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Jul 31

How to Write for Web Pages - Part 2 - Macro View of an Editorial Approach

Posted by Bill Anderton

In the first installment of this series, the concept was put forth that websites are indeed publications of churches (albeit online publications) and should operate as journalistic enterprises. Such websites should be operated very similarly to the ways newspapers, and magazines operate.

empty_newsroom_400w.jpgPublication-type operation is a proven approach for church and ministry websites, and I strongly recommended that webmasters operate their websites like a journalistic endeavor.

If so, the development of content for journalistic-style websites should be directed by over-arching editorial strategies and tactics that mirror similar policies used by newspapers and magazines. In all journalistic endeavors, content isn’t developed randomly; it is developed intentionally along the lines of pre-defined strategies and tactics.

In the second installment of this series, we will discuss various strategies and tactics you can include in an editorial approach for your website.

You Need an Editorial Approach

The journalistic approach to a website is a proven method for operating a very successful website for a church or ministry. This approach not only produces high visitor counts, it also produces large numbers of returning visitors who will regularly visit your site and allow you to build an online virtual relationship with your returning visitors.

I am an advocate for this approach!

Note that journalistic-style websites are not the only option that churches have. Alternatively, churches could adopt a static-brochure style website (as discussed in the Rookie Blog of this community). Static websites are updated only rarely with new information. They are developed once at the beginning of the project and may not be touched afterward for a year at a time.

Static websites do not contain as much text as dynamic websites and require much less writing to complete. Typically, the writing workload for static websites is similar to developing an eight-page printed brochure. Yes, the quality of the writing is still very important in static websites, but there simply aren’t all that many words written and almost no updates or new information added throughout the year.

While static-brochure style websites are better than no website at all, static websites do not produce lots of visitors. Static websites serve a similar role for churches that the old Yellow-Page ads did of four decades ago. People may search and find static websites for reference information like addresses and phone numbers. However, few people will be able to find them as often because of the very small footprint such sites command in the search engines. Also, visitors won’t return to these types of sites because there is no reason, all of the content was seen in the first visit, and it’s the same as their last visit.

On the other hand, journalistic-style websites are continuously updated with new content, typically on at least a weekly basis. As a result, the number of pages in the website grows over time as does their footprints in search engines’ indexes. Because such websites have more entries in the search engines’ indexes, more people find them in their searches. Also, importantly, such sites do a much better job reaching and serving their communities by producing returning visitors as well as forming ongoing online relationships with returning visitors.

If you are doing to produce a journalistic-style website (and it is STRONGLY recommended that you do), you need a well-thought-out editorial approach to guide your writing efforts when developing content. Not only will editorial approaches provide guidance about WHAT to write about, but also HOW to write your stories.

An intentional editorial approach should direct your writing. In this installment of this series, we will discuss the basic components of an editorial approach. This installment of the series will provide a generalized prescriptive architecture for an editorial approach suitable for a church or ministry. Within the presented generalized architecture, there are plenty of places where you can customize the suggested approach, so it best fits your church or ministry.

Also, please feel free to depart the suggested architecture and develop an editorial approach from scratch. It is not important that you use only my reference architecture. However, you have one and use it! Just make it intentional and think it through.

Who Will Read Your Web Pages?

Any editorial approach should begin with a foundation derived from an understanding of who your readers will be. Who will visit your website to read the content you present.

Visitors to websites are various constituency cohorts who come into your site either looking for something specific or to simply browse the site.

As a writer, you should keep all of the constituencies that you will be addressing in mind as you write. Your potential viewers will include:

  • Members of your church
  • Potential physical visitors to your church looking for a new church home
  • Reporters from other online or traditional media planning to mention your church or ministry
  • Any person in the general public from your neighborhood or parish
  • Any person in the general public from your town or city or region
  • Everybody else on a global basis

Far too often, church people only write for the first of these constituencies: the members of their congregation. Such writing typically contains too much “assumed knowledge” or language usage (jargon, liturgical terms and language shorthand based on assumed knowledge) that may not be understood by all people.

In other words, people write web pages the way they write their church newsletter. Beware of this tendency.

If you use this approach, you under-serve what is arguably one of the most important reader cohort: people looking for a new church to visit next Sunday. According to a Pew study, 70% of the people looking for a church to physically visit will go to the church’s website first. In this first visit, they are making a quick decision about IF they are going to visit or not. At most, you only have a couple of minutes (if not seconds) to make their short list of churches they plan to visit. The text of your webpage (and the whole site in general) had better communicate effectively, or you will miss your fair share of these new physical visitors. Don’t make these readers dig for information or puzzle over the meaning of your text.

