By Marcus Goodyear

When Howard Butt and Howard Butt, Jr., first saw Blue Hole at the headwaters of the Frio River, they stripped off their business suits and jumped in. The deep water was irresistible. The narrow canyon was safe enough to risk vulnerability. And they were family.

 Laity Lodge money shot to show people where our heart lies as an organization

Laity Lodge lies near the headwaters of the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country.

Fifty years later, the same family launched to create an online space that would inspire and educate people just as the Frio Canyon had inspired and educated campers. We wanted to create a website about faith and work that was irresistible and safe. And we hoped that visitors to the site might find a sense of community there.

When I began leading the site in late 2006, we were in crisis. A poor installation of analytics was counting search engine bots as people. We thought 160,000 people were visiting the site each month. In reality, we had 16,000 people. Even worse, those numbers had been part of the decision to hire me!

Marcus Goodyear, editor of The High Calling

Marcus Goodyear, Senior Editor of The High Calling

Thankfully, no one panicked.

But we shifted our vision quickly and aggressively. First, we installed more reliable analytics. Then we tracked analytics weekly and monthly to watch and learn. Since then I’ve learned a great deal about leading an online community publication, and here are ten of the biggest lessons:

1. Writers with online platforms generate traffic to their articles.

Almost immediately I discovered that an author with a solid print platform did not necessarily bring readers. This was not obvious back in 2005. At that time, Eugene Peterson was writing a daily Bible reflection for us based on The Message, but no one seemed to know or care. On the other hand, some anonymous blogger called Real Live Preacher wrote an article and broke all of our traffic records by driving his blog audience to our site. We realized then that we needed good writers with good online platforms if we hoped to grow The High Calling.

 Editors putting their heads together on a tour of the Laity Lodge Family Camp construction site prior to its 2013 opening

Editors putting their heads together on a tour of the Laity Lodge Family Camp construction site prior to its 2013 opening.

2. Articles with strong voice and story create loyal readers.

We also learned that traffic spikes don’t mean much if people never come back. We now analyze the online platform around an author’s ability to drive audience as well as the stickiness of that audience. An author who generates 10,000 page views with a 90% bounce rate is less valuable than an author who generates only 5,000 page views with a 76% bounce rate. Conversion goals in Google Analytics help us understand each author’s specific audience even more.

3. Keywords help drive content decisions.

This is not rocket science, but it is very important. The words people use to find our site help us understand what motivates our audience. No matter how much we care about “leadership” or “faith and work,” our top performing search phrases continue to include “The High Calling” and “Daily Reflections.” This means our audience resonates with our primary brand and one of our primary publication streams! Keywords often come up in our online editorial meetings if we are looking to create thematically related content like our recent series on “Work-Life Balance.”

4. Advertising turns an assumption into a testable hypothesis.

When we want to try new keywords that aren’t showing up in any of our organic traffic, we run ads. Not everyone has the luxury of an ad budget, I understand, but it has been incredibly important for us as we seek to understand what motivates our target audience as opposed to what motivates our actual audience. We have learned a lot from ads on YouTube, Adwords, Twitter, and Facebook. And many of these platforms scale down to incredibly small budgets. When we tested “leadership” keywords against “faith and work” keywords, the results were so clear we shut down the leadership campaign completely. This doesn’t mean people don’t want leadership content, though. It only means that leadership content works best for our audience when we position it as general faith and work advice.

 TheHigh Calling editors of 2012

The High Calling editors of 2012.

(To be continued.)

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of 2 of an article by Marcus Goodyear on developing an online community. Coming up next, discussions on design and engagement philosophy.

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.


4 Responses to Ten lessons from The High Calling on growing your site (Part 1)

  1. Bob Robinson says:

    Wow. Helpful stuff. Resolved: I must learn more about how to use Google Analytics.
    And, BTW, those are some good looking editors!

  2. Oh my … how nice is THIS!