Preparing the *Church* for a mobile-first world

Religion / Web/Tech

In a post entitled “Preparing for a mobile-first world” Ryan Kim draws his reader’s attention to the following statistics:

“Mobile is a not just another device, but involves a new way of thinking that takes into account the power and immediacy of smartphones and tablets. Forrester nicely distills a lot of the trends and what it means for companies going forward. First, take a look at some of the facts, figures and projections laid out by Forrester:

  • 1 billion consumers will own smartphones by 2016 with U.S. users owning 257 million smartphones and 126 million tablets. By 2016, 350 million employees will use smartphones, with 200 million of them bringing their own.
  • Mobile spending will reach $1.3 trillion by 2016 or 35 percent of the technology economy with the app market generating $56 billion by 2015.
  • Apple, Google and Microsoft are expected to control 91 percent of the U.S. smartphone market and 98 percent of the U.S. tablet market by 2016.
  • Businesses are expected to double their spending on mobile projects by 2015.
  • Forrester says companies need to realize that mobile apps serve as a new front end for engagement systems. Apps are increasingly context aware, fed by the cloud, sensors, history and social data. That requires companies to reconsider how they deploy apps for customers, partners and employees around this enhanced form of engagement. Mobile apps from companies can’t just log data, they need to harness all the power of mobile and social to help people get specific jobs done in a particular context, connect with people and access information at the exact time they are making decisions.”

    From here.

    It’s that first bullet point that should make people in the church world take notice. Just as congregations are starting to understand how critical their websites are to communicating their identity to the world, websites are being by-passed by new tools. Sure a website can be read on a smart-phone, but who does? The page served up is optimized for a a 1024 pixel wide display, often uses flash (shudder) because that’s what the designer knows, and has tiny little buttons (for phone use) to get more information.

    Very few congregations have started to optimize their sites for mobile. Actually very few episcopal bloggers have either. (I did about a year ago, and it’s part of what drove me to abandon type-pad for wordpress. We installed a mobile friendly version of our site at our cathedral too – which was relatively easy because of some earlier design decisions we made)

    Optimizing for mobile is probably more than just adding a server-side script that serves up a mobile friendly template though. Because people (myself included) tend to use mobile apps that are purposed designed for the phone to access information. I’m much more likely to use my iPhone twitter application to read the news than I am to load the twitter mobile site. I’m more likely to use an iPhone newsreader app to follow websites than I am to open them one by one. And that’s because the user interface is just that much easier.

    There are very few Episcopal churches right now that have their own phone application. We don’t. I’m not sure that’s the right place to spend money for what it’s worth. But I do think we need to be intentional about thinking through how people will use their mobile devices on a Sunday morning.

    Facebook checkins? (Okay – do you have a Facebook place page?) Google+ (Do you have Google places page?) 4 Square? What about someway to let people download material to their phone once they’ve checked in? What material makes sense? What about photos? Should we be encouraging people to geo-tag?

    Would it make a difference to have a mobile device aware proxy server on our guest wi-fi network? So that when you join the network for instance, you’re automatically served up a page that has info about the congregation, parking, schedules, contact info, etc – sort of like what often happens in hotels or airports?

    Is there some way we can make use of the unique sensors in phones to enhance Sunday mornings? (I have no idea how, but it seems a waste not to wonder about such a thing…)

    Let’s figure that smart-phone adoption rate continues a-pace. Just like we saw the adoption of email and websites and recognized that the Church needed to adapt, we probably need to do the same regarding mobile too.

    Shoot me any cool ideas you have. I think this needs to be done soon.

    The Author

    Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


    1. Guy Butler says

      Case in point – 95% of the times I hit your site is from my iPhone…

    2. Paul Martin says

      Mobile First is the title of a book by Luke Wroblewski. The concept is also discussed on Luke’s blog. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox has some interesting comments today on the issue of apps vs. mobile web sites. There are some very good resources there.

      I don’t own a smart phone. I can’t afford the data plan right now. I certainly accept your reasoning on this, and I need to take another look at your cathedral’s mobile site to see what you have done. As a non-mobile web user, I am curious about the use cases which would apply to the mobile user.

      The major use case I can see is basic contact info for visitors, with perhaps a higher emphasis on maps and special services information. I can easily imagine someone who is visiting from out of town, or trapped in the office late at night and realizes that it is Ash Wednesday (or whatever) and where can I find a service close by? How about a mapping app which accesses the GPS info on the phone to customize a map and directions?

      The major need here is for guidance and sharing of resources, especially for smaller churches without a staff of programmers in the congregation. I will be pushing our parish site towards a redesign in WordPress so that we can use plugins to address the mobile space. I think we may see a move toward CMS based approaches so that small parishes can leverage software work done by others.

    3. The WordPress engagement with mobile is terrific when fully turned on. Thus, my blog has it; my privately-hosted WordPress web presence page doesn’t… A fully engaged CMS like WordPress is the best tool for parishes if they know how to use it and—perhaps more importantly these days—if the diocesan IT guy understands it and can give some basic assistance.

      And that brings me to my next point. Candidly, I wonder what the diocese does with our apportionment—I’m rarely impressed with what I see from them. What *would* be a major help is a solid full-time diocesan IT person whose main function is spearheading web and mobile developments for the diocese, its parishes, and its outreach as a whole.

      Just as the monks had to understand the basic technologies of parchment production and illumination, modern church folk need to have at least a few in every bunch who know the basics of html. It’s frankly a scandal that the national church doesn’t have a fully indexed and hotlinked edition of the BCP on the web–the closest to it are volunteer efforts like Chad Wohlers’ page and http://www.bcponline,org. Development of stuff like this really ought to be a top priority for mission in a digital age…

    4. Paul Martin says

      When I think about how the web has changed in the past few years, I am convinced that it is getting much more difficult to put up a respectable web presence. With mobile devices we are dealing with a much broader array of screen sizes than we have ever seen before. Unfortunately, I don’t see any help coming in the near future. Large churches, cathedrals and dioceses are doing fine, but the small parishes are being left behind. Ultimately, it is going to take an informal group of volunteers with (probably) no funding to do the job.

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