Also, realize that this is a two-way street; poor websites with poor web pages can drive people away.

Visitors from other media, online or traditional, are almost always overlooked but are a very important cohort. Any reporter worthy of the title will always check your website before writing about you or making a link to your website. Your site should engage this important cohort because they are “force multipliers” that increase your efforts. More citations, and more links to your website not only mean more visitors to your website, but also form signals that search engines pickup and increase the rankings of your pages in future searches.

Visitors to your website from the people in your neighborhood and town will far outnumber the total number of visitors from your congregation. If you write only for the people inside your church, you can unwittingly exclude people from the outside of your church. A good church website should reach the people around your church. You never know from where your next physical visitors may come. Also, even if your neighbors aren’t prospects for joining your church, they may still support your ministry as volunteers or contributors. In any event, you want proactively to cultivate positive relationships with you neighbors and community.

Website visitors from the general public can be any person on the Internet that stumbles into your site and lands in the first page they see. If they stick around at all, it will be because they have some interest in what they are reading as they scan your page. Honor that interest and make it easy for them to understand what you are trying to communicate. Don’t forget that websites can be great evangelistic tools. Don’t just use your website for church growth and promotion, think of the Great Commission too.

What Should You Write About?

As a church, you must carry a lot of content on your web pages that are purely informational in nature. Some of it might not be very exciting, but it will be important to get the information out to the public.

However, you will also have a lot of content that can be more exciting and inherently more interesting to your website visitors.

The trick is using both types of information synergistically to achieve the best and highest value for the website and, therefore, to your ministry.

The more exciting your stories will be, the more worthy of writing more words about it. The most exciting stories easily justify publishing longer pages and even multiple pages. The more exciting stories will achieve more traffic that in turn benefits all other content.

Churches, congregations and ministries are content-rich environments. There are many potential stories that you can write, each with multiple ways to play the story. The trick is not just deciding about what to write about for any one story, but how to cover the totality of all possible stories within your church; how each piece fits the overall mosaic.

Websites Should Have Written Editorial Plans

Like most publications such as magazines and newspapers, successful websites have written editorial plans that include editorial calendars and policies that include descriptions of the type of stories carried in the website and how often content will be added or refreshed.

If your website doesn’t have well-thought-out written editorial plans, make them!

The act of developing formal editorial plans and policies will cause you to have to think through the important aspects and strategies of your website’s content. With written editorial plans, content just won’t be developed willy-nilly, but will be proactively developed along the lines of a master plan. Your content will be intentional!

The cornerstone of your editorial plan will typically be an editorial calendar with four facets:

  • Long-term plans – Long-term plans typically list upcoming events and possible feature story ideas listed a year in advance. Having some idea of the big things and little things that are coming up in the future will be a big help planning your editorial coverage. The more you know about the future, the clearer your vision will be and the more time you will have to plan your coverage.
  • Medium-term plans – Medium-term plans typically list stories several months into the future. The items in this facet of your editorial calendar are close enough to be serious candidates for beginning the process of developing the story. Draw specific writing assignments from this list.
  • Near-term plans – Near-term plans typically list stories to publish in the next several weeks. These might be quick-reaction stories for events or news of a late-breaking nature or other stories that have been on the calendar for a while, but just came to fruition. Materials from assignments (texts and pictures) are coming in, and the editorial process is beginning.
  • Pre-publication queue – The pre-publication queue contains all of the content currently being prepared for publication in the immediate future. The time horizon for the materials in this queue is typically days or even hours. This material is destined for publication in the current week.

Items in each facet of the editorial calendar will move sequentially through the list. However, editorial calendars are highly dynamic. Some stories may be brought forward ahead of schedule and others delayed as needed. Editorial calendars are living documents.

Typically, good story ideas are not abandoned, but they may get pushed back to a better or more practical time.

What gets assigned and published is typically within the judgment of the webmaster, serving as editor-in-chief of the website, based both strategic and tactical reasons. In turn, strategies and tactics are shaped by the input and guidance from the various constituencies within the church.

Your editorial calendar should begin with your overall church calendar (the one typically maintained by your church secretary) that lists all upcoming events. By the way, this comprehensive calendar should also be published on your website, in full detail, but that will be the subject of another blog series.

