Josh (the blog)

Hey there. I’m Josh, a SydneyCanberra-based maker of Internets. I don’t update this very often.


What Josh Does at Youthworks

I’m employed by an organisation (the one I referred to in my first post about this project, wherein I didn’t bother explaining exactly what was going on, but hoped it would be clear to those who already knew) that exists to — amongst other things — resource youth ministry.

One thing we’ve noticed (“we” is myself and a handful of others with an interest in the web) over the past twelve months is an uptake in web usage by youth ministries — for obvious reasons: that’s where kids are spending their time, and it’s a great communication tool, and everyone else is doing it.

When I say everyone else is doing it, I actually mean everyone else is trying to do it. Everyone has, for the last six to twelve months, been writing the same applications, integrating the same software, paying for the same software, attempting to train the same people, and generally doing a lot of the same stuff, separately. With no point of intersection or sharing or intelligent resource management.

This is understandable: afterall, the web presents a relatively new front for churches in general, and whilst kids have been wasting time online for years, only with the relatively recent advent of social networking websites (I refer to it as ‘SocNet’ in these parts — no-one else seems to, but I like it, so whatever) have the less computer-inclined began spending significant amounts of time in front of a keyboard.

There’s also a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to building these things. People ask, what are the benefits? We’ve never had someone come along to youth group because of our website! — well, no, you’re right. But you also don’t have a website, so that’s hardly fair, is it? Nine times out of ten people will not come along to church (generically) because they’ve searched for a church in a particular suburb in Google (though, speaking of that, I’ve got to do a bit of SEO work on the Matthias site — it’s not on the first page for a “Church in Paddington” query. Changed the title, it’ll be a while til that kicks in. We’ll see.)

They’ll come because a friend asked if they wanted to, or they were walking past and heard people inside, saw them going in, and wondered what it was all about.

But this is hardly exclusive to having a website. If they have those points of contact, a website is a great way to invisibly investigate further without needing to make themselves uncomfortable. It’s easy to find these sorts of websites through search engines — you walked past a church and noted its name, you remember the name of your friend’s church, etc.

The same goes for youth groups, obviously.

People have just been starting to realise this, or at least think of it at all and decide “yeah, we could do that”. So, there’s the rationale for it all. Most people with decent websites already may not have considered rationale in any great depth — they’ve got a good website because they know someone who makes them, and volunteered their time (maybe they’re a leader), throwing something together with Xoops in an afternoon. It’s quick and dirty, but effective.

We’re trying to spend a small but not insignificant amount of money to equip people to do these sorts of thing, so it’s only sensible that some more time is spent considering what on earth we’re trying to achieve. Hence the lengthy prelude to what it actually does.

Now, the features. We have too many target audiences for it to be an altogether comfortable project, but that’s half the fun of it. The product is being marketed to churches (who pay for it) through leaders (who want to use it) and for youth (who actually aren’t the centre of the universe on this one, but we need to give them UX that says they are). Outside of these three, there are also the friends of the youth already in the application who are just checking out the youth group page.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. We’re also marketing this to camps, high school scripture groups/lunchtime bible groups, and maybe bands/events. Which is great and technically only a small step, but it does pretty horrible things when you try and explain who’s paying for what in a concise business-like fashion. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re well aware that concise-ness has never been my strong point.

So, with these targets in mind, we are (firstly) going to equip them with websites. Big woop. and Blogger eat your heart out. Cue yawns.

No, seriously. We’re going to give them (‘them’ being the various entities described above, not individuals so much — there’s no way I’m positioning this against other SocNet sites because I reckon it’s too fragmented to last… Facebook or Myspace or Bebo or…. yes.) web pages. Welcome to 1999.

They’re going to have web pages with calendars they can chock full of the schedule for the term, though. So that’s exciting.

And everyone’s going to have their own username, so they can leave comments on the inevitable blogging element with identity — this is wonderful for comment- and generic form-spam. Incidentally, I read a few blogs that Wild St people are writing and was really excited to see they’re actually enthusiastic about doing it. There’s quite the bunch of them on Blogger these days, and it’s all completely autonomous — so far as I know, no-one has pushed them to start doing it. I was so proud of their keenness and innovation for building up community and spreading the gospel! Another aside, my copy hasn’t arrived yet but I believe there’s something about blogging in The Briefing for December (it’s not on their website yet, either). My copy arrived today, and I discovered the current issue is in their webstore, just not on the main site. It’s The Briefing #339, if you’d care to read it.

