Some Awkward Questions About How To Measure Online Church Attendance (+ 5 Growth Strategies)

So now that your church (along with almost every other church) is online, you’re probably asking: how exactly do I track ‘attendance’?

One of the remarkable stories of the global pandemic is that suddenly, 49% of churches are reporting that their online attendance is higher or much higher than their in-person attendance.

As I shared here, spiritual curiosity is undoubtedly up (just ask Google), and many churches are connecting with new people and seeing a fresh wave of people making commitments to Christ. That is awesome.

It’s got all of us asking at least two questions:

First, what does this even mean?

Second, by what metric?

That’s where it gets awkward.

First, let me say I’m the first to applaud churches that are reaching new people. That’s my heartbeat and it’s what I think every church should be doing.

I am the LAST guy to criticize any of that. Bring it on, and bring way more of it.

I’m also a little saddened to read hundreds of comments from other church leaders who jumped on the stat that 49% of churches are growing with suspicion and cynicism, asking everything from whether 3 second Facebook views count, whether pastors are using exaggerated multipliers, and whether any of this is real at all (I address all those questions below).

Do we have to start with suspicion?  Whenever there’s progress, I want to celebrate it. When one church wins, we all win.

And if you think this a temporary question that will disappear when your building reopens, just remember that everyone you want to reach is online.

The online attendance question matters because digital church is here to stay.

If you ditch your online presence when your building reopens, you ditch the majority of the people you’re trying to reach.

All of that said, there are some good questions about how to measure online attendance and track ‘church growth’. Clearly we’re moving into a new era of metrics.

While I don’t claim deep expertise in the area of tracking online metrics (I’m more of a writer and online content creator than a person who analyzes online metrics for a living) there are some key principles at stake. In the comments, I would love to hear from church staff and others who track metrics as part of your job with your best practices.

So here are 5 questions about how to measure online attendance and 5 best practices to track online attendance and generate growth.Everyone you want to reach is online. If you ditch your online presence when your building reopens, you ditch the majority of the people you’re trying to reach.CLICK TO TWEET

QUESTION 1: SHOULD 3 SECOND FACEBOOK VIEWS COUNT AS ONLINE ATTENDANCE?

This is where tracking online ‘attendance’ gets tricky.

Take a look at some sample Facebook analytics on a recent video I posted to my Facebook page.

Question: how many people watched the video?

a) 7836

b) 3020

c) 1110

You could argue that all three answers are correct. And this is exactly the challenge.

Publicly, Facebook displays the video count as 7.8K. But is that fair?

Many church leaders I know are not counting the 3-second views, and instead counting 1-minute views.

Under those metrics, my video watch count drops from 7.8K view to 1.1K. Still not bad, but a bit of a blow to the ego.

So what about 3-second views? Do they count? Facebook counted it. Can’t we count it?

Let me throw something out there.

Maybe counting 3-second views on Facebook as ‘attenders’ is a little like counting people who drive by your building as attenders. Probably not a wise strategy because it’s hard to build the future of your church on it.

Not trying to be a killjoy…just trying to help us all actually reach people, which is kind of the goal.

So back to the original question…how many people watched the video?

My answer, as amazing as the 7.8K figure makes me feel, is that 1.1K is the best metric.

It gets rid of the scrollers who stumbled on you for a second and left. Those who watched a minute or longer did it on purpose.

They meant to watch you, and perhaps that really does count for something.Counting 3-second views on Facebook as ‘attenders’ is a little like counting people who drive by your building as attenders. Probably not a wise strategy.CLICK TO TWEET

QUESTION 2: WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT LOW AVERAGE WATCH TIMES? 

But wait, it gets even more complicated.

Check out the average watch time for my amazingly helpful video: 20 seconds.  What is WRONG WITH PEOPLE?  How could they skip most of my awesome 4:38 video???

Can I really claim that 1.1K people watched my video if they didn’t watch the whole thing?

And the answer to that is…hey, that’s the internet. It’s how I behave. It’s how you behave.

Welcome to life online in 2020.

As much as I would err on the side of finding a more conservative metric for online ‘attendance’, you can’t keep questioning the numbers until nothing is left.

For those who insist that you can only count an attender if they watched the entire thing through to the end, let me ask you a deeper question.

When someone is sitting through your entire sermon in person, are they paying full attention? For 40 minutes?

Probably not.

What if you started discounting in-person attendance because someone wasn’t paying attention?

