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By Marcus Goodyear
Editor’s Note: This article is a continuation from Friday, which presented the content philosophy of The High Calling. Today’s article discusses design philosophy in items 5 – 7, and items 8-10 address its engagement philosophy.
5. Site design must balance aesthetics and functionality.
Making data-informed decisions is important, but that is not the whole story. The more we thought about our site as a place, the more we recognized the importance of form and function. A house will feel very different depending on the shape of the space, the quality of the building materials, and how you decorate. But the house will also enable certain kinds of interactions, too. For example, an open kitchen and living room will allow people to gather around the food preparation before a meal. Add a piano to the living room and my wife and I can engage in a sing-along with our guests while we cook. By analogy, the design of a website is part aesthetics and part function. We need to pay attention to how the visual design makes people feel—including the images we choose for our articles. But we also need to pay close attention to the user experience. Is commenting difficult? Can people browse content easily? Can they share content easily? Can they find other people like themselves and easily connect with them outside our site?
6. Different channels serve different audiences.
Around 2008, we decided to meet our audience where they preferred to hang out. If people were on Facebook, we would be there for them. If they were on Twitter, we would tweet. If someone is inspired by 60-second animations, we would make them freely available on YouTube and Vimeo. Our goal was not merely to drive traffic to our site, but to provide opportunities for people to receive inspiration from our content. Sure, we could measure their activities better if they came to our site, but measurement was never our goal. No, our goal is to provide opportunities for personal transformation. Measurement helps us discover new and creative ways to reach our goals—which led us to understand the different demographics served by each channel. Facebook is where we reach women 25-45. Twitter is where we reach mobile users. YouTube is where we reach men 18-24. Marketing benchmarks told us which audiences to expect on each channel, and over time our own data confirmed the actual audience we were reaching. As a result we can customize how we present our message depending on who we expect to receive it.
7. Engagement is more important than growth in numbers.
At a certain point, continued growth is meaningless if it is not matched with deeper engagement. Consider the real estate agent who showed the canyon property to the Butt family years ago. Imagine that real estate agent had brought thousands of people to the front gate of the property and no further. Very few of them would have felt an attachment to the property without the chance to engage. In fact, before making any decision, the Butts jumped into the deepest, bluest swimming hole in the river. They immersed themselves in the place. You might even say they were baptised in the place. More than growth, we hope for this kind of deep commitment from the online community. We want people to swim in the ideas of the community. I could push further on this, but you get the idea. Engagement is more important than growth in numbers. We can grow our subscriber lists all year long, but without deeper engagement, those lists are simply numbers on a page. Comments, links, emails, essays, messages, and phone calls connect us to the people behind the numbers. And we care more about people than we care about numbers.
8. Social media is an opportunity to show hospitality.
Several years ago, Laity Lodge conducted a survey to find out what brought people back year after year. We expected them to put quality content high on the list because Laity Lodge directors spend so much time bringing the best Christian thinkers and philosophers and leaders, award-winning artists, Grammy-winning musicians, and best-selling authors. Surely, all of our hard work is what brings people back!
But, no, people listed the beauty of the place itself and the hospitality of the staff above the content. This news gave me pause since The High Calling was originally a place designed to share the content of Laity Lodge. In addition to paying much more attention to the site’s aesthetics and user experience, I asked how we could show hospitality online. As a result, our editors are strongly encouraged to comment on other sites. Our writers are strongly encouraged to answer every comment directly. And we consistently link out to the best writers in our network.
9. The community will model what you do.
Not every site has encouraging and positive comments. Just read YouTube comments. Just read some of the vitriolic, theological name-calling that happens on some Christian sites. We knew that encouraging engagement could backfire if we relied on hot button topics that motivated readers to outrage. Instead, we have tried to stay true to our promise, inviting people to join us in everyday conversations about work, life, and God. We are not objective journalists reluctant to engage with our readers. We are hosts, and our behavior inspires the community that comes to our party. Our comments become the model for readers. Our links inspire them to link. Our updates inspire theirs. And we do our best to encourage people directly when we see them inspiring others.
10. Encourage people with active listening.
The world is an incredibly noisy place. So many people are fighting to be heard on social media. They share their stories because they want to be heard. But who is listening anymore? Years ago, The High Calling staff agreed that we would listen to others. In the beginning, we visited blogs and magazines around the web in a very systematic and structured way. We left comments. We linked. We liked. We encouraged. As our community has grown to more than 120,000 subscribers, we are trying to figure out how to listen to so many voices in a way that validates the community. It is not enough just to read. We must give feedback through comments, links, likes, and messages. This year we have been experimenting with interactive video. Whatever the platform, whatever the medium, the best listening is always active.
That’s it. This list encapsulates our philosophy at The High Calling. Items 1-4 relate to our content philosophy; items 5-7, our design philosophy; and items 8-10, our engagement philosophy. Of course, in practice, our strategy is much more complex, fleshed out through spreadsheets and reports and team meetings and lists of deliverables. If you have any specific questions about our strategy, if anyone wants to dive deeper, I’m happy to jump in and go for a swim.
Marcus Goodyear is Senior Editor for The High Calling, an online publication of Foundations for Laity Renewal. His award-winning poetry collection Barbies at Communion is available on Amazon, but he is much prouder of his beautiful wife and two children.
Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.
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