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Report on Webmaster Survey

Dr. Scott Thumma
Hartford Institute for Religion Research
December 6, 2000

In the fall of 2000 students in Hartford’s Seminary course on Religion and the Internet electronically surveyed a total of 125 webmasters of U.S. congregational web sites. These sites represented Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and both conservative and liberal Protestantism congregations.

The surveys were either attached to an email message or directly inserted in the email message to the stated webmaster of these congregational sites. The sites were randomly chosen off search engines and lists of congregational web sites. From the total 125 sent, we received 63 usable responses, almost exactly a 50% response rate. We received surveys from a diversity of types of sites:

  • Twenty percent were online a few months while 9.5% were over 4 years (average length of being online was 30 months)
  • Twenty six percent were Catholic sites, 15.8% were Southern Baptist, and 13.2% were nondenominational. The remaining 45% were scattered evenly between Evangelical and Mainline Protestant, Jewish and Muslim religious traditions.
  • The sites were evenly distributed throughout the country.

Obviously this sample cannot be seen as representative of the nearly 150,000 US religious congregations with some web presence. Nevertheless, even this small number of responses yields several interesting findings about how congregational web sites are created and maintained.

One of the most startling findings is that none of the webmasters surveyed reported that their congregations contracted with professional web design firms outside of their membership to create their sites. This news is both encouraging, since these web sites are "homegrown" grassroots projects of committed and motivated members, and also disappointing, since many of the sites surveyed could have benefited from professional design assistance.

Another significant, but not surprising, finding was the person responsible for the idea to create the web site in the first place. In nearly half the cases a layperson had the original idea for a congregational web site. Pastors were the catalysts for the web site in just 30 percent of the cases, with the remaining 20 percent scattered among either teams of members, committees, and individual staff persons.

The survey yielded interesting insights into the web site planning and construction process as well. As stated above, in the vast majority of cases (75.8%) a skilled member of the congregation was responsible for the site creation, with an additional 21 percent made by congregational staff members. In slightly over half the cases, the congregation as a whole was encouraged to contribute ideas for the site, although a few webmasters confessed that this request for involvement was a big mistake.

A majority (76%) of webmasters, a few of who were not the original creators of their sites, stated that it was relatively easy to get the original material for their sites. Several of those surveyed voluntarily reported that is it a much more difficult task to get continual new material to update their sites. Whatever the case, most of those surveyed didn’t spend extensive time planning their sites, with the majority of webmasters (56%) saying it was 2 months or less from the idea of the site to when it went online. Another 30% said they took between 3 to 4 months to bring their sites to actualization.

The responsibility for generating new web content does not rest on the shoulders of the webmaster alone, however. In over half the cases, multiple persons share this task - from a web committee or clergy/staff team to a publications or publicity department. The webmaster is responsible for this effort in a quarter of the sites, a pastor is in 15% and a secretary is in 10% of the sites surveyed. Often these responsible persons garner new information from administrative staff, the newsletter and publicity committee, or from other ministry leaders.

The survey also explored the intended audience of a congregational site. Nearly 50 percent of webmasters said their sites were equally aimed at the general public and at their own members. Another large group of sites (43.5%) were seen as more for the public, with only 7 percent saying they designed their sites mostly for an internal congregational audience. Not surprising, the congregational interest ranged from "very little" to "some" when the web site first was introduced, but most webmasters reported that the congregational interest in the site had increased to at least "some," with 34 percent reporting more than some interest and another eleven percent reporting "a lot of interest."

All the congregations reported publicizing their sites using from 2 to 6 different methods including, in order of mention, search engine submission, bulletins, general congregational literature, public ads, denominational listings, newsletters, brochures, word of mouth, outdoor signs, bumper stickers and radio/TV ads. Interestingly, much of the publicity was equally aimed at external and internal audiences (65%) or internally toward the congregation (23%). Somewhat surprisingly, only 12 percent of respondents stated their publicity efforts were primarily directed at external targets. This seems incongruent with the finding that nearly 44 percent of sites were seen as directed at an external audience.

Webmasters overwhelmingly report a mix of outsiders and congregational members using their sites, although a quarter thought most of their traffic was from nonmember visitors. Nearly a third of webmasters didn’t know which pages on their sites were the most popular. Of those who knew the traffic patterns, the pastor’s sermons (both audio and in text), newsletters, schedules of events (only if they were kept up-to-date), list of links, and pictures of ministry events drew the most visitors.

As the class members visited the surveyed web sites they noticed that very few of them including interactive features, such as bulletin boards, chat rooms, email listserves or newsletters, downloading of sermon files, hyperlinks to missionaries or interactive schedules and calendars. Many of these interactive features are often available free as downloads from numerous web sites.

One question that was not asked was how successful these sites were at attracting first time visitors and new members. Although not asked, eight respondents (13%) claimed to have gotten first time visitors because of the web site, and all but one of these eight said the congregation gained new members directly as a result of the site.

One methodologically interesting finding from this research effort had to do with email surveying. Our response rate was greatly increased when the survey was inserted in the email rather than sent as an attachment. The response rate for surveys included in the email message was 74.7% while that for surveys sent as attachments was 14 percent. We speculate this difference is due to the recent number of viruses that are broadcast through email attachments. Individuals are less willing to open an attachment from someone they don’t know, even if the cover email to which it is attached seems to be from a trustworthy source such as a seminary student doing a class project.

Although this research effort is limited in its scope, it nevertheless offers an interesting glimpse into the process of creating and maintaining a congregational web site. There are many lessons to be learned from the interactions between webmasters, the congregation, its religious leaders and the site that gets created. Often the congregational sites are little more than electronic brochures. Occasionally a site does an excellent job of conveying the culture and character of the congregation in an appealing and inviting manner. In either case, it is certain that congregations are flocking to the web and greater attention needs to be paid to the method and manner by which this process happens.

You might also want to read other online articles about religion and the Internet.  They can be found on our section of this site dedicated to the topic.




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