What do internet trends mean for UK Churches?

Each year Mary Meecher releases her “Internet Trends” report that outlines trends around internet and technology over the previous year and where she expects the market to head in the year following. This report is watched closely by industry specialists as it plots the fortunes of some very large companies and provides guidance to large and small business as to which technologies to invest in which to ignore. What does this trend report mean however for churches in the UK?

When a profit making company decides to invest in technology it may well spend a proportion of its income on this – so for example a company with a turnover of £1m may well allocate 10% to its IT budget. For a church though this is much harder – a church with a 100 people may have an income over the course of 12 months of circa £100k, but its IT budget is probably incidental rather than planned and may well be less than £1k – i.e. sub 1% of its turnover. This presents a significant challenge to a church wanting to use new technology to fulfil its objectives.

It should also be noted that a church doesn’t have staff and customers, but staff and members. Members are distinct from customers as a church is viewed theologically as a body where all parts work together for the glory of God and the spread of the Gospel. Thus a churches’ income isn’t from services sold but from donations from its members to enable it to continue functioning. So you cannot “launch” a new service (meaning product not church service) based on people paying to subscribe to it… investment in IT infrastructure must be achieved using some other mechanism.

Anyway – onto the trends, their impact and what this might mean for a church.


Mobile Usage is Growing Rapidly

Smartphone users accounted for 30% of all mobile users at the end of 2013. This is up from 10% in 2010 and this is still increasing.

Growth in tablet usage is faster than PC growth ever was. Sales appear to be approximately doubling year on year. But typically only 6% of the population currently own a tablet. The Mary Meecher report was issued in May 2014 so this has probably increased now to somewhere over 10%.

In Europe 16% of all web usage was from a mobile device – double the figure 12 months previously.

Church Impact:

If a large amount of hits to church website or other internet based church resources are from a mobile device do these internet resources recognize the device type and render accordingly? If not they are likely to put users off returning to the website.

What do Christians do on paper or on a PC / laptop at present that may need to be done on a mobile device? Does this require specific development? If so how would a single church fund such a development?

Mobile Internet Advertising is Growing Well

Year on year growth of mobile internet advertising revenue has been generally over 50% on platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Church Impact:

Traditionally church advertising has been within its own membership or through dropping literature through peoples letter boxes. Churches should be thinking strategically about their presence on social media platforms and what information they provide about themselves on these sites. A church may well not want to advertise in a traditional manner but providing appealing information about events may in the near future be key to getting non-church people to attend such events. Also – ensuring that church members recommend such events is going to be critical to raising awareness within church and beyond.

Cyber Threats Intensifying

The number of threat groups is increasing rapidly. 4x as many in 2014 as 2011. Vulnerable systems placed onto the internet are typically compromised within 15 minutes!

As mobile internet usage increases the attacks on mobile devices and their users will similarly increase.

Church Impact:

Any device or resource that is on the internet is publicly accessible – if it isn’t adequately secured then it could be used to damage a churches’ reputation. Consequently a church must take care to choose what resources they use and who provides them carefully. If a church has internet connected devices such as PCs or laptops then these devices must be adequately secured also with antivirus and host firewall. If a church has a wireless network this too must be adequately secured and if the wireless network is public it might well be wise to think about control of what is accessed from this network.

Changes in Messaging / Communication

Traditionally communication from business to individual has been via mass media – broadcast such as TV, Radio, Bill boards etc. Trend now is investment in more exclusive user directed communications.

Church Impact:

The idea of targeted communications at people who are interested in a topic sounds ideal for a church but how is such a technology accessible for a church? This again comes back to two things – firstly thinking about search results and google adwords, secondly ensuring that church members are “on side” when it comes to messaging via services such as Twitter and Facebook.

Changes in Apps

Move away from multipurpose apps towards single function apps. These apps have highly developed and highly appealing user interfaces and are becoming more and more contextual such that they only tell you what you want when you want to know it.

Church Impact:

Apps tend to be developed and offered using one of two methodologies –

(i) advert funded development

(ii) product funded development

Neither model for app development works particularly well for the local church. However apps that encourage the life of a believer do exist – but how will the development of such apps keep pace with the broader market?

This is perhaps where crowd funding could play a part. Think for a moment about a church running a door to door campaign and wanting to record the results or the campaign and encourage one another about what had happened, this sounds like something you might use Basecamp for, but Basecamp is too expensive for most churches to use in this way. If a product was developed for use in this scenario specifically for churches with a suitable cost model then it could be crowd funded. No one church could afford such a development but there are enough Christians in the World to fund such a development…

Changes in Content Distribution

The traditional method of finding content on the internet has been to search for it, this is now be replaced by referral or recommendation from “friends” through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, PInterest etc.

