What is the real reach of your church's online worship?
I remember an older gentleman who counted the number of people in attendance each week at the church my wife served as music director in Springfield, Missouri. It was the late 1990s, and he was in his 90s, but as the first hymn wrapped up, he would walk to the end of each row, starting at the very front, and count meticulously. He then would go to the other side and follow the same procedure.
It’s safe to say that church had an accurate count nearly every week because of his care and attention.
I wish I could tell you that measuring online attendance is such an exact science. Unfortunately, it’s not. Some sources are better than others at giving you at least some reflection of your true audience. Others give you a false view of who is watching your videos.
But all of the data can be helpful.
Full disclosure: I’m not a video metrics expert. But I’ve done quite a bit of reading on this subject — that is, when I’ve had a moment here or there — the past few weeks.
What I’m about to share might deflate a few balloons across the Great Plains Conference, mostly because this information might temper some excitement I know a few of you have had regarding what you think is your online audience. And that is totally not your fault.
Let me say that again: It is totally not your fault.
The metrics we all see on Facebook, for example, give us a false sense of the true audience. But those metrics were created with revenue generation in mind, not measuring online worship attendance.
For example, Facebook measures 3-second views, 15-second views, 1-minute views and completion views. If I’m on my phone scrolling through Facebook, and the dog does something funny to grab my attention, I may accidentally pause on a video for 3 seconds.
I’ve not watched a second of that video. I’ve not heard a single word. But it that scenario, Facebook would count me as a view because I was there for 3 seconds, hovered over that content.
Or I may be scrolling through Facebook and come across a video posted by a friend. I may not watch the video, and I may never turn the sound on for that video, but if I’m there for 3 seconds, I get counted as a view. I might even click “like” to let my friend know that I saw his or her post. Now I count as a “view” and as an “engagement.” And I’ve not really consumed a moment of that content.
So, what can you really count as online worship attendance? Here are some guidelines that may help you figure out your true audience. This isn’t meant to deflate your spirit, but rather to help you see the reality of your church’s situation in a time of sheltering in place.
If you are posting video straight to your website, then you should use either the analytics provided by your website host or Google Analytics to count views on that page.
This is probably the most reliable count regarding views that you will be able to obtain.
— Count these views. It’s even better if your site has a place for comments so you can encourage people to let you know who is watching and how many people are watching with them. Don’t use any formula to figure out number of people per view. We have lots of parishioners who live alone, and that could skew the number significantly.
Video Hosting Sites
The two biggest sites are YouTube and the smaller Vimeo. Both provide good analytics, including “views.” And that views count is based on how many times the video is started. They tell you how many “unique” views there have been, meaning it scrubs repeat viewers so you know better how many people watched. And they tell you how long people watched.
For example, a video I put together regarding copyright licensing had 126 views on Vimeo, but only 14 people watched to the very end, and the average person among those 126 views watched 44% of the video.
I’m OK with those numbers because I hosted two prior Facebook Live sessions on the same subject, so for this recording, I put what I thought was the most important information at the beginning, and it looks like most people who tuned in watched at least those first 15 to 20 minutes of an hourlong video.
— I feel comfortable counting views on these sites. People rarely accidentally come upon them. They either click links on your website, subscribe to your “channel” or have a link saved to get to your videos. I recommend counting those views. Again, urge people to comment with who they are and how many people are watching with them.
This is the one that seems to be the easiest but actually is the most difficult to count. I already mentioned how the number of views can be distorted, and it’s not really Facebook’s fault. The advertising world uses 3-second views to measure how effective an advertisement was at grabbing your attention. The 15-second views help measure retention. And as much as many of us like Facebook to keep us connected, we have to remember that it’s first and foremost a business.
I have to tip my cap to Facebook for the way it has evolved to create tools like Facebook Live that provide such incredible opportunities for us today during this time of sheltering in place.
But how can you measure your audience if counting views and “likes” isn’t accurate?
— My best advice, at least for now, is to count the number of “1 minute” views. Yes, that’s still an incredibly small amount of time, but it means someone paused for more than a brief moment over your post. And it seems to me that requiring someone to watch the entire duration is unrealistic. (Sarcastic news flash: Not everyone in the pews is paying attention for 60 straight minutes, either.) But Facebook has one tool inherent to its operation that can help you here: Ask people to comment and to share how many people are watching with them. Comments are a common practice on Facebook, so this might be easier to get people to do than on other platforms. But please be intentional about it. If you’re on Facebook Live, have someone posting for the church multiple times during a broadcast to have people comment with that information so you have a better chance of getting to the real number.
Now let’s be clear. This advice is just to provide you with some guidelines. I think all of us at the conference level understand completely that a totally accurate worship attendance count is difficult right now, and, frankly, pastors have much bigger priorities at the moment.
But it is important for pastors and lay leadership to know how they are doing at reaching their congregations in this time apart from each other. I hope these guidelines give you some ideas on how to simplify the process.
This simple worksheet might help you visualize how I described this counting process a little better.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 785-414-4224, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to his "In Layman's Terms" podcast. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or The United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.