Your event calendar should include everything that is possible to know, including such things as all scheduled events, upcoming sermons, small group meetings, mission activities, etc.

Place all of these events in your editorial calendar. Then, add potential feature story ideas appropriate for each season. Brainstorm additional story ideas with your church clergy and leadership. You cannot have too many story ideas or sources.

Take all contributed ideas and find a suitable place for each in your editorial calendar. Everything on your editorial calendar won’t necessarily turn into a published story, but instead the list will serve as a master list of potential stories.

From your master list, look for opportunities to tell the story of your congregation and its life and its ministries. Look for the big picture. In selecting which ideas to develop and how you intend to play the stories, become a good storyteller. You want the totality of your editorial coverage to tell the complete story of your church in a personal way that relates to your website visitors; to all of them, not just only to your people.

The overall story of your church or ministry won’t be simplistic; it will be rich, diverse and complex. It might even be messy. Match the totality of your coverage to your church’s unique overall story. Taken as a whole, your website visitor should get to know the truth of your church by reading its website.

From the master list of all story ideas in your editorial calendar, decide on which ideas you and your team will develop into stories for publication. Assign publication dates to everything you select for publication. Assign each selected story to the appropriate resources such as writers and photographers, as well as the web editors (if any) who may have to support them.

Promoting Your Event or Ministry News

Assuming that you are operating a dynamic website that features new content frequently added, you will naturally want to include the news of events and other occurrences happening within your church or ministry.

In most churches, stories about your upcoming events will be promotional in nature. You will naturally want to make your website visitors aware of upcoming events and present them honestly in a favorable light so our visitors will be motivated to attend or participate.

If you use these types of stories in your website, visitors to your website will gain awareness of what happening; not just from the one event itself, but also within the breath of things your congregation does and who your ministries touch.

News of events and occurrences make great web pages.

Your website is a natural news outlet for disseminating current-events news and information. If you have an event, circumstance or occurrence that you wish to promote to your community, your website should be one of the first places your visitors use as an outlet for that type of information.

Specifically how you write the information that you place on a web page will determine how effective your website will be as a communication tool.

Events: Multiple Trips to the Well

The temporal aspects of each event in your church or ministry provide three generalized opportunities for creating fresh content for your website. It is the same event, yes, but you can write at least three different stories (or more) from the viewpoint of its temporal aspects.

For example, each event or activity you decide to cover in your website is actually three opportunities for you reporters and contributors:

  • What is going to happen (as in the future)
  • What is happening now (as in the present)
  • What has happened (as in the immediate past)

Each of these three aspects of the reportage of each event is important to cover in order to providing comprehensive coverage suitable for carriage in websites. However, you do have to stay on top of this content production because each is an opportunity for your contributing resources to procrastinate or otherwise blow the assignment in some way.

To take this out of the abstract, I'll use a specific example of an Easter Egg Hunt on the church campus for the children in the community.

  • What is going to happen (as in the future) - For any event, you need to promote it well in advance of the event in order to build awareness that the event is occurring. You are reaching out to the community, and you want to inform the community and provide details so you can get into potential attendees' schedules. In this phase, you can (and should) write more than one story on the upcoming event. Months ahead of the event get it on your website's calendar with as many details as you have. The details may be sparse but publish what you have. Get this information out to newspapers and traditional media as early as possible with a link back to your website. About 6-8 weeks in advance of the Easter Egg Hunt, start publishing features stories on your website with solid details (who, what, where, when, how and why). You can do more than one feature. You can rewrite the first version of the first feature with a new slant on the story. My suggestion is to make the story progressively more and more personal from the viewpoint of the people who will attend. Use social media to help get the stories out.
  • What is happening now (as in the present) - an Easter Egg Hunt is a great opportunity for doing a semi-live or live online event. One the day of the event, do a story from the perspective of "happening today!" Many people will decide at the last minute if they are going to attend, so play to this audience. Then, do live tweets to your church's Twitter account during the event and mirror them to your Facebook page. Be sure to insert links back to the webpage. If you are a media-oriented church, do a live webcast. Interview both church members and guests during the event.
  • What has happened (as in the immediate past) - Immediately after the event, write a wrap-up feature story about the outcome of the event. Depending on the importance of the event and its scale, you can easily justify running the what-has-happened story for at least a week and possibly up to three weeks if it was an important event. Push these pages out to your local newspapers and other traditional media. It will be newsworthy for a period after the event. Also, when it comes time to retire any story off the website's home page, don't delete the story but move it to your "Past Event" section of the website so that all of the links in search engines' indexes remain alive and valid. The search engines will send you visitors for years based on a searcher finding content from an old event. Then, once in the website, they will go exploring for more current content. As a rule, I never throw content away. I properly classify it as a past event but keep it in the website and make it easy to find. I know that visitors looking at the church's website considering a new church home will often look at the past events and mission activities of the church as a good indication of what the church considers important.

