Digital Ministry — Return on Investment

I was recently asked a by a colleague if I would arrange a professional development workshop for staff on the subject of Google Analytics, and how to use and interpret the numbers. This got me thinking again about what and how we measure ministry activity online.

Google Analytics and the value of numbers in ministry, could be an alternative title for this post, but I use the business term ROI (Return On Investment) deliberately to draw some parallels and some differences between the business approach to Google Analytics and the ministry one.

Many of those deeply involved in a ministry will know of the temptation and often pressure to rattle of the stats of who and where they’ve reached. There is even the anecdotal quip often made that if you added up all the stats from ministries around the world, we’ve saved the world for Christ five times over.

But what of effectiveness, actual change and impact that doesn’t neatly fit into numbers or a growth curve. Can that even be measured online, offline, anywhere?

By The Numbers

First off, let’s look at the numbers, they’re easily available and can be extremely useful. Our ministry friends at Christian Vision are very good with numbers and have spent quite some time pulling all their stats together in a beautiful and powerful way that makes quite an impact.

From Google Analytics (perhaps the most common and freely available method of tracking), you can get a wonderful array of data, even in real time too. You can measure exactly what page your visitors are arriving on and leaving on. you can see how long they spend on your site and even which links and buttons they click most.

While all this stuff is great, I would advise a level of caution and a measured approach, that balances the amount, level and depth of stats you cover and analyse against the size and resources of your ministry.

We have a growing number of sites now, but still a small team. So, while I would love to do heat mapping and link tracking analysis with some of our sites, to make improvements in the user experience and interactivity, both the time it takes to do that and the time to implement those changes is simply not available for the scale and man power of the project. It would perhaps be an unbalanced allocation of resources with the whole scope of the project.

What can we do with the numbers available?

The primary use for these numbers is for tracking your reach. Then as you track your reach you’ll establish baselines that you can make goals to grow from or improve on.

Once you get a sense of your reach, numerically, demographically and geographically, you can start to understand how and where to measure and look at the effect and more qualitative aspects of your ministry.

Numbers to start with

As a simple road into Google Analytics try looking at the following metrics.

These will give you basic indicators to work with. How many different people are you reaching, how much of your site are they looking at and are they spending the right amount (enough) time on your site based on the content available.

For example, if your content is mainly podcasts or videos and you hope that most of your users are consuming the whole piece of content, then you would set your time on site target to be over half of the average length of your content. Showing more than half of visitors are consuming the full content. (As a rough guide).

In addition to the Google stats you will probably have some kind of social activity going on too, so it’s worth measuring your social interactions across all services. That could be a Like, Follow, comment or share. This gives you some sense of the virality of your content and also your extended reach.

Going a little deeper, looking at quality

Much of our ministry is about engagement, interactivity with users and causing them to stop and think, perhaps consider new ideas or question their own position on issues. The more this happens in a positive way, the more we should see proactive engagement, people taking the time to perform more active calls to action.

On some of our sites we therefore measure the number of comments on a piece of content and then analyse those comments to see what the real conversation is. On a fairly new project that is nicely established we’re shooting for a goal of a third of all comments directly and positively raising issues addressed in the content.

By reading through all of this we get a sense of whether the content is pitched at the right level, whether it is touching the right issues and whether it is causing positive change in peoples thinking or actions.

Along side this we are experimenting with online polls to gauge a snapshot feeling on hot issues. By then addressing these issues over time we can re-run a poll or similar question to see if the results and therefore, the thinking has changed.

The Return On Investment 

From a business perspective you’re constantly looking at your profit margin, how much did I spend online and what return did I get for that. If your Amazon or any other online retailer, the statistics game becomes very easy, especially at the top level.

How many people came to my site and how many ended up making a purchase. The lower the ratio of visitors to purchasers is the better your website is performing. That’s your quality measure. After that you just want an increase in those numbers.

Is that enough in ministry, eyeballs on content? Maybe that depends on your content. Another ministry that is both great with numbers and has absolutely superb numbers is YouVersion the digital bible service. They monitor their numbers a lot and often put out emails to their uses with the latest milestone.

I recall the first time they reached 1 Billion minutes of Bible reading. That kind of stunning figure almosts needs no qualitative study, it’s 1 billion minutes of God’s word speaking to peoples hearts. However, what if many of those minutes are made up of people leaving their iDevice and the YouVersion app open during a 40 minute sermon every week – all of a sudden that piece of information doesn’t quite translate to 40 minutes of reading, and therefore 1 billion minutes of collective reading.

So, whenever we look at statistics we need to be aware in ministry we’re looking for something more, something deeper. It’s far more than just hit counts vs money spent on a project. There has to be something more that really tells us if those supporters investing in us and our ministry are really getting a Kingdom return.

You can check out the great stats from Christian Vision on their Live Stats page. If you don’t already use it get the You Version app too.

Posted on Jun 20, 2012 by Sam Peckham

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