Chapter Seven – Becoming a Master Caster: How Do You Attract the Fish?
I went to Google and typed in ‘Is there a God?’ When I got to your site and saw the list of articles, it freaked me out. Every single question I had, it was all right there. I read through the whole site, even the articles for guys and the one about eating disorders. I read about how to become a Christian. When I read that God doesn’t care about the specific words, He cares about our hearts, it was so freeing. So I just prayed, ‘Yeah, what it says on the screen, God, I want that; I want to know You.’”
This testimony from EveryStudent.com is a wonderful example of how someone who had questions about life, eternity, God, Jesus, faith, and religion was able to find eternal life as a result of a Google search online.
Here’s another one:
I just typed in “WHO IS GOD” into Google and got your Web site. I really hope you can answer some of my questions, because I feel very lost at the moment.
These days the Web is almost anything you want it to be. But people will be attracted to your site only if you offer something that scratches their itch. The key is to find out what people want and then position yourself to provide it—and with it the gospel message. There are some key concepts to help the NetCaster work to make his or her site stand out from the millions of Web sites online—including the bridge strategy, search engine optimization, and the marketing funnel.
Using the Bridge Strategy
Many Christian Web sites make the assumption that their audience wants a religious experience online. But most effective NetCasters are careful to first build trust with a seeker, fostering a relationship through conversations, and then gently leading the person from the place of seeking to the place of surrender to Christ.
The wise NetCaster will do this by a subtle approach. All cross-cultural missionaries understand the importance of building cultural and communication bridges. This is just as true with online evangelism. Tony Whittaker calls this process of connecting with seekers the “bridge strategy.”
As I have already pointed out, the vast majority of Christian sites are created for believers using “Christian-eze” language, jargon, and assumptions. Most non-Christians are not able to relate to these sites, even if they do find such pages. But most people are searching online for what interests them—news, entertainment, sports, health, sex and relationships, advice on personal problems, hobbies, local information, humor, music, movies, celebrities, and countless other things.
“It’s important to understand that the Web is a ‘pull’ medium, unlike literature and radio, which are linear ‘push’ mediums,” explains Whittaker. “Generally speaking, people go online to search for information. The pages that relate to the subject of their search pull them in. Most people are not searching for Christian material, and so of course, will never find it. If they do by chance come across an obviously Christian page on a search engine listing when looking for a secular subject, they’re unlikely to click on it. If they do, they probably will not stay.”
If there is no pull drawing seekers to a site, they will most likely never stumble upon that Web page. So evangelistic Web sites are often designed to meet the felt needs of seekers, pulling them toward the answers they’re searching for. This strategy requires a great deal of intensive research and observation to determine the needs of a targeted audience, and then a large amount of creativity and work to design a site with all the elements necessary to attract seekers.
“The conventional Web site, which combines bridge strategy pages with a nonpreachy and appropriate presentation of the gospel, remains the most important type of online outreach,” says Whittaker. “Writing yet another presentation of the way of salvation is not going to reach many of them, unless we ‘fish on the other side of the boat,’ by using the bridge strategy.”
Whittaker suggests that NetCasters create Web pages on secular subjects or felt needs to target specific groups of people. Bridge pages must be written with integrity and they must be contextualized so they relate to their targeted readers. There are several ways you can draw people across the bridge to pages explaining the gospel:
• Your testimony: Whatever sort of site you have, make a link to “Meet the Webmaster” or “My Story.” Here is a chance to share your testimony. (But don’t call it “testimony”—that’s Christian jargon.) Introduce yourself first, where you live, what you like, etc. Then go on to explain how something happened that changed your whole view of life.
• “Meaning of Life” links: On any type of Web site, you can offer a link such as “What is the meaning of life?” or “Finding real fulfillment.” These do not sound preachy or even Christian, yet show some sort of nonthreatening “spirituality” content. As well as leading to a sensitive explanation of the gospel, they also offer the opportunity to provide FAQ-type apologetics answers.
• Parable meanings: Jesus used stories with a message as His main means of evangelistic communication. And He didn’t always explain the meaning—He left people to let them think!
“This does not mean that we make trick pages that are not really about the subject they claim to be,” Whittaker cautions. “If we write a page about restoring VW cars or breeding mice or a favorite musician, the page must truly be about that subject. It must be as good and informative as possible, maybe with many helpful links to other pages on the subject.”
A “bridge” page should not look Christian in its language or design. The more mainstream a Web site appears the better it will communicate with those with no Christian background. “It may make little mention of Christianity at all, allowing the links to other pages to progressively offer more material on the gospel. It’s important to get the balance right.”1
Fish Finder: Search Engine Optimization Strategy
The NetCaster who will embrace the bridge strategy as part of their ministry goal will reap the rewards of that effort. And through a proper understanding of marketing techniques and search engine optimization, those rewards can be even further multiplied.
