How to demystify counting online attendance in 2021
Remember when counting online attendance just didn’t really matter all that much? Figuring the final tally for church on Sunday used to be a straightforward process; simply count the people you see. Kids and students were most likely checked in digitally and a stealthy individual did the headcount during announcements. Add those two numbers together and poof; you know how many people showed up. Online numbers? Bonus info for the annual report.
As we enter 2021, those simpler times are long since gone. The digital church is here to stay. In fact, according to Barna, as of September 2020, three-quarters of churched U.S. adults (74%) say they have watched a church service online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is that you can’t see the heads to count. There’s no kids check-in spreadsheet. So, when counting online attendance, you don’t know how many actual eyes are watching your content.
By now, you already know the difficulties in counting online attendance; Does a 3-second view really count? Is there a difference between views and engagement? What’s a multiplier and why should I use one? It’s enough to make you want to stop caring about all these metrics. However, as Carey Nieuwhof puts it, “Numbers matter because people matter. If you care about people, you’ll care about numbers.”
- 3 seconds does not a view make. For Facebook, it may be the prettier number, but when was the last time you saw something for 3 seconds felt changed for all eternity? Your most reliable metric when it comes to Facebook is 1-minute views. To us, it indicates an intentional choice to watch your stream. After all, you didn’t count the people that drove by your building and noticed your logo on a Sunday morning; right?
- The multiplication factor. In the olden days, when the McCalister family came to church 7 humans would walk through your front door. Well, now your front door is a screen. How are we supposed to know how many of the McCalisters are watching? The truth is that you can’t know exactly how many people are watching at the same time on the same device, and that’s where a multiplier comes in handy. If you’re a rule follower and can’t bring yourself to guesstimate then you’re perfectly welcome to not use a multiplier, however, if you know that your congregation is mostly couples and/or families, then you’d be safe going with a multiplier of 1.5 to try and get a clearer attendance picture.
- Views or engagement: what’s better? Well, both really. In a really tremendous article on digital attendance, Carey Nieuwhof states, “Engagement is the new church attendance. Reach is about breadth. Engagement is about impact.” These two metrics really do influence each other more than you might realize. Think about it, if you have more engagement (Comments, shares, likes, tags, etc.) more people will be exposed to your content, which then creates more engagement, which then… well, you get the idea. This is why Carey also predicts churches will be devoting 50% of their staffing budgets to filling Online Ministry positions! It’s got to be someone’s full time job to spark engagement, to drive more reach and greater impact.
- Don’t overreact. Let’s run a 3 week ‘What if?’ scenario real quick. Week 1: You have 500 online attenders. Week 2: You have 345 online attenders. What does that mean for week 3????? Do you hit the panic button and disconnect the internet at your campus? No, of course not! We’re all in uncharted territory when it comes to digital church. Trends are your friend in this case and evaluating metrics over the long term is the best way to make informed decisions on content, production value, length of service, quantity of events, and days/times to offer them. Like we’ve mentioned before, the digital church is here to stay, so you have time to experiment without giving your audience whiplash.
- Define your wins. Here’s the final piece to the demystification of online attendance; At the end of the day, attendance numbers are meant to inform you as to how many people are experiencing the Gospel, but these metrics will never quantify the importance of knowing the names of the people the Gospel is impacting. It’s going to be tempting to focus on the week-to-week fluctuations, and those are of course important, just don’t let them overshadow the stories of life-change happening all around you.
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