As in “I know there were 400 people in the room that Sunday, but who was actually really listening?”

Does someone’s attendance only count if they:

  • Could tell you the main point of the sermon?
  • Could tell you all five key points of the message in order?
  • Pass a sermon-comprehension test on the way to the parking lot?

Or pick worship. Should you finalize attendance figures to include only ‘genuine’ worshippers at a physical event, subtracting:

  • Anyone who doesn’t sing?
  • Eliminating people who don’t raise their hands?
  • Refusing to count people who sang the lyrics but didn’t really mean it in their hearts?

The truth about human attention span and the depth of personal engagement is that they’ve always varied.

Sure, there are real advantages to being in a room, and physical gatherings will come back again.

But that doesn’t mean online is bad or inadequate. Even if watch times aren’t what you dream of.

Before you write off online church, remember this: over one billion hours of video are watched every day on YouTube. Every. Single. Day.

And some of that is real, focused engagement.

So you can go back to your room of 200 people or 2500 people and unplug your online ministry, or you can figure out how to do both well.

Low average watch times can be improved. And they will be improved by leaders motivated to do so.Over one billion hours of video are watched every day on YouTube. So you can go back to your room of 200 people or 2500 people and unplug your online ministry, or you can figure out how to do both well.CLICK TO TWEET

QUESTION 3: SHOULD YOU USE AN ATTENDANCE MULTIPLIER?

If you’ve dabbled in online attendance numbers for more than ten minutes, you’ve probably heard about an online multiplier.

The idea is simple: since onc computer or phone might have more than one person watching, you used a multiplier to reflect that.

Many churches use 1.7 as a multiplier. So in my Facebook video example above, 1.1K views would equal an ‘attendance’ of 1870.

Others use 1.4.  I’ve heard of others using multipliers as high as 2 or more.

On the more conservative side, some large churches err on the side of using no multiplier. Still others ask people to log in and answer a short survey about how many people are watching to be sure their number is accurate (you can do this if you only stream off your website).

For me personally, I’d use either no multiplier or a low multiplier (1.7 max) since the 1-minute view counts are already generous.

Here’s the principle underneath: the more a leader exaggerates or distorts the truth, the harder it is to trust him.The more a leader exaggerates or distorts the truth, the harder it is to trust him.CLICK TO TWEET

QUESTION 4: ISN’T COUNTING PHYSICAL ATTENDANCE MORE ACCURATE THAN ONLINE ATTENDANCE? 

Well, yes and no.

As much as the critics have jumped on reports of online attendance growth, let’s start here: church leaders haven’t always reported in-person attendance consistently or accurately.

At a basic level, pastor math has become an inside joke in church world. It refers to many pastors’ propensity to find the most charitable/evangelistic/inflated account of attendance and announce that.

And different churches count physical attendance differently.

Many volunteers serve multiple services.

Some churches only count volunteers once no matter how many services they help at.

Other leaders count volunteers for every service they served at.

Some don’t count volunteers in their attendance numbers at all.

Some preachers count themselves for every service they speak at.

All of which takes us into the strange underbelly of ego/insecurity/competition that makes up too much of leadership.

In the same way there will be variance in how churches report online attendance, there have always been variances in how churches report physical attendance.

Online attendance tracking is more complicated than physical attendance tracking, but it reveals the same insecurities and exaggerations that have always been there.CLICK TO TWEET

QUESTION 5: DOES COUNTING ATTENDANCE EVEN MATTER? 

This question has been asked a lot over the years, so a brief reply.

First, numbers matter because people matter. If you care about people, you’ll care about numbers.

Second, as a leader, it’s your job to track progress. If you refused to benchmark and count things like attendance or giving, you won’t lead nearly as well.Numbers matter because people matter. If you care about people, you’ll care about numbers.CLICK TO TWEET

If you’re doubting that measuring things numerically is spiritual, just read through all of scripture to see how prominently numbers and counting figure into the Old and New Testament story. (Maybe start with, say, the book of Numbers.)

In addition, I find that the leaders who criticize pastors who track numbers are often leaders who don’t like their own numbers.

Trust me, there have been seasons where I really didn’t like the numbers I was seeing at all. You’ve probably been there too.

But to stop counting or ignore them is irresponsible. Numbers you don’t like should spur you to greater action, prayer, humility and innovation. (So should numbers you like, by the way. Don’t take the credit. Just keep moving.)The leaders who criticize pastors who track numbers are often leaders who don’t like their own numbers.CLICK TO TWEET

5 BEST PRACTICES TO TRACK ONLINE ATTENDANCE AND GENERATE GROWTH 

Here are a few best practices for tracking metrics for your church’s online ministry and, ultimately, improving attendance and engagement.

