Digital Church: What do the metrics actually mean?

As congregations everywhere switch to online church, whether it’s short ‘thoughts for the day’, pre-recorded services, prayer meetings, worship sets, or live services; metrics have started to mean so much to so many, but what do they mean and how can metrics help inform how you ‘do church’ during the lockdown?

Until this lockdown, most church metrics have looked at Sunday attendance, ‘like’ counts on social media and total video views. Digital church gives us a far more insightful nature into how viewers consume and engage in online church.

This guide is written to help you understand the various metrics available, what they mean and how to use them to increase engagement in online church.

What do ‘views’ mean?

A ‘view’ indicates that someone has tuned in and watched part of your service, however it doesn’t mean they’ve watched the whole service — it’s very likely that they have only watched part of it.

To help unpack what this looks like, let’s look at the two main platforms. Generally speaking, churches are using Facebook or YouTube for their online services.

Facebook views

Facebook will give you several insights when you delve into your page settings:

  • Minutes viewed (total number of combined minutes viewed)

You’ll notice, on your own videos, that the figure that is publicly available is that of the 3-second video views. Which is grossly over-inflated, as it includes people scrolling who pause on a video that auto-plays and then watch for 3-seconds or longer. They may leave after 4-seconds!

Facebook public figures are all warped to encourage advertising spend, so take some time to dig around to find the true picture, which will be helped by the average video watch time figure.

Views are less insightful than that of audience retention numbers, which shows you where people stop watching. With any playable media — Netflix included — watch graphs will have a downwards trajectory, it’s human nature and is a marker of attention spans, so don’t be discouraged!

YouTube views

YouTube describes a view as, ‘a viewer-initiated intended play of a YouTube video …’ for 30 seconds or longer.

When you go into your analytics, you can see four key areas that break down the views of longer than 30-seconds:

  • Overview — a summary of your stats

These help you see how many people watch your services for, with a slightly more helpful breakdown.

Again, the key number is average view duration, which tells you how long people watch for.

Learn from the drop-off moments

In all playable media, there are drop-off moments. These are where there is a change in pace, a segment goes on for too long, or the quality of material drops and people stop watching.

This happens in mainstream media, TV, films and all manner of multi-million dollar productions. The key is to look for the drop-off moments, work out what happens at a shared drop-off moment and then tweak future content to avoid these.

There may be notable moments that people stop watching your services, perhaps at the end of a worship set, or during a silence for prayers. Maybe a transition takes too long, or sermons that worked well in-person are now too long for online engagement.

Silences which are helpful in gathered environments might be a barrier to engagement in online church.

Watch for the drop-off moments in your analytics and then tweak your future services to remain engaging at moments that had proved to disengage in the past.

These drop-off moments are personal to viewers, who have fixed habits around digital and fixed habits around gathered environments. We are trying to merge these two realities and so there are valuable lessons to learn quite quickly around the differences between communicating from the front of a church and communicating through a screen.

Engaging through scrolling vs engaging through intention

Broadly speaking, people are on YouTube to watch video content, so you are more likely to retain their attention for longer. Facebook, on the other hand, is a bag of mixed media and more commonly associated with scrolling and short, snappy engagement.

This means that on Facebook the average user is more likely to engage with your services through scrolling, rather than engaging by intention.

YouTube is commonly available on Smart TVs, so by using YouTube, you can encourage viewers to watch on TV. By using TV it becomes easier for viewers to engage with your services for longer, as viewers are used to watching TV for prolonged amounts of time.

People have been static…

In traditional church buildings, people are static, and so attendance of 150 people on a Sunday isn’t broken down into individual attention-spans — fortunately! A downside of the digital church is that we see a more realistic picture of attention spans (drop-off points).

Attention spans might not be measurable at church, but on digital platforms, we see a very real pictorial representation of the transient nature of digital media.

…but viewers are transient

Viewers are mostly overly-familiar with their mobile phones and so their time on apps and videos is transient by habit, rather than by content. It’s a familiar muscle memory to flick between apps, checking each message as it comes in and browsing social media in-between activity.

This muscle memory comes into force regardless of what is being watched. So drop-off points might not be linked to your content, but their nature.

A view might not mean one person

So many households are watching church together at this time, especially where it’s shared on a TV or large screen. So one view might not equate to one person. This is worth considering, but is so hard to measure without time spent surveying your church.

A view might mean one person

Because of the abundance of devices available in each household, members of the household could each watch separately at different times of the day on different devices. There are varying reasons why they would do that, but it’s entirely possible.

What will the psychology of live streams show?

The psychology behind live streams will be interesting to follow over time — whether people start losing track of days; if they have less desire to be ‘in the moment’; whether people will want more control of their schedules as life is out of control; whether people watch later on instead or feel the need to watch ‘live’.

That’s where platforms like Church Online retain the feeling of being together and will help stimulate a community feel for the ‘live’ element.

Church Online has the ability to embed a video into their product, which then sits on your website alongside a live chat feature, allowing members of your church to continue talking during the service (not normally encouraged) and helps engage them in both the content and the community.

Don’t base everything on Sundays

Personally, I would say that there is more of a need to spread out content during the week.

  • Short 3–4 minute encouragements will be watched from start to finish and can be uploaded during the week, to create a mid-point between Sundays.

Be encouraged

So many people are engaging in the church who have not done so before. Engagement in church is up. People are giving their lives to Jesus, responding to prayer and being healed during online church. Jesus has never been limited by a building and he definitely isn’t now.

Hopefully, these pointers can show you how to make the most of your analytics, making your online church more accessible to a wider range of people.

Writing about Church Communications, digital culture and our relationship with tech. Author of ‘So Everyone Can Hear: Communicating Church in a Digital Culture’

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