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

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What Are You Measuring And….?

So what are you measuring, and where are you finding traction online?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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


  1. Alwyn Foster on November 1, 2020 at 2:02 am

    Hey Carey,

    I love the pod. Always real, always helpful and always inspring to a young leader(36) like myself. We just held our first outrecah event and got about 50 emails from it. and 150 attendees. Praise God. I am wondering which episodes or resoucres woudl you suggets i explore for help managing, crafting and building that email list? Esspically Subject lines (thats the hardest part)

  2. Dana W on October 20, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    I’m having trouble finding how to track 10 minute views on Facebook or YouTube. Can anyone help point me in the right direction? Is it even possible?

  3. Jeff Hook on October 14, 2020 at 6:08 pm


    As always, a good post – for the church industry to get pastors to get real and think differently. In the business world, most of these metrics are good for the Sales and Marketing aspect of the church – the Sunday service. A pastor once told me the old joke, “Don’t blame me, I’m only in Sales and Marketing!” But the church should not stop there (BTW – I’m not saying you are saying that the church should stop there).

    Companies track, and churches should track, so many more things that are related to the customer, not just getting the customer “in the door.” In business, some refer to it as customer satisfaction or customer success. The Four Disciples of Execution (Andy Stanley did a podcast reviewing that book a while back) talks about measuring ‘lead’ measures as well as ‘lag’ measures – and some of what you pointed out here are perhaps ‘lead’ measures – from a Sales and Marketing point of view. According to 4DX, a ‘lead’ measure is a metric an organization can directly affect. For example, the proverbial attendance in the physical world is a lag measure – a church cannot directly affect attendance. They can address congregation satisfaction (which will hopefully cause repeat attendance) and invitation rates (which will affect the number of new guests). How a church can directly affect some of these measures above would be a great discussion.

    However, many of these metrics may not at all produce desired outcomes. To really measure success, churches need to begin to measure outcomes. Are marriages getting better, are family dynamics improving, is my spiritual life getting better? Things that the churchgoer ‘hired’ the church to do. See “Jobs To Be Done” by Anthony Ulwick.

    As the obedience culture of Christianity wanes into the Post-Christian world, churches will be measured based on what they bring to a person’s life, family, relationships, community, and the entire world. The fear-mongering associated with ever-lasting Hell, although it may be accurate, is not working in this society. Bringing value to people’s lives so they can live a John 10:10 life, combined with the Two Great Commandments, may be better marketing messaging? (BTW – If framed correctly, I would contend that a full life is a challenging life that causes me to grow spiritually, mentally, emotionally, relationally – not necessarily an easy life without strife.)

    Carey, Keep up the good work! You are one of the refreshing voices in the industry that is needed to help make the church a vital part of the world we now live in.

  4. Rev. Lilly Porter-Bennett on October 13, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    This was so useful! Your blog was passed on to me by Dr. Tom Rainer and I am so grateful that he pointed me in this direction.
    I love the Church and I am concerned that there needs to be a way that we measure our online engagement that is not misleading.

    Thanks for taking the time to create this content

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 14, 2020 at 3:50 pm

      Glad to help!

      I’ll keep the content coming. 🙂

  5. Pauline Draper-Watts on October 13, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    I love this and would like to add an additional perspective. Consistency is key along with working with the data. Without consistency, you cannot make comparisons or assess trends. For instance, when looking at YouTube, you can look at peak concurrent users (to determine those watching live), and average watch time comparing this to the length of the livestream, and then come back seven days later for the number of views and the average watch time to see how many people have watched the service after the event throughout the week and how long they spent with you. Also, you can track the number of subscribers over time. One of the good aspects of YouTube is its consistency and the analytics are easy to access within your channel and to understand so it is a good starting point.
    All social channels are more passive but you can encourage engagement in chat and comments and I love the points about collecting email addresses and other acton steps.
    A further way you can determine how it is going is by taking a short survey with those who are and are not attending from your congregation to establish further insights. You can even post a link to the survey in the comments/chat at the end of the service and be sure to include some open ended questions to gain narrative around the responses. You can even post a link to the survey in the comments/chat at the end of the service but recognize that you will not get those who have already dropped off of the service.