There also can be an unclassified fourth temporal aspect of a story that is the long-term past as the sweep of history.

Reaching back into your archives to do stories on your history can always be made interesting. Mine your archives! It is one thing to say you have a history. It is quite another to bring that history alive with in-depth details of things that happen. When possible, you should relate your history in the personal terms of the people involved, not just the event itself.

Writing about history can involve just a single event in your historical timeline or it can be a series of events that show a trend you wish to bring out.

How Should You Write Your Story?

Your stories should have what, in journalism jargon, is called a “news peg” which is the aspect or angle of a story that makes it newsworthy.  The story hangs on the peg. The news peg forms the basis of the story.  It is a reference in the story to a newsworthy event that underlies or justifies the story.

Your story should also have a “hook” which is something that draws the reader in. In journalism, your hook is what makes the story relevant right now to the reader in a localized and personal way. The hook is the critical piece of newsworthy information that will capture the attention and interest of the reader because it directly impacts them.

The media relations and public relations company bthinkforward.com suggest these seven ways to create irresistible hooks (the seven points are quoted verbatim):

  1. Provide a twist on trending news - If a particular trend or topic is hot in the media right now, you can bet that journalists are scrambling to one-up each other with new stories. You can fill that void — but you, positively must show up with a twist to the story they’re already reporting. Share a personal story, a surprising survey result or the contrarian view.
  2. Localize a national story - Pick up your local newspaper or flick on your local ABC affiliate, and  you’ll see countless examples of businesses that got their 15 minutes by being the local example. These types of stories are the bread-and-butter of your hometown press.
  3. Nationalize a local story - This trick also works in reverse. Scan your local news for hometown stories and ask yourself: Does this story have national relevance? How can I frame it for a reporter, and insert myself in the story in the process? This is how a lot of freelance writers get their ideas — and it can work wonders for you, too.
  4. Be a Contrarian - Objective journalism these days often hinges on getting “both sides of the story.” If you’re seeing a one-sided media conversation about your industry, it’s an opportunity for you to break through as an expert — especially if you’re willing to champion the underdog opinion.
  5. Personalize big data - Very few micro businesses have the data samples or poll results that attract press. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be the case study that helps the reporter tell the data story. Set up alerts for surveys and polls on topics relevant to your business, and let the media know when you’re the case study for the results (or the exception to the rule).
  6. Reinvent the holiday story - Sick of reading the same-old holiday or seasonal stories? Journalists are tired of writing them. And, yet, it’s inevitable. Every Mother’s Day, you’re going to read countless stories on gifts for mom. If you can give a reporter a new spin on that seasonal feature she has to write every year, you’re on the fast-track for being her go-to source when she’s writing a story on a deadline.
  7. Are you releasing something new? Use it! - This is the most obvious way to create a hook, but it’s my least favorite (look! I’m being a contrarian). Most of the time, your new product or service isn’t newsworthy in itself, and announcement press releases are the biggest waste of time for you and for a journalist. But (and this is a big but), if you can demonstrate how your product or service is new and that it ties into a trend, you’ve got a great hook.

Always ask yourself, “Is this story is newsworthy?"  In other words, is it worth the space in your website, the prominence you’re giving it and the effort it takes to produce it? Remember that not everything is news or newsworthy. Just because you are excited about something does not necessarily mean that you have a newsworthy story. Put your excitement aside for a few minutes and think objectively about your story item. Think about the people reading your story and ask yourself, “Will others find this story interesting?”  Also, answer if you can, "Why should anyone care about this story?"

You may have an interesting and newsworthy story, but you might be trying to use the wrong peg or hook. Without an honest look at your subject, you might be trying to force-fit the story into an inappropriate peg or hook. Not every story you write for your website will be a “big” story; lots of them will be “small” stories and are still important information that needs conveying. However, small stories can still be presented in an interesting way.