These can be used for Sunday services, but they’re something you can use for all your online content.

I’ll use the Sunday services metrics to keep things simple for this post, but the principles are more universal than that.

BEST PRACTICE 1: SET A FEW SIMPLE, CONSISTENT ONLINE ATTENDANCE BENCHMARKS

So what metrics do you choose to track online ‘attendance’?

There are SO many online metrics inside apps like Facebook and YouTube that tracking them all will be both overwhelming and confusing.

So…just pick a few and benchmark those.

For example, here are three that might help you chart the story of what’s happening online.

Number of 1-minute views on Facebook, YouTube and LiveStream service (your website). (Eliminating the 3 and 10-second watch gets rid of people who randomly scrolled into you and left.)

Average Watch Time

Audience Retention (available on both Facebook and YouTube)

Going beyond total reach or watch numbers and tracking metrics like Watch Time and Audience Retention allow you to see how effectively you’re engaging people, not just momentarily accessing people.

Yep, it’s an ego blow, but that’s not what your mission was about anyway. Plus, it will help you measure real growth, not accidental scrolls.

Whatever metrics you pick, use them consistently and make them your benchmark.

That way you have a consistent way to measure trends.Going beyond total reach or watch numbers and tracking metrics like Watch Time and Audience Retention allow you to see how effectively you’re engaging people, not just momentarily accessing people.CLICK TO TWEET

BEST PRACTICE 2: MEASURE AND TRACK ENGAGEMENT

While views matter because people matter,  views are less valuable than engagement.

Go back to physical metrics you’ve kept for years.

Hopefully you do more than track attendance and giving.While views matter because people matter, views are less valuable than engagement.CLICK TO TWEET

Many churches also track the number of:

First-time guests

Decisions for Christ

Baptisms

People in Groups

Volunteers

All of those metrics in some form as signs of engagement—a decision to move beyond the crowd and take a step in faith and explore or get involved (at some level) in the mission of the local church.

That’s also happening online.

One of the best things you can do in online ministry is to encourage your viewers to become engagers.  Viewers watch. Engagers participate.

Here are some online engagement metrics to start monitoring:

Likes

Comments

Shares

Subscribes

Decisions (salvation, baptism, new here forms)

Texts (a texting service that people can use for prayer requests, sharing their information, their decision etc.)

DonationsOne of the best things you can do in online ministry is to encourage your viewers to become engagers. Viewers watch. Engagers participate.CLICK TO TWEET

While it can be overwhelming to track all of that, setting up a few key engagement metrics is key to seeing how well your online audience is really engaging your message.

This is more important than it appears.

Reach is about breadth. Engagement is about impact.

As we’ve said in the space before the current crisis, engagement is the new church attendance. If you want your church to grow online, stop trying to attract people. Start trying to engage people.Engagement is the new church attendance. Reach is about breadth. Engagement is about impact.CLICK TO TWEET

Ultimately engagement will drive all your future church growth.

In the future church, only the engaged will attend because only the engaged will remain.

Pastors who obsess over online attendance will be left with declining attendance because they failed to turn attendance into engagement.CLICK TO TWEET

BEST PRACTICE 3: CONNECT WITH YOUR ENGAGERS

When someone engages with you by liking, commenting, sharing or subscribing, you have an opportunity.

One church I follow has redeployed their staff to send a quick message to everyone who likes their Facebook page, YouTube Channel or engages their online channels.

Imagine liking a page and getting a quick message that says “Hey Carey, we noticed you liked our page. Welcome! Let us know how we can help! – Justin.” Nothing too over the top, not an 18-page form letter. Just a quick note.

Similarly, when someone leaves a comment, at least like their comment and comment back.

Obviously, the more serious the step, the more personal and meaningful the engagement. A comment doesn’t need the same kind of response that a decision to follow Christ or baptism would merit.

But it’s amazing to me how easy it is to count the numbers and ignore the person behind the number.

The people who are best at online ministry are those who are the most personal.CLICK TO TWEET

Find it overwhelming?

I’ve heard from so many leaders who are wondering what to do with their staff since they’re not in their building.

Get your staff and emotionally intelligent volunteers to work on connecting with the people who engage your online platforms.