  6. Joseph Athyalil on October 12, 2020 at 9:04 pm

    God providentially allowed me to come across your Media ministry and it is helping me tremendously in the work of the Lord especially in this new normal. Your resources are so valuable and precious. God bless.
    Joseph Athyalil India.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 13, 2020 at 8:03 am

      Thanks Joseph! I’m so encouraged to hear that. Thanks for the ministry you’re doing in India!

  7. Rick Stapleton on October 12, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    thanks Carey — good content that engaged me!

    I do differ from your first comment on eliminating the multiplier. It’s simply true that, statistically speaking, there is going to be on average more people in the room than just 1 person per IP address. I don’t view the multiplier as an issue of vanity, although I am just as prone to pride as anyone else. I think it’s just a matter of trying to find a realistic multiplier (maybe survey your people on a given weekend and find the average number of people viewing per IP address) and then sticking to it.

    Additionally, having a realistic, consistent multiplier helps leaders to see the online reality and to faithfully disciple online viewers as best we can.

    Thanks again for all you do,


    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 13, 2020 at 8:07 am

      Hey Rick…thanks. I imagine that most leaders will continues to use a multiplier. For me, I’d rather go with certainty and because the views are already inflated, my vote would be to cut it out. Note: A younger me would never have done that. Ha ha. Thanks for all you’re doing Rick!

  8. Dave Baldwin on October 12, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    I always find your blog content to be challenging and hitting me with reality. This one is no different. We were thinking about hiring a tech person part time. Perhaps it should be a fulltime position along with a social media part time person.
    Thank you,

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 13, 2020 at 8:07 am

      Dave…my guess is within a few years 50% of staff dollars in growing churches will be devoted to online. I realize no on else thinks that, but….

  9. Jim Young on October 12, 2020 at 12:19 pm

    Carey, this is really enlightening. I pray that this article will go viral and travel to tens of thousands of pastors and leaders!

  10. Rich Doering on October 12, 2020 at 10:44 am

    Very grateful for this article. However, in honesty, it makes me tired. More tired than I am already trying to think through how to pull some of this off while leading the church today. Obviously, I am changing and we are changing and adapting and adopting. Just tired. Thank you for great content and sharing stuff that challenges!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 12, 2020 at 11:04 am

      I hear you Rich. An earlier version of this blog started with an acknowledgement that most leaders will be too tired to act on this. But I took it out. Hang in there. And remember the power of team. What you can’t do others will gladly do. It’s the power of the body of Christ. Too many leaders take everything on themselves.

    • Donna Cassity on October 12, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Hi Rich,
      I can relate! Here’s what I know from big churches that have been ahead of the curve such as the one my brother serves: Frist, you have to have good equipment and a tech person/ team
      And secondly, hire a social media coordinator so that all you do is preach and write content. That’s what I’m leading a small congregation here in CT. to do. It is critical to the growth of the church now. Since we are small, we are looking into what equipment we need and a part time (10 hours) person to start with social media. We will start very simple at first.

      Just like putting together a plan for bringing people into the church to disciple them, the same thing can be done on social media. I am not a social media whiz, but I know enough to understand that we need someone who is.

      HOpe that helps.

  11. John Fanous on October 12, 2020 at 10:40 am

    Carey, how long after a video/service/sermon is posted do you look at these stats? One day after? One week after? One month after? The reason I ask is the numbers are significantly different depending on the gap between posting and measuring. Thanks!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 12, 2020 at 11:05 am

      Great question. Live + 7 days is a great benchmark. Other leaders use first 30 day numbers. But the weekly count is a good place to start.

  12. Lisa Baker on October 12, 2020 at 9:58 am

    Always find your articles helpful!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 12, 2020 at 11:05 am

      thanks Lisa!

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