Beyond Vanity Metrics and Algorithms: 5 Online Benchmarks Churches Should Start Measuring

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How do you measure what happened at church last weekend?

How do you know that you’re actually making progress?

If the goal is to turn online views into real relationships and actual discipleship, any idea what to look for to know if that’s actually happening?

The super-inflated (or super discouraging) numbers in your online channels on Facebook and YouTube can lead you to a false sense of success. You can think you’re growing when you in fact might be losing people as your own people or local people click off. Or you can think you’re not making any progress when perhaps you are.

In this post, I’ll quickly share some problems with vanity metrics and algorithmic growth and suggest five things to measure as you move forward.

As you know, all of this is really wet cement right now for most leaders.

But I hope this can provide a bit of direction and some sanity (the numbers can get crazy big or crazy discouraging).

I also hope it will provide a spring board for what you’ll decide to measure in your church.

First up, though, how vanity metrics and the algorithm can let you down.

The super-inflated numbers in your online channels on Facebook and YouTube can lead you to a false sense of success. You can think you're growing when you in fact might be losing people. Click To Tweet

How Vanity Metrics Let You Down

If you’re driven by ego and insecurity, online metrics can feed both parts of your soul. They can make you feel far more successful than you really are, and make you feel far more discouraged than you should be.

Most online apps like FaceBook, YouTube, and Instagram give you a simple summary of how many people watched your video (we’ll move beyond video views later in this post).

Vanity metrics can make you feel far more successful than you really are, and make you feel far more discouraged than you should be. Click To Tweet

Take this video I posted to IGTV. Instagram’s share counter says it got 5.7K views. Not bad.

But drill down into insights and it’s time to call my therapist. The screen shot below shows you the steep drop off of viewers after a few seconds.

The average person barely watched for five seconds. In fact, only 3% of people watched to the end.

Imagine 97% of people walking out during your message. That’s exactly what can happen online.

Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram will all give you average watch times. As painful as it is to look, you should look.

Counting total views on Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube 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. You can’t build the future off 3-second views.

Counting total views on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube as ‘attenders’ is 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. Click To Tweet

Why Algorithmic Growth Isn’t Real Growth…Yet

Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are all controlled by algorithms, meaning to a certain extent, the algorithm can give you a boost by showing your videos to more people that don’t follow you, or it can suppress views if it doesn’t think your content is connecting.

Algorithms provide opportunity but a big trap as well.

Learning how to hack the algorithms to boost your views is a cottage industry…you can spend all day on it and perhaps get more eyeballs on your content (Shopify has a good introductory piece on algorithm hacking here).

The algorithm can give you a temporary boost, but in and of itself will not lead to life-change.

For that, you need connection…a way to turn online viewers into real relationships—digitally, in-person or both. That happens one decision and connection at a time.

Spiking your church’s numbers by hijacking the algorithm is like living on energy drinks. The boost lasts for a few hours and then you crash. None of that growth is necessarily real or long term.

But, if you figure out different benchmarking, you can both measure progress more accurately and start to convert some of that online traffic into real relationships and real discipleship.

Here’s how.

Spiking your church's numbers by hijacking the algorithm or using vanity metrics is like living on energy drinks. The boost lasts for a few hours and then you crash. You can't build your future off 3 second views. Click To Tweet

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

1. 10 Minute Views, No Multiplier

If you look at most analytics, you can get something like 3 or 10 second views, 1 minute views or 10 minute views.

My suggestion is you pick the most conservative metric and start tracking that.

Yes, your numbers drop. But if someone stays with you for ten minutes, it probably wasn’t an accident. They were there on purpose. They listened, watched and at some level expressed an interest.

Another suggestion: don’t use a multiplier.

Many churches use a multiplier (1.4x, 1.7x, 2x) to account for the fact that people watch together off a single device. And yes, that actually happens.

But you have no way of knowing what number is accurate (unless you make them register, which can repel new people), and as already stated, the online numbers are probably inflated to begin with.

Please hear me: I get it. I’ve been in leadership long enough to know the ego boost that happens from big numbers and I am not immune to the pressure, but to quit my day job to become an Instagram ‘influencer’ based on my video track record would be a really stupid move. Don’t let the numbers go to your head or the lack of numbers go to your heart (thanks Tim Keller for that insight).

You would never inflate financial giving by a multiplier to account for what people ‘intended’ to give or ‘hope to give’. Why would online attendance be different? At least you know what you’re probably dealing with.

Taking a conservative bench mark in attendance gives you a chance to build on something real into the future.

So, pick a conservative view count and don’t add a multiplier. I know your senior pastor will hate it. Blame me.

You would never inflate financial giving by a multiplier to account for what people 'intended' to give or 'hope to give'. Why would online attendance be different? Click To Tweet

2. Average Duration

Another key metric to benchmark is average view duration. This is different than one minute or ten minute views, because it tells you how long, on average, people watched or listened to your service or video (even beyond the 10 minute mark).