Viewers may watch, but engaged people are far more likely to return.

And know this: pastors who prioritize online relationship over online reach will eventually see much more reach.CLICK TO TWEET

BEST PRACTICE 4: MONITOR MOMENTUM

Now that’ you’ve benchmarked a few key metrics for attendance and engagement, start monitoring momentum.

You’ll soon discover (like you do when you track physical attendance) that you’re either gaining or losing momentum.

More people will tune in, or less will. Average watch times will grow or decline. The number of people engaging or taking a step will climb or drop.

All of that tells you a story.

And don’t keep changing the metrics so they tell you the story you want to hear.

Truth is your friend, as hard as that can be. As my friend Rich Birch says, there’s no such thing as bad news. There’s just news. CLICK TO TWEET

Even if your overall audience shrinks as life re-opens and buildings start to reopen,  if the number of comments, subscribers, decisions and steps keeps growing, you’ve unlocked the key to reaching far more people over time.

I fear many pastors will see their online ministry as a temporary bandaid until they can get back in their building. Which means you’ll start ignoring all the people you’re supposed to be reaching.

The pastor who takes online ministry seriously will end up seizing the future in the way pastors who simply return to their buildings won’t..CLICK TO TWEET

BEST PRACTICE 5: KEEP EXPERIMENTING

Six weeks into this crisis, you may already be settling into a pattern of what now passes for normal.

Don’t.

A massive disruption like this and the chaos of the new normal that is coming means you should refuse to settle. Keep experimenting.

People will ignore some of what you put online, and they’ll love other things you produce and share.

While there are some clear ways to produce content people ignore (here are the top 7 reasons everyone ignores the online content you produce), the truth is the internet grows every day and the church can’t afford to ignore that.

Church leaders are currently throwing a lot of digital spaghetti at the wall. For the most part that’s great, because eventually, you’ll see what sticks and what doesn’t.

What you stumble upon next might change everything.

Crisis is the cradle for innovation, so keep innovating. Eventually, you won’t just see more reach, you’ll see real engagement..CLICK TO TWEET

LEAD YOUR WAY THROUGH THE COVID DISRUPTION. ACCESS MY NEW COURSE FOR FREE.

I get it. You’re scared. These are deeply uncertain times. 

As hard as it is to admit, it’s just really hard to know how to lead in times like these.

While no one has all the answers, there is help and a strategy that can guide you, and I’d love to come alongside you.

To that end, I’ve got a brand new online, on-demand course, called How To Lead Through Crisisthat can help you lead your team, your church and yourself through the massive disruption.

The course is the gift from me and my team to you and leaders everywhere. In light of everything that’s going on, we decided to make it available 100% free.

Inside How To Lead Through Crisis, you’ll learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a non-anxious presence that inspires confidence and trust.
  • Care for yourself so the crisis doesn’t break you.
  • Master the art of fast-paced, clear decision making. 
  • Gather and interpret the most reliable data that will advance your mission
  • Advance digitally to scale past physical barriers and grow your outreach.
  • Lead your team and congregation remotely

While no one has all the answers in a crisis this big, in the course, I share the mindsets, habits, tools and strategies that I believe will help you lead through crisis to get you and the people you lead to a new (and better) future. 

Join the 6000 leaders who have claimed their place in the course for free.

You can enroll and get instant access for you and your team here.

CRISIS BLOG SERIES AND THE FUTURE CHURCH

I also have a free blog post series on the current global crisis and how the church can respond:

Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Corona Virus

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

8 Ways to Lead in the New Digital Default Church

5 Ways The Current Crisis is Accelerating The Arrival of the Future Church

My Top 7 Rules for Leading a Digital Team

3 Simple Ways To Make Sure You Don’t Break In the Crisis

8 Early Tips for Producing Digital Content During the Current Crisis

Why Motivation Alone Won’t Get Your People (Or You) Through This Crisis

The Three Kinds of Leaders You See In A Crisis

5 Predictions About the Future Church While Everything’s Unknown

5 Quick Things That Can Make a Long Term Difference During Your First Digital Easter

Half of All Churches Are Instantly Growing. Here’s Why And Here’s What To Do.

The Top 7 Reasons Everyone Ignores the Online Content You Produce

Hope this helps you and your team lead well in a very challenging season.

WHAT ARE YOUR BEST METRICS AND PRACTICES?

I’d love to hear from church leaders in the comments. What are your best practices and metrics?

Scroll down and leave a comment!