‘We’re a Church; Not a Business’: The Proper Role of Google Analytics in Church Life

Though I could list several hundred statements I hear people express about church life, “We’re a church, not a business,” has to rank among the most-often heard. There are a number of situations in which I will disagree with this idea (budgeting, legal matters, managing staff, etc.), but when it comes to e-newsletter and website analytics, I’m fully on-board.

This week, I wish to look first at website metrics. Google Analytics, by far the most popular of the website metric tools, is geared toward American business, not American nonprofits and churches. This doesn’t undermine the value of the tool for churches, but it does mean that churches must approach the tool with an awareness of how it can benefit them.

Pathways, not Numbers: Analytics is a valuable tool for tracking visitor numbers and growth. But, churches—especially smaller communities (less that 200 on Sunday)—should worry less about numbers and more about the pathways that people take through their site. Why? Consider architects. Most will tell you that while they work hard to understand how people will move inside buildings they are going to design, and they design with their research in mind, not until the building is constructed and people begin to move through it do they know how traffic will flow. The same is true for websites. And analytics will show you how people track through your site. This knowledge will tell you a great deal about how well, or how poorly, your site is working.

Recency, not Bounce: In the world of Analytics, “bounce” is a four-letter word. Bounce records a person who visits one page and then leaves your site. In business, that’s bad news. In churches, bounce does not necessarily mean failure. Because your users are more likely to be familiar with your site, they’re more likely to bookmark the pages they favor, visit those, and leave. Meaning your bounce rate may run higher. A more important statistic to pay attention to is recency, which keeps track of repeat traffic. High numbers of people who are there for the first time, as well as high numbers of people who come repeatedly can signal trouble for your website.

New vs. Returning: This may be the most important statistic for you to watch. This charts the percentage of new visitors (first-time visitors) vs. repeat visitors. Many churches who feel their website is stagnate are surprised to find out that a large number of visitors are “new.” How to account for this? It could be many things: People sending links to their friends (and Analytics will track this), or people looking for churches who visit your site looking for a home and who leave. There are other possibilities. It’s important to discover the answer.

When it comes to Google Analytics, be aware that it’s a business tool, first. But this does not mean it’s not useful for churches. You just need to look at it through a glass clearly.

Tune-up Tips for the New Church Year

This week, most churches across the country are beginning their new church year. It’s a busy, exciting, and hectic time.

It’s also a great time to run your communication channels through a quick tune-up to ensure everything is firing on all cylinders. So run through this simple checklist and ensure that your information is being circulated and heard, and to verify that everyone knows about the activities, events, and opportunities you make available.

Tune-up Tip #1: Are your emails being received?

Google’s email platform—Gmail, the 800-pound gorilla in the email world—underwent a significant change over the summer in how it delivers email. Now, Gmail users have their mail automatically divided into one of three categories: Primary, Social, and Promotions. If your church is using a social networking site to email people, or if you’re sending an e-newsletter, you should make sure that that information is getting to your members and not getting lost in their Social and Promotions folders.

How? The best way is the direct way. Remind your congregation of the change in Gmail and ask them to check and see if church emails are getting through (they can change which tabs emails are delivered to easily by dragging emails into new tabs). Then, watch your e-newsletter data—are open rates down for Gmail users? If so, you may wish to appeal to these people directly.

Tune-up Tip #2: Do you have social-media creep?

Social media is great. It allows people to share thoughts and opinions in real time, create communities around topics, organize events, and on and on. But churches in particular are prone to social-media creep. Take stock of what you have—and not just the official channels.

Facebook: If you have a Facebook page, is it the only official page, or do other groups have their own pages? If they do, be sure that you “Friend” them. It’s a great way of keeping up with what’s going on in your community; it’s also a great way to discover events and happenings that can become fodder for your main Facebook page or even your print publications.

Burnout?: Make sure your staff isn’t overloaded with trying to keep pace with your social media channels. There is no hard-and-fast rule for how much time they should spend on social media. But it’s important to measure time on task with results. Are staff spending hours trying to follow social media but not bringing any of that information to bear on the life of the church? It’s time to reconsider the workload.

Website: Church websites are the single most important outreach tool that you have. First-time visitors to your congregation in all likelihood spent time at your website before spending time with you. Take some time this month to simplify your front page (get rid of wordy passages that tell who you are, and the minutia about the 35 events coming up this week). Remember; people visiting your site for the first time are looking for these basic things:

a)    Names—Don’t bury the name of your minister 8 pages deep. Put it up front, with an email link. Too many people today block staff members’ email addresses to protect staff from being overwhelmed. It also sends a signal to newcomers—you’re inaccessible. And unless you’re website is drawing thousands of page views a day, your staff isn’t going to be overrun with emails.

b)   Service Times—When is your service,, what time is religious education. And make sure the information is up to date. Consider promoting special service times early in a separate box on the site.

c)    Pictures—Nothing tells people about your congregation more than photos. People love them. So share, and show them how friendly and open a community you really are.

d)   Directions—Don’t forget to tell people where you are. Use the Google Map tool to show them.

Tune-up Tip #3: Know who’s been looking in.

Because your website is your front door to the world, you need to know who’s visiting. If you don’t have Google Analytics, get it. If you don’t know what Google Analytics is, ask someone and get yourself hooked up. How many visitors to your site are “New Visitors?” Google Analytics will tell you. Also, how long they stayed, what pages they visited, and what actions they took, if any. It’s information you can’t choose to ignore.

Tune-up Tip #4: How’s the overall balance?

Listen, the days of hiding from the outside world and your members behind a secretary or email forms that block people from contacting you directly are long past. So, too, the days when you can choose to ignore social media. It’s here, and you need to engage. But you also need to balance. If you’re spending all your time on the website and ignoring Facebook, or are so wrapped up in your e-newsletter that you don’t have time for print materials, it’s time to re-center. Social media, electronic communications, and print communications should work together in harmony. Are they?

Four simple questions, with big ramifications.