For church Web professionals attending an annual Internet conference, the real work gets done at breakfast.
That’s where advice is exchanged and conference speeches are dissected as attendees chat over tables, across aisles or while coming and going from the restaurant at the Royal Park Hotel’s buffet.
This year’s Global Adventist Internet Network forum offered several days of presentations on a mix of technology- and communication-related practices as the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues to bolster and further integrate its online presence. But amidst the programs and workshops, many attendees say that key learning happens at meals and other sidelines of the conference.
“That’s where the real networking gets done,” said Andrew King, Web manager for the Adventist world church's Communication department, while leaving the buffet Friday morning.
King and colleagues in the Communication department will soon establish a team to revamp the denomination’s homepage, Adventist.org. The chance to have casual yet frank discussions with international experts helps them solicit input for upcoming projects.
About 160 participants from around the world gathered for the eighth such forum, held this year in Hong Kong. The forum is held in different world regions each year to better accommodate local church administrators and members. Compared to previous conferences, this year’s forum includes greater delegations from the denomination’s Northern Asia-Pacific and Southern Asia-Pacific divisions, based in Seoul and Manila respectively.
Presentations this year underscored the need for simplicity and focus in Web design and interaction. In separate speeches, both King and Adventist Risk Management Marketing and Communication Manager David Fournier outlined advantages of ridding a site of historical baggage.
“The more information you have the more careful you have to be about organizing it,” said Fournier, who was one of several participants urging a greater commitment to effective information architecture on denominational websites.
King said that new initiatives are notorious for making officials think that their organization needs a new website. “I can almost guarantee that the top stakeholders in the organization have not asked themselves, ‘Have market trends and the needs of our customers shifted, and should our current website be adjusted accordingly?’” King said, instead recommending that new initiatives be incorporated into an organization’s existing site.
Others offered tips on facilitating better user experiences on the Web. During a sideline discussion, Jesse Johnson, president of netAserve, which provides technology support to the Adventist Church, said links on a webpage don’t help the organization because it pushes away users.
“Instead, incorporate another organization’s content on your website, especially if it’s a local church website,” Johnson advised. “Users will enjoy the content and will feel stronger about your site and are more likely to visit your church.”
Daniel Jiao, Communication director of the church’s Chinese Union Mission, based in Hong Kong, said people are increasingly using mobile devices to access the Internet. Indeed, at the end of 2011 there were an estimated 6 billion mobile subscribers, representing 87 percent of the world’s population, according to a December report by the International Telecommunication Union.
Other leaders advocated for church communication and Web managers to design their websites for mobile usage. “It may end up being a more simple site,” said King, “but if you design for mobile first, you’re reaching all of who your audience might be.”
Several participants offered evening presentations highlighting mass Internet evangelism projects in their own territories.
The Adventist Church in Germany and Austria last year held the Faith.Simple project, an eight-week outreach series to post-moderns, with Internet broadcast discussions centering around the movie My Last Day Without You, created specifically for the project. The film features a young German businessman who travels to New York City on a difficult assignment, which forces him to examine his own life. Klaus Popa, who co-led the series, said hundreds of discussion groups were held in homes and churches throughout German-speaking areas of Europe.
Adventist leaders in South America continue to tweak mass media evangelism events, finding that interactive campaigns with interactive components have proven better online response rates compared to events that are just streamed. For an increasing number of outreach events, respondents sign up on the outreach website or on Facebook to complete a Bible study. The challenge is making sure local pastors or members can follow up with the 4,000 responses from a recent event, a media manager said.
“If pastors or church members don’t contact them, they are less likely to join the church,” said Rogerio Ferraz, a project manager for the South American Division, based in Brasilia, Brazil. “People need that personal contact.”
In the Trans-European Division, based outside of London, Communication department leaders have established LIFEconnect, an online community where people can meet, share their life experience and offer spiritual support.
Williams Costa Jr., the Adventist Church’s Communication director and forum organizer, affirmed Adventist technologists, saying, “You are not just dealing with websites and platforms, you’re an important part of the church. Today, making easy content, stories and testimonies, this can be used by the Holy Spirit.”
Videos of the forum’s presentations will be posted within a week on its website, gain.adventist.org. More information is available on the convention’s Facebook page, facebook.com/gaincon, and on Twitter at twitter.com/#!/gaincon.
—additional reporting by Penny Brink and Darryl Thompson