This screen shot is from the first streaming of The Online Church Engagement Summit my team and I ran recently. (You can watch it on demand now here.)

It was a ninety minute summit and 11K leaders had registered for the 1:00 p.m stream. You can see that about 6K leaders watched simultaneously and there were over 10K unique viewers.

But how long did they watch? 18 seconds? Eight minutes?

No, on this event we were thrilled to see that the average watch time was over an hour. Not bad for a 90 minute event.

Tracking average duration can help you determine so much.

For example, there’s a lot of debate about length of service. How long is too long? How short is too short?

You could argue that five minutes of boring is five minutes too long, and 60 minutes of fascinating is not nearly enough.

Five minutes of boring is five minutes too long, and 60 minutes of fascinating is not nearly enough. Click To Tweet

Here’s an example from my leadership podcast. I recently aired a 50 minute episode and a two and a half hour episode in the same month.

You would think people listened to more of the 50 minute episode than the marathon episode.

Nope. There was a 2% difference in average duration.

The 50 minute episode was listened to for 66% of its entirety. The two and a half hour episode? 64%. Insight: episode length does not determine listening duration on that show. Fascinating.

I don’t really know what that means, but it filters out debates like “more people would watch if the sermon was shorter/longer”.

Planning for the future with data creates a better plan than planning for the future with emotions and opinions.

Planning for the future with data creates a better plan that planning for the future with emotions and opinions. Click To Tweet

3. Number of Followers and Subscribers (Social, Channels and Email)

The real goal is help online viewers become online engagers. And the best form of engagement is to get them to take a step.

While it’s easy to imagine that someone who is watching for the first time online responds to the message by wanting to get baptized, that’s not the usual path. When it happens, celebrate it. But don’t hold your breath.

It usually starts more subtly than that. Often, it begins with a follow or a subscription.

Some viewers will start participating in the chat, and that’s great. You should have a robust, healthy chat.

But even more helpful is when someone starts following your church on social (or its leaders) and subscribing to your channel.

One metric you’ll want to track is the average growth on your social media and channels monthly or weekly.

Before you leave this though, also encourage people to subscribe to your email list. I know that sounds boring, but please underline and bold this next line: your email list is not controlled by an algorithm. Almost everything else is.

As a result, it’s a fantastic way to connect with people.

Via email, you have a direct connection with people. And it gives you a vital way to really build a personal relationship that could lead to a phone call, scheduling a coffee or an invite into a virtual or in-person meeting.

Start tracking social media growth, channel subscriptions and email list growth.

Those benchmarks will help you see whether you’re making progress.

Church leaders: your email list is not controlled by an algorithm. Almost everything else is. As a result, it's a fantastic way to connect with people. Click To Tweet

4. Number of People Who Take a First Step

This is where it really gets good, and where it also gets hard.

But the real step is when they decide to do something.

Your church likely has a discipleship path laid out and is figuring out how to convert that to online.

So whether that’s to take a virtual membership class or join something like Starting Point or Alpha or some first step designed for new people, that’s what you want to encourage people to do.

Start tracking that.

The point is simple: define what first step(s) you want an online attender to take, and then start measuring how many people take it.

Again, don’t neglect email. It’s a very powerful and effective way to help people take real-life steps.

5. Whatever Is Really Connecting

Right now every church leader is fixated on three things: video streaming, video streaming, and video streaming.

And yes, video is the future etc etc etc.

That’s awesome.

But just a small public service reminder that there are other ways to get content, ideas, and messages out there.

So remember my Instagram video career disaster I shared earlier?

I have a written version of that exact same content that did a little better. My video got 5.7K views that engaged people for about 3 seconds.

The website version of When Christians Lose Their Minds, People Lose Their Faith has been read over 30K times and shared over 19K times, which is an insane share rate and sign of engagement. (I also know that number is not jacked up because I’ve written other posts that have been shared 38 times. The counter (unfortunately) doesn’t lie.)

Had I relied on video alone to share those ideas, I would have been disappointed. But when I shared that message in a post, it took off.

The point here is simple: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

If it’s a good message, it might deserve multiple formats. But most pastors write, deliver, forget about it and move on.

If you’re short-staffed, have a volunteer go through past messages that have connected and perhaps produce small snippets for posts on your website, social media or even share other (older) clips on your video channels. Or email the ideas out in bite-size chunks to your email subscribers. If you have a team, have them do that.

You’re probably thinking “Carey, where’s the metric I need to track on this one?”

The point is you’ll find it.

As you get creative in sharing content in different ways, you’ll discover something that’s really connecting: a format or forum that delivers the message in ways that really connect and resonate with people that they in turn share.

When you find that, track it. And learn all you can from it.

The goal, after all, is to connect with people. You can use almost any means to do that.

I measure which posts get read the most, how many get shared, and the open rate on my emails to learn which connect and which don’t.

Your audience is giving you real-time feedback. Don’t ignore it.

The goal, after all, is to connect with people. You can use almost any means to do that. Click To Tweet

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.