A vital and necessary method of attracting people to your evangelism site is to employ search engine optimization (SEO), which is designing a Web site so that search engines can easily find the pages and index them. The goal is to have your page appear in the top search results through Google, Yahoo, or other search engines. Optimization includes the choice of words used in the text paragraphs and the placement of those words on the page, both visible and hidden inside meta tags, which are key words to help search engines find your content.2
Search engine optimization increases the volume of traffic to your Web site from search engines through the use of targeted keywords. SEO includes working within your site’s coding, presentation, and structure to coordinate keywords and concepts so they will be recognized by search engine “spiders” (links throughout the Internet that grab content from sites and add it to search engine indexes).
In the process of search engine optimization, research must be conducted to determine the most strategic keywords. This involves finding the relevant keywords, determining their popularity, considering the competition, and deciding how the keywords can be used within the content. An excellent resource to learn more about search engine optimization is http://www.seobook.com/blog.
Australian-born John Edmiston is a missionary Bible teacher who has been in full-time ministry using computers since 1991. He believes it’s imperative for the Internet evangelist to be knowledgeable in the science of search engine optimization. It begins with becoming specific in targeting your audience.
“My most specific pages—one on theophostic counseling, one on cloning, one on breaking curses—are the ones that get the most visitors. So if you want to reach a tribal culture and you want to do it evangelistically, you ought to have a Web site on how Jesus can deliver you from witches, curses, and spells. You use all those terms—‘Sanguma man,’ ‘curses’—very specific terms that are going to be relatively rare in Google. They’re just specific to that culture.”
“You have to think of how specific you can make it. You’ve got to think about your end user typing in a search engine—and then that search engine taking them to your page. You have to keep this process in mind always.
“How is God going to send you that seeker? You can come up with a very specific article that will be the only thing on the Internet on that topic. And once you’ve done that, you ask, ‘What sort of person is going to this unique Web site? What are their spiritual needs? How do they respond?’ You create these unique pages. Then those unique pages are your harvesting tools.”
Edmiston explains that a page about God, a page about salvation, or a page about the Bible is probably going to have no hits at all, unless you spend a lot of money on Google ads. But if you don’t have a lot of money for Google ads, you need to make your pages, articles, and videos specific. “The key to success in any communication strategy is thinking deeply about simple things. A lot of people say don’t bother with keywords anymore. I disagree heartily. I think keywords and end tags are just totally necessary. I was at a conference last year where someone was saying you didn’t need to worry about SEO. But he was getting less hits than my worst Web site.”
Edmiston gives these practical hints for building your SEO:
• Search engines mainly read HTML. Some search engines are starting to read PDFs, but they’re not as good as HTML. (I keep going back to HTML because that’s what gets you the hits.) You can create something in Word, then go to Dreamweaver and clean up the HTML. Then the search engines will pick it up.
• You will have few hits during the first three months. It takes awhile for the search engines to notice. Most search engines won’t find you for six weeks.
• The oldest pages get the most hits because they’re deep down in Google. Each Web site builds an audience over time, as it’s linked to other Web sites. If you add database-driven Web sites, you offer something that other people can link to.
• Be careful when you’re changing your pages; keep up with the old URLs so you don’t lose those links. Never change your URLs. You must allow things to build up.
• Offer specific targeted responses to currently hot topics. Keep up with political events, scientific events, or new movies that are coming out.
Another effective search engine optimization (SEO) tactic is maintaining a significant amount of text on your Web site to attract the spiders. Tiffany Maleshefski of SEO Tools explains the concept. “The code to text ratio represents the percentage of actual text in a Web page. Our content ratio tool extracts the text from paragraphs and the anchor text from HTML code and calculates the content ratio based on this information.
“Why is the code to text ratio important for SEO? The code to text ratio of a page is used by search engines and spiders to calculate the relevancy of a Web page. A higher code to text ratio gives you a better chance of getting a good page ranking for your page. Not all search engines are using the code to text ratio in their index algorithm, but most of them do. So having a higher code to text ratio than your competitors gives you a good start for on-site optimization.”3
“Search engines can sometimes be technical,” says CBN.com Marketing Director, Alex Demeshkin, “but the basic principle behind it is to write as if you were writing for humans, using their language, and the language that they would use if they were researching a topic. Then the chances are the search engines will pick it up.
“With CBN.com, for example, I look, periodically, on what search queries people use when they come to our Web site. Often one of the most popular searches is homosexuality and Christianity or divorce and faith—things like that. Clearly someone is struggling with an issue. Something is going on and it drives them to go and search for information specifically on that topic, on that issue. By virtue of being well optimized for search engines, with our resources on our Web site, hopefully we can help someone to receive help from the Lord on their problems.”
Buying Google Ad Words
Another approach is to buy ad words on a search engine like Google. Alan Beeber of Campus Crusade shared “that there are a variety of traditional as well as digital marketing options that ministers can be used to share the gospel. Which ones are chosen depend on the message, medium, desired results, target audience, budget, ect.
