Choosing your parish domain name (i.e. the church’s website address. For example, www.example.com), Facebook Page address (www.facebook.com/example), Twitter handle (@example), and so on is a critical part of creating your parish’s new media presence. The right name/address could be the difference between parishioners and newcomers regularly visiting to read what you have to say and your website ending up a virtual ghost town. (We covered some of this in less detail in our forum on Creating Excellent Parish Websites.)
Marketing guru Marty Neumeier, in his book Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands has created a list of 7 characteristics to consider when choosing a product name or brand name. Most of them also apply to choosing your parish’s “brand name” on the Internet. Neumeier says the name should be distinctive, brief, appropriate, easy to say and spell, likable, “extendable”, and protectable. How does this apply to your parish’s domain name?
The first characteristic is that it is distinctive. Your parish’s domain name needs to stand out from all others. How many St. Patrick parishes are there in the United States? In Massachusetts? In the Archdiocese of Boston? (The answer to the last one is seven.) Even if stpatrick.com was available, you might not want it. Or stpatrickparish.com. While they are undeniably short (see charactertistic #2), the names tell you nothing about what you will find when you enter them in your web browser. Your parish’s domain name should provide some specific information to differentiate it from all the other parishes out there, by including both a name and a location. For example, St. Patrick Parish in Watertown chose www.stpatswatertown.org. Or if you have a one parish town—or you are collaborating with multiple parishes in one town— and want to emphasize the Catholic identity, you might go with something like townsendcatholic.org, which is the website of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Townsend, Mass. Another element of distinctiveness is geographical. Just as there are many parishes with the same patron saint, there are many states with the same town names. (It’s been said that more states have a Springfield than any other municipality name.) Our office sometimes hears stories from parishes of receiving emails and phone calls from people who found their website and assumed the parish was in a similarly named town in another state.
The second characteristic of a good brand name is that it is brief. This can sometimes work at polar opposites from distinctiveness. If the name is too brief, it’s impossible to be distinctive and if it’s too distinctive it’s probably too long. The important reason for brevity is making it easy to convey to others without errors. For example sacredheartofoureucharistlordjesuschrist.com is distinctive, but imagine having to type that in to your web browser. Brevity is also important for social media sites because, for example, Twitter’s 140-character limit means your handle takes up space that should be devoted to the content of your message. If your Twitter handle is @sacredheartofoureucharistlordjesuschrist, you’ve just used up one-third of your possible characters in a tweet.
The third characteristic is appropriateness. In this case, your domain name should accurately describe your parish. That could be as simple as saying if your parish is St. Mary, don’t use stjohn.com. But it could also mean that if you are in one of those collaborative parish situations where you have two or more parishes working together, that even for pastoral reasons the name reflects the larger community. Meanwhile, it must not be so obscure as to defy anyone knowing what it is they’re connecting to. The domain shooeljc.org is short and distinctive, but as an acronym of Sacred Heart of Our Eucharistic Lord, it’s too obscure.
The fourth characteristic is easy to say and spell. This seems obvious, but it’s important. The idea behind a well-thought out parish domain name is to make it easy to spread the word about the website and get people to visit it. Presumably you want people to find out about the website from more sources than just a Google search or the printed parish bulletin. You want a parishioner to run into someone at the supermarket and say, “Find it on our parish’s website” and then say what the site is without misunderstandings or maybe even needing to write it down. If you tell me that the website for St. Patrick’s in Watertown is stpatswatertown.org, I can be pretty well assured of getting it right the first time. Of course, there’s one problem that virtually every Catholic parish has. Let’s call it “the saint problem.” What do we do with the “saint” part of the parish name? Do we abbreviate it as “st” or even “st.”? Or do we spell it out as “saint”? The reality is that either way we’re probably going to have to explain which it is. In that case, we say just abbreviate. For one thing, it’s what most of us do anyway, as witnessed above every time a saint’s name is referenced: St. Patrick, St. Mary, St. John. For another thing, it makes the name shorter and all things being equal that’s better.
The fifth characteristic is likability. This is a little more nebulous, but it’s important for that word-of-mouth dissemination of the domain name. Does the domain name make the person saying it feel dumb? Or does it feel good to say it? Does it make people feel like part of a greater community or something you’re proud of? When we chose bostoncatholic.org for the website of the Archdiocese of Boston, part of the reasoning was that while it accurately described what we are about, it also creates a pride of belonging, a sense of community. It also decentralizes and deinstitutionalizes the website, while still providing the same content about parishes, central ministries, and the content of the Catholic faith.
The sixth characteristic is extendability. If you choose a nonstandard name (e.g. townsendcatholic.org vs. stjohntownsend.org), you have the opportunity to extend that same “brand name” into other forms of new media presence. After we had established our website as BostonCatholic.org, we then extended that brand into all our social media presences on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Ustream, YouTube, Vimeo and even Pinterest. For live video streaming and recorded video, we opted to go beyond the site’s own name (ustream.tv and vimeo.com) and use our domain name to redirect to wherever we like with BostonCatholicLive.com and BostonCatholicVideos.com. Choosing the right domain name up front gives you the flexibility to extend that name recognition when you move into other areas as well.
Finally, the seventh characteristic is protectability or defendability, which originally refers to legal trademarks and the like. Parishes generally don’t have the same legal concern, but there is an element of choosing a domain name that ventures into this area. In this instance, protectability might mean being able to register not just the dot-com domain name, but also the dot-org and dot-net. You may prefer to make stmaryanytown.org your primary domain name, but when you’re registering it, check to see if stmaryanytown.com and stmaryanytown.net are also available and consider registering them as well if they are. If they’re not available, maybe consider whether you want to choose a different domain. If someone else owns the dot-com while you own the dot-org or vice-versa, you run the risk of confusing those who want to visit your site, but end up at a different, similarly named site. There have even been instances where people have intentionally purchased similar-looking domain names in order to purposefully mislead and/or confuse web visitors. Domain names cost as little as $5 or $6 per year to register. An extra $1 per month for peace of mind is not a steep price to pay.
(There are also many other potential domain name endings out there including .info, .tv, .name, .biz and so many more. Feel free to ignore them. None of them have enough traction in the marketplace for there to be much potential for confusion.)
With so many websites out there now and more coming online everyday, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find domain names that fit within these criteria. Don’t wait too long to purchase yours now. On the other hand, it pays to take some time and formulate a strategy for your domain name that makes sense. While it’s not impossible to switch to a new domain if this one doesn’t work out, rebuilding name awareness is a lot of work and you’ve probably got enough to keep you busy. After all, you have a new website to design and fill with content.