Anyway. Blogs will feature. Calendars will feature. All the stuff you’d reasonably expect to be able to do with a CMS tool these days will feature. Blogs, calendars, galleries, contact forms, static pages. Yay. So that’s the boring stuff that we’ve just got to do the grunt-work for at some point (I’m sure it can be fun, but, just between you and me, I’m not really looking forward to the couple of weeks we have to spend on that bit).

Now, for interesting and innovative features — because, let’s face it, the above is hardly enough to convince anyone to switch their existing website (if indeed they have one) across to a hosted platform for a nominal (to be determined, but probably only payable by church groups, and not for camps/events on account of these being once-off) monthly fee.

Contact tools. Yummy. We’re going to give them mailers that make it easy to send a message to, say, all the kids in year 10. Or just guys. Or girls in year 8. Or only to your co-leaders (we’ll have a resource area where they can share files — Word documents, PDFs, slide shows — on the site, too: that’s some of the fun CMS stuff). But email’s been done before. Everyone’s used email. Admittedly, sometimes you just wish there’s a better way to store and manage lists of people, and this tool will certainly do that, but it’s a little boring still.

So we decided it’d be a good idea to throw SMS into the mix. It’s not just a gimmick: again, this is in response to what people are already doing. The only difference is it’s paid on a shared account (used by the leaders — the youth kids won’t have access to these tools, for fairly obvious reasons) and integrates the same contact management features as the mailer app. We’re hoping convenience will draw people across to this tool. Use scenarios are basically just that you’d use this tool to inform people of what’s going on this week at youth group, or reminding them that the group is on bringing supper this month, etcetera. The originating number will be that of a single leader, or it could even be that of that person’s own leader.

For example, one message is sent to all kids by the group co-ordinator, but that message is altered depending on who the individual recipient’s bible study leader is, so that it appears to originate from them. Obviously common sense would say that you wouldn’t do that without consultation, so we’d probably have a check box in the leader’s “my account” page that would say “Allow messages from other senders to originate from my mobile number”, or something to that affect.

Beyond contact tools, we want to take advantage of the fact that this is a service-based product and entirely a hosted solution. Part of the reason we’re strongly pursuing that is it gives an opportunity to equip and direct in a way that decentralised sites can’t be. So, a few things we’re thinking of doing are centralised offerings like weekly newsletters (sent to leaders two days in advance so they’ve got an opportunity to see it first) and global blog properties that give reviews, current affairs commentary, etc.

That’s the end of the universal features that are great for kids and leaders alike, but there’s lots more for leaders. As I’ve already said, we want this to be self-funding. Part of this is selling electronic versions of dead-tree products, as DRM’d PDFs, or as unencumbered PDFs with watermarks/obviously time-sensitive advertising (so violation of copyright is glaringly obvious). The other part is (for me at least) far more exciting, and that’s reselling user generated/contributed content (UGC) under an iStockPhoto-esque model (Basically, profit sharing).

This isn’t just about words on a page — I want to get plenty of video stuff happening, too, because (especially in reformed evangelical Anglican/Baptist/Presbyterian, etc. churches) that doesn’t get nearly enough of a work out as is. It’s a really effective tool for supporting preaching/bible studies, and it’s been largely overlooked until probably early this year (I had my first conversation with someone about video resources for small group bible studies as late as July or August this year, I think! They had used a Matthias Media resource which I haven’t encountered, and thought it really helpful).

Pricing models for all that are still a little up in the air, but, from a consumer’s point of view, it’s definitely going to be affordable. The project will ultimately sit on a server maintained gratis and depend largely on volunteer labour to administer content. The only “costs” are those to the established Youthworks publishing division, but hopefully we can transition the way they do their high-school level content effectively, so they’re commissioning content for the web and selling it there. Something that’s really exciting is the possibility that, instead of commissioning content, it’s possible to purchase it directly and already created from a pool of resources on the website.

There’s definitely a workable model here, somewhere.

Prayer is greatly welcomed for:

  • wisdom trying to figure that model out
  • energy and resources to make it happen (in whatever form)
  • adoption and enthusiasm from youth leaders and kids
  • effectiveness in web strategy as we attempt to use it as an evangelistic outreach tool, and a tool for the growth of existing ministry
  • and, hand-in-hand with that last point, that God’s will be done and if He wills it, that growth would be given!