Try looking at the story from different angles until you find the most interesting way to present the story. Often your story can be improved with a better angle. If you can’t find it interesting, likely nobody else will either.

Try to make your story timely. If possible, tie your local story or event to current events or social issues happening city- or state-wide, or even nationally or globally. Where appropriate make any linkages possible.

Make sure your story has news values such as timeliness, uniqueness or something truly unusual. You should focus on the aspects of your story that set your story apart from anything else. If so, you will write a better story.

Writing for a Larger Audience

In the Internet age, with its voracious appetite for content, the line between traditional “hard news” and promotional news-releases type of coverage has been blurred. More than ever, news outlets will run soft news.

Also, the Internet has produced more “news outlets” than ever before and has resulted in a much broader field with new players such as websites, personal blogs, social media  and other forms of “new media” joining traditional news outlets such as radio, TV, magazines and newspapers.

Despite these recent changes with the addition of new media, the purpose of a news-release type remains pretty much the same as always; to reach out to others that produce and distribute content and get them to include your particular message within their platforms or publications.

Much of your coverage carried in your website will also the suitable for turning into a press release, posting a press release on a web page and pushing the URL out to news sources.

Today, websites and the content of web pages are the post-modern news release. They serve exactly the same role for media that did the printed and mailed press releases of 60 years ago. However, they allow you to reach a much larger audience. Use this!

Realize that news releases are different from a news article in that a news article is a compilation of facts developed by independent third-party journalists (professional journalists or citizen journalists), and then published as content within a given media outlet (“old” media or “new” media). On the other hand, a news release is intended to be sent to journalists and media outlets in order to facilitate and encourage them to develop articles on your subject, message or story.

A news release is considered biased toward the objectives of the news release’s author, but that isn’t a bad thing because all parties well understand it. A news release is understood to be the raw materials to be used by the news outlet when creating their content. Journalists will filter and adjust the content of provided new releases to reflect their personal or professional news standards and writing styles.

However, if you learn how to develop good news releases (and web pages), and work within the accepted format of how to write news releases, you will be rewarded. You will find a symbiotic mutually-beneficial relationship among journalists, news editors and media outlets that will be willing to work with your news release.

Many modern content management systems that are used to produce websites can push e-campaigns, and syndication feeds to people. You might consider developing a list of journalists to push newsworthy items for publication.

Journalists, news editors and media outlets who receive your news feed may take the information contained in your news release as only source material to craft their articles they are writing. Or, they may use the information you provide in your news release word-for-word. Also, your news release may not stand alone. Instead, journalists may use your news release as the jumping off point for developing a larger feature story which is likely to be more prominent than simply running your news release.

It is a good idea to keep the possible uses of your web pages in mind when you write them; try to write your web pages as if you are writing for publication. Put yourself in the journalist’s shoes. Help them do their job easier, faster and better. If you can, you will benefit by wider distribution of your news. Remember that journalists are always overworked and operating on deadlines without much time. If you can make the journalist’s job easier, you will likely get more coverage. If you write a good news release the way the journalist is likely to use it, without the need for a lot of editing and rewriting, you may find your news release used pretty much as you released it. However, if you fill it with fluff, hype, poor grammar and improper style, the journalist may decide simply to move to the next news release, of which there are many.

Improving the Quality of Your Communication

Having a powerful platform like a website plus the processes for collecting and disseminating your information on its web pages are just the first steps of building an effective online ministry. The next major step is to get visitors to come into the site to read your web pages.

However, you are not done yet; these are only the first couple of several things must occur in order actually to communicate with your website visitors.

The next thing that must occur is filling your web pages with high-quality content that communicates your information: your well-written text and beautifully-produced images. You want content that informs, entertains and engages your website visitors.

Visitor will not read a poorly-written or ill-conceived web page as much as a well-crafted page. Also, a poorly written web page will have a much poorer chance of getting your story communicated and understood.

Even if you don’t know how to write effective website text now, you can learn how. News-style writing does not have to be great literature, or even all that creative in order to be effective.

Anyone can write effective text for a website if you follow a few basic rules. While you may lack the background of a journalistic-style writer, don’t worry. Anyone can write a good web page that can be widely read by the public with only some basic guidance. The purpose of this paper is to provide guidance when you are writing a web page for the first time.

None of this is very hard. Often, beginning writers often over-think writing. In 1946, George Orwell provided six basic rules in “Politics and the English Language.” All writers are well-served by these simple rules:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or another figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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