A Minority Report to a Friend’s Blog

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, June 14, 2021

A Minority Report to a Friend’s Blog

Carey Nieuwhof and I are friends. He’s just one of the good guys. I agree with him on 99.999999% of everything he writes. But here’s a disagreement that would fall within the 0.000001%.  

(As you would imagine, I sent him this blog in advance so that he wouldn’t feel blindsided and could give me any advance feedback he felt might be appropriate or where his position might have been misrepresented. Also, so that he could tell me, in advance, where I could stick this entire thing. Like I said, we’re friends. He wrote a response to the blog that I include at the end.)  

He has written that to use any kind of multiplier for assessing online views is not only misleading to leadership but caters to (and often flows from) a senior leader’s ego. I get it. I’ve seen multipliers of online streams or views that were little more than cooking the books. It serves no one.

But where I disagree is that any and all attempts to gain a clearer sense of your online audience through multipliers is a mistake, much less always a matter of ego. (And for the record, I know Carey’s heart well enough to know he wouldn’t have wanted to intimate that every leader who uses a multiplier is doing so out of ego needs—he has too much of a heart for pastors to paint with that large of a brush.)

So let’s just call this a minority report to the many wonderful, true and insightful things Carey wrote about in terms of what and how to count in terms of online views and streams.

For internal use at Meck, we use a multiplier for our online streams that we started using during the pandemic so that we could get some sense of what was happening online while we were closed for in-person services. As a church that was closed for 15 months to in-person services, we needed to know how to plan and prepare for whatever growth we may have experienced.

Now, as Carey rightly noted, unless you password protect or require people to log in to watch your service – neither of which is very outreach friendly – you’ll never truly know how many people are watching. But we believe you can get pretty close, and here’s how we do it.

We started by looking at both our analytics and by noting how many streams of our services we were having each week, and then by analyzing those streams. And the multiplying? In regard to our online campus, we take our number of streams, and then multiply that by 120%, and then multiply that by the size of our average active attender’s family. Let me unpack that a bit.

First, we take the number of streams for our online campus services. We look at Google Analytics for trends and such, but we tend to go with number of streams to gauge how many people are actually attending, though the numbers are consistently close. The reason we go with streams is because tracking something like what Google Analytics gives you goes by the IP address. So, if you have three devices using the same IP address, say a phone, a computer and a tablet, that is tracked as “one” user. Which is fine if you have someone who starts off watching on their phone and then switches over to a tablet.

But if you’re watching on a tablet, your spouse is watching on the computer and a son or daughter is watching on the phone, that’s still counted as one instead of three.  

So, we go with streams for a particular service. And we can do that because we don’t just park our service out there for anyone to access at any time; rather, we offer actual service times, hosted by pastors and staff in the chat room. We have an actual online campus. So we are able to look at how many streams we had for, say, the 8:15 a.m. service this past Sunday. For easy math, let’s say we had 1,000.

Now, why do we then multiply that by 120%?

Because Google currently estimates that between 11 – 29% of people streaming your service are not allowing cookies. They have all kinds of ad blockers and tracking protection. In other words, they could be streaming your service and you would never know it. There would be no record of it. How many is that? Again, with estimates saying it’s between 11 – 29% of your current streamers, we split that roughly in half and multiply our streams by 120% to capture those who aren’t being tracked. Returning to our hypothetical 8:15 a.m. service with 1,000 streams, we add 200. That could still be conservative (going with 20% instead of the high end of 29%), but that’s what we feel comfortable doing.

So now, internally, we are estimating we had 1,200 streams for that service. Next, we multiply it by what we already knew to be the average size of an actively attending family through extensive study of our database. The size of our average attending family will be different than yours, so let’s use 3 as an easy number to work with.

The reason we do this is because we know that while young kids aren’t watching the service, they wouldn’t be if we were holding in-person services, either. They’d be in our children’s ministry, MecKidz, that runs from birth through fifth grade. But they’d still be here, on campus, in that program. We needed to know how many people those streams most arguably represented if we were going to make any kind of sense of how many people we had online and what we might have to prepare for when we got back together in person.

Anecdotally, we know that there are many gatherings watching our online campus that far exceed the average size of a Meck family. For example, we know that we have gatherings watching our Tuesday noontime service, sharing lunch together in conference rooms while at work, that number anywhere between 25 and 40 people per gathering. We don’t try to account for that, but we do use the size of an average family so that if they were to transition to in-person attending, we would know what to expect.

So back to the assessment. We now have an internal estimate that at that hypothetical service, multiplying 1,200 streams times three family members gives us an estimated 3,600 people. And it is an important estimate to consider when preparing to reopen for in-person services.

For us, determining this number is not about ego. I have my ego, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not tied to our online numbers. I didn’t even give instruction to our team about these calculations. They did a lot of work and research and concluded this was the most helpful way to look at this for us. We don’t publish or promote these numbers. We don’t participate in Outreach Magazine’s “Fastest” and “Largest” surveys. I’m not going to tell you what our online numbers are here, either. For us, it’s about internal planning and preparation.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with this approach, even my friend Carey. (By the way, read his blog on this—it’s good and filled with really helpful insights.) I’m not trying to advocate our approach for everyone, but I would like to argue that perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. So far, analyzing these numbers in this manner has proven very helpful and, I might add, as we surfaced for various in-person events throughout COVID, 

… pretty darn accurate.  

My friend Carey’s response?

“I’ve read Jim’s post and, as usual, he raises so many great points. I have huge respect for him and, while I still hold to the recommendation not to use a multiplier, if you do use one, please be as thoughtful, scientific and transparent as Jim and his team are. Data will help you avoid the ego boost, and it appears that this is exactly what Jim has done. If you’re going to use a multiplier, develop a formula as thoughtful as this.” 

Glad he didn’t tell me where I could stick it.

James Emery White

Sources

Carey Nieuwhof, “The New Church Metrics: 6 Things Pastors Should Start (And Stop) Measuring,” CareyNieuwhof.com, June 2021, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.