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Church in the digital age

Measuring, and understanding, online worship metrics

by Richard Hong | Presbyterians Today 

I recently discussed the idea that many, perhaps most, of our congregants are not worshiping exclusively online or in person but are switching back and forth. This post-Covid phenomenon brings us to the discussion of how we can measure who is worshiping with us.

If your online worship uses Zoom, you can simply count the faces on your screen. But if you are streaming your worship to Facebook, YouTube or through your website, interpreting the metrics is trickier.

Finding the data isn’t always obvious. To get attendance numbers, you must know how to navigate online sites. On YouTube and Facebook, when you are logged in as a page administrator, look for the “Creator Studio.” Then within the Creator Studio, on Facebook you look for “Insights,” while on YouTube it’s called “Analytics.” You then must look for your individual videos to get their statistics, or else you’ll be seeing aggregate numbers for your page or channel.

What are the meaningful metrics? Most metrics are geared toward commercial advertisers. But the number I look for is the “maximum concurrent viewers” during our livestream. During a worship service, they track how many devices are watching. The peak number is the maximum concurrent viewers. That way the number will largely be unaffected by those who come across the service, watch for a few seconds, then move on. However, this only counts who is watching during the live service.

We use it because we have volunteers monitoring and engaging in the “live chat” (on Facebook it’s commenting) during the service. A person watching live has an opportunity for interaction that is not present during a replay. This is an important aspect of community building, so it is the metric we prefer.

Others want to count after-service viewers as well. But since the count of “views” includes anyone who watches even a few seconds, a better estimate is to take the total number of minutes viewed and divide by the length of the service. The result isn’t precise, but if your recorded service is 60 minutes long and it was watched for a total of 1,200 minutes, counting this as 20 full views is a reasonable approximation.

How do you correlate the number of devices to the number of people? There is no sure way. Both a person watching alone and a family gathered around a computer screen register as one device. Attempts to equate the number of devices to a number of people will use a multiplier. Various studies of online church services have shown that a very popular figure is 1.7. If you multiply the number of devices by 1.7, that’s a good estimate. For example, 20 devices times 1.7 corresponds to 34 people.

What about other metrics? They give you an idea of how many people might be learning that your church exists. The two most common measures are “reach” and “impressions.” Reach is the number of unique people who were presented with your post in their feed. Impressions is the number of times your post appeared. So, if a person sees your post three times, that is one reach and three impressions.

Impressions matter. For decades, advertisers believed that a person must see an ad at least seven times before they might respond. Currently, as we are bombarded with ads, research suggests an ad would have to be seen 10–20 times before it is remembered. This is why Facebook counts “three-second views” of videos. You might think, “Three seconds? Does it matter if someone only watches three seconds?” Three seconds is enough time for the person to realize what they are watching. Even if they move on, in three seconds they’ve come to know that your church exists. Eventually, awareness can lead to connection.

Use metrics to look for trends. In my congregation, we are using metrics to look for larger trends and ignoring the weekly fluctuations. We are discovering, overall, that our online presence is slowly growing. Second, we basically know that our online attendance remains larger than our in-person attendance. Third, we watch our reach and impressions numbers to see that we’re laying the groundwork for future growth.

While the days of only counting bodies in the pews are fading, keeping track of church metrics does not have to be complicated — or overwhelming. Know what you’re measuring. Look for direction, not precision. Have strategic goals, and the data can help you know whether you’re achieving them.

Richard Hong is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey. Have a question or request for a future column? Email him at rich@englewood.org.


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