“The other thing is, because the Internet is the place where people do their private thinking and searching, people are going to use a search engine. So obviously you want to be optimizing one’s site for search engines.”4
It’s important to understand, however, that search engine optimization is not some sort of magic wand that will attract people to your Web site. SEO is not necessarily an appropriate strategy for every circumstance. Other Internet marketing strategies can be equally as effective, depending on your vision. Effective marketing may include a combination of:
• Search engine optimization using research and keyword placement;
• Links from other Web sites and blogs;
• Paid advertising on search engines and other pages;
• Designing high-quality Web pages to engage and persuade;
• Keeping on top of technical issues that may keep search engines from crawling and indexing your Web site;
• Constructing analytical programs to enable you to measure traffic and improve your conversion rate.
One of the most important things you can do is test, test, test—employ a Web analytics software system like Webtrends or Omniture and find someone to analyze the data and work with your content team to meet the needs of your audience.
Funneling the Fish
Along with a thorough understanding of search engine optimization, another important element of Internet evangelism is marketing. Web evangelist Richard Helsby explains the concept of the marketing funnel and Internet evangelism.
“There’s a lot of work out there from marketers and Web designers to help you make your site as effective as possible for a return on investment. It’s all about trying to move the person from the initial page to take an action that leads them toward the marketing funnel. They’re trying to get you to the shopping cart, and then they’re trying to get you to check it out.
“They are also trying to get your information so they can contact you and connect with you. And they’ll offer things on the Web site for free. Sometimes they’ll offer information and you have to sign up with your e-mail address. There is a lot of marketing best practices and some of that can be applicable to Web evangelism.
“If I want to encourage a person to explore Christianity further and connect with my community and this process, what can I use? Do I offer them something? You don’t want to turn it into a business. But you can think of the principles that work. You can ask how you can get their e-mail so they can start corresponding. Or you can start sending newsletters about faith and something like that.”
These same marketing techniques and principles can work for Internet evangelism. You can build an evangelistic Web site, but is anyone going to find it? The same approach that people would use to advertise their Web site online, you can use to promote your evangelistic Web site, from search engine optimizing to actual paid ads.
CBN Digital Media Marketing Director Alex Demeshkin expands on the marketing funnel concept and how that might be used in Internet evangelism. “In the commercial world, there are two types of marketing. There is the ‘branding’ concept, where it’s not like we don’t want to sell online, but it’s not really about finishing the sale at this very moment. We want to build value and promote our brand. The second type is ‘direct marketing,’ which says, ‘OK, what can I do to get the sale as quickly as possible? And how can I streamline the efficiencies of all the processes?’
“You could argue that a similar concept could be used on the Web in Internet evangelism. You start with the question, ‘How do I advertise?’ You first start with branding. You may not necessarily get a person to believe, pray, and invite the Lord into their hearts online—it may or may not happen. Chances are it won’t happen online when you are in a chat room with a person, or something like that. But branding Christianity is an effective way to communicate what Christians are about—the love of God. It’s a powerful communication channel, and a brand advertising channel. As Christians we can certainly use the Internet for that.
“Second, in certain cases, perhaps you do have a chance to have some sort of conversion. The person might not be a believer now. But you can invite them by communicating with them and asking them to visit your Bible study group. You do some sort of groundwork, and then later, down the road, they become a Christian.
“These are measurable things. So if you’ve chatted with somebody online and you’ve convinced them to try to hook up with a local Christian fellowship somewhere where they are, that’s a trackable conversion, so to speak. Or if you got them to use a church finder and you got them to come to church on a Sunday morning; if you prayed with them and got them to agree, or you get them to post a prayer request, to a degree that is measurable.
“I have said many times, the Internet is just a tool. You have real-time technologies like chatting, instant messaging, Web cams, and all sorts of things that I utilize in the commercial world. So if you come to a Web site and you’re browsing on a product page for a while, and a window pops up that says, ‘Do you need help? Can I help you with something?’ there is a real-life person there. Now, they may be chatting simultaneously with fifty other people. So it’s not like they’re helping only you. But it’s an Internet technology, and you need to look at what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Demeshkin recommends that the NetCaster examine the role that they want the Web site or the medium to play in the overall strategy.
“Maybe you’re helping to plant a church somewhere. You can use the Internet to communicate more effectively. Yahoo! Groups has a discussion board where people who belong to a certain religion, agnostics, or people who don’t believe anything come together and ask each other questions. The premise is to find out how a person representing one or another religion would answer a certain question. It could be a worldview question, or merely a simple question. These are examples of building relationships and connection, getting to know people and using the Internet as an evangelism tool.”
By employing these “fish finder” techniques, you may have varying results. The key is to try something, test it, analyze the results, and then decide if it’s bearing fruit. If it is, keep doing it. If not, try something else. But the point is to keep trying, and trust God to lead you into fruitful fields.