium does something unique that the others cannot replicate.
A lot of that has to do with how you choose to communicate.
Books are highly imaginative, relying on you as the reader to interpret what is happening. Movies, particularly blockbusters, on the other hand, focuses on showing everything that is important. While there’s less room for subjective interpretation, the story as shown on film can unfold quickly, as the director presents the narrative precisely as the moviemakers envisioned.
Books give you a world to explore.
Movies take you on an amusement park ride.
It’s up to you, which you prefer.
The important thing to keep in mind is that any format has areas of strengths and weaknesses. Whether we are considering books, movies, theater, websites, brochures, posters or mobile apps, each medium does something unique that the others cannot replicate.
Understanding what that unique advantage is, unlocks the power of that communication avenue.
Websites Are Not Brochures
I’ve been designing online media for close to 20 years. When I began, customers often liked to compare their website against their print material. They typically sought to reuse the content from their sales guide or trifold pamphlet on their website.
On paper (pun intended), that does seem to make sense: We already developed and like our brochure, so let’s just dump it online.
However, the problem is that websites are not brochures, just like books are not movies.
Where brochures offer a guided tour of your company or church, a website is a self-guided wander that begs for interaction. Brochures must be self-contained in the pages, but websites can link out to other sites to add additional resources and references.
Not to mention websites are mixed media that can use sound, music, forms, and social media, while print material - even nice print material - is only paper and ink.
There’s a time and a place to print, of course, but it would be as much a mistake to just print out the website, and call it a brochure, as it would be to encode a brochure as a website.
Mobile Apps Are Not Websites
That brings us to the current problems in the church mobile app landscape. All too often, a mobile app is redundant to the website: The same content, similar design aesthetic, maybe it even passes through directly to the mobile website on certain pages. This is often done as a time saver for the staff that needs to manage the “one size fits all” content.
If that is what you want, I would argue instead of building an app, it’s better to focus on a great mobile website experience. It will cost less, and the results will be stronger in execution.
Having an identical app and website misses the point. There are solid reasons to put your efforts and resources into the unique format that is the mobile app. That starts with leveraging the tools that make an app different from a mobile website.
Tool 1: Profiles
There is power in any system that gets to know the user better. For example, I like to think of my coffee shop’s app. It lets me save some basic information, to make ordering in the app easier than even ordering in person.
First, I set up my user profile. This includes some basic information about me, such as my preferred local store location, my name, and my payment information. Now when I order, it uses what it already knows about me to streamline the process.
After using it a few times, it also makes it easy to reorder the coffee and doughnuts I’ve recently ordered, by placing these in my “Favorites” menu. Using all this stored information, after opening the app, I can order my favorite coffee from my normal store and pay with my gift card in about three clicks, and still be properly identified when I walk in the store a few moments later.
Let’s harness the above scenario for church. Think of every event registration, sign up form and survey you created last year for your app and website: How many of those fields were exactly identical on every form? I almost always ask for first and last name, email, and phone number. Instead, let’s have this information stored in the app in my user profile, saving me the trouble of entering these fields constantly.
When I see there is a new Bible study class, with all the profile information stored and ready to go, I can register to attend it in just one click. With profile information, there are no forms to complete and practically no time spent with the technology.
Many church apps have adopted this idea for the giving features, which is great, but not for other opportunities. While it is convenient to make quick gifts electronically in my preferred payment methods, this is the tip of the iceberg to what is possible.
Tool 2: Smarter Notifications
The phone being physically with the person to provide on-the-spot reminders is one of the key differences between the phone and website. Well-timed notifications can absolutely be a game-changer, especially when they offer rich content.
Going back to the app profile for a moment, we can also include basic demographic information in the profile, including age, gender, marital status and if the user has children. With this information, why not leverage the profiles to filter out useless notifications automatically?
When we at Crossroads Community Church hosts a men’s breakfast, for example, I would expect a smart mobile app to be able to reference a profile and display the notification only to our male users. Likewise, if we have a marriage retreat, it would be great if the notification would only go out to married couples.
At a minimum, having multiple notification channels for these factors is a great start, such as a women’s notification channel or a notification channel for parents. Users will have to be trusted to “Opt In” or “Opt Out” to suit their tastes, but it still offers more control than a system that only has one channel for notifications, and an all-or-nothing approach.
In addition to finding the right audience, notifications should be appropriately rich content. They should be able to link to specific pages in the app or a website. They should have the ability for the users to respond or share with friends through text or social media. When mentioning events, it also is a great plus if the user can add the event to their calendar in a few clicks.
Finally, there should be a system for drafting notifications and releasing them on a schedule. It can be very demanding to have to post every notification in real time.
It’s much easier on the staff if a post can be scheduled for Christmas Day, for example, since we all have so much to do that manually posting to the app might easily be the last thing on our minds.
Tool 3: Geofences
Finally, phones have the somewhat unsettling advantage of knowing exactly where you are, thanks to location services.
Thinking again of my coffee shop app, when I’m on vacation and away from my local store, the phone and app already knows I’m away from home before I even log in. Almost instantly, it can help me find my closest coffee shop location, even displaying directions. Of course, it still knows my payment method, name, and regular order. Even though I haven't stepped foot in this place, the app guides me on my journey and removes every obstacle possible to give me the experience I expect.
Let’s apply this sort of experience on a Sunday: Imagine that during the first service of the morning, your Pastor is announcing the new small groups sign up.
As the pastor concludes his discussion, by asking everyone to pick a group and get involved “right now,” a notification is triggered.
Using a geofence, this message goes out only to the people physically inside the sanctuary, actively listening to your pastor in person, and no one not at the church. The notification has a link for those people to view the groups and select one.
Leveraging the saved profile information, the user simply clicks on the group they want to attend to sign up. It’s such an easy process, delivered to the right people at precisely the right moment.
When the second service comes, the same notification with the same content and same geofence is delivered. Now it reaches just the people attending the second service, without sending a duplicate message to the people who are already at lunch following their having attended the first service.
Finally, technology that makes authentic moments and real connections better.
Another use for a geofence might be for a new guest experience. If the new guest downloads the app, perhaps from a VIP welcome center section of your website, then you can make it perform an action when the phone arrives at the property the first time. For example, the app could trigger a notification with helpful information to the user. This could direct them to the best parking spot, inform them which door is the main entrance, and even give them a path to the information booth.
Perhaps that same notification could instruct them to ask an usher for a quick tour of the church. Or better yet, it could link them to a map that would help them locate bathrooms and the kids check-in on their own, taking some of the awkwardness and fear out of a first-time visit to the church.
The Future is Now…
As William Gibson said, though, it’s just not evenly distributed. These tools are found in apps that are on your smartphone right now, even if the market for off-the-shelf church apps has not caught up.
Forward thinking app developers, though, are diligently working to bring mobile apps for our congregations, up to the cutting edge.
As the church communicators, who buy and use these apps, it’s up to us to be demanding consumers to better serve the people we worship with.
It’s no longer enough to sell us a dumb way to repackage our websites as apps.
For the time and money that it takes to launch and maintain, apps are capable of much more than what we are used to receiving. Expect to deliver the best experience possible, to the users of your church app.