Church Impact:

There is a need to encourage the church congregation to make use of social media to increase awareness of church events and items of interest to church members happening within the church, locally, regionally and nationally. Possibly the most effective way to do this is for the church to actually start using social media officially and encourage members to “follow” the church.

It is really important when creating a presence on social media sites to not provide overwhelming volumes of information and to make sure that the information is relevant to the people who are “following” your organization.

Re-imagining Day to Day Activities

People are deciding where to go, what to buy, how to buy it, all based on referral, recommendation and increasingly whether information is available via an App.

Church Impact:

If people decide what to do on a day to day basis based on information provided through Apps and recommendations or referral by someone they trust then a church needs to think about the following questions:

1) Which Apps is it that church members and potential church members use?

2) How can a church ensure that they have a presence on these sites?

  

Amount of Uploadable / Sharable / Findable realtime data rising rapidly

e.g.

Photo uploads in 2011 circa 300MM

Photo uploads in 2014 up to May circa 1800MM

Church Impact:

Church activities can be a bit mystical to those who are not part of a church. An image speaks a thousand words and this being the case its important that Churches provide visual content as well as words. Photos of events, meaningful slides to accompany highlights of sermons, etc.

Cloud Usage increasing while processing costs fall

About Costs of Cloud

  • Compute cost decreasing rapidly – approximately 33% annually

  • Storage cost decreasing rapidly – approximately 38% annually

  • Bandwidth cost decreasing rapidly – approximately 27% annually

  • Smartphone cost decreasing – approximately 5% annually

                     All whilst usage of “cloud” increases steadily

 Its not just “Cost” though…

When looking at cloud options vs non-cloud options for solving any problem it seems that cloud has

 Beautiful new user interfaces… challenging non-cloud based “traditional” business models and products – bad interfaces simply “die”

No tie in to legacy systems … outcompeting traditional businesses that have to provide backward compatibility

New ways of doing things – enabled on smartphones and tablets… making traditional businesses look old fashioned and outdated

Crowd Sourcing – Better ties to customers – more customer driven … making traditional businesses seem disconnected from their users

Church Impact:

It is difficult here to understand how a church can benefit from the reductions in the cost of cloud services. Cloud is typically either platform (i.e. host a server), application (i.e. hosted exchange) or service (i.e. hosted email). In each of these options the problem is that a church is fairly unlikely to have internally hosted servers or applications and is likely already using some cloud based services and would not want to spend money purchasing additional cloud based services unless there was a clear benefit to them. 

That said however some cloud services may offer benefits – for example since churches are typically charities it is likely they would benefit from using Microsoft Office 365 or similar rather than purchasing standard licensing for products like Microsoft Office.

There is possibly an opportunity here however – most cloud based services are targeted at businesses or individuals, not charities such as churches. This means that there are probably services that could be offered to a church that no one else would be interested in – ones specifically relating to church ministries. For example a cloud based “rota” service with pricing per church rather than per user could be attractive. Development of such a system could be funded by crowd sourcing from multiple churches across the UK rather than a single church or charity.

Data Mining / Analytics Tools / Big Data

More and more data is being collected through the internet – not just what websites you visit and what you do on those websites but also where you go, what you do, and a whole load of other information. The number of sensors on connected devices collecting this data and providing it to the “apps” is increasing rapidly…

… but its not the information data itself that is important, its what is done with that data, how its turned into useful information and what that information is used for, and who by.

Data sources are diversifying also – no longer traditional sources alone but systems, apps, gadgets, etc.

Benefits both customers and companies – but how is crucial.

There are some good example – such as “Nest” which analyses usage of a house in order to determine how to reduce spend on heating but not all data mining and analysis has such a clear benefit to the customer and company.

Church Impact:

Collecting and analyzing huge volumes of data such as described above is very expensive – it takes lots of storage and complex programs to analyse the data and produce meaningful results. This is something a church is very unlikely to engage in on its own behalf. It is possible however that a church will make use to data analyzed by another organization.

For example installing Google Analytics onto a church website will allow the church to identify which parts of the website are most looked at among other statistics which can be beneficial in determining how to grow/update the website.

Another example would be a church using publicly available data to assist in determining evangelistic strategy much in the same way a company would use publicly available data to set marketing strategy.

Screen and Video Growth

Big Picture Themes

More screens

        Traditional remote control vanishing

                 Apps replacing channels (i.e. iplayer instead of BBC1)

                          On demand internet TV replacing linear scheduled TV

                                      Prerecorded Programs

What does this mean?

  1. Move away from audience following scheduling to fanbase determining success

  2. Multiple screens per viewer means closer ties between programs and affiliated content… i.e. media and its associated content or adverts can be tied together meaning 30 minute program does not have 3×5 minute advert breaks but adverts can be shown simultaneously.

  3. TV as an app means cost of entry is no longer prohibitive… doesn’t depend on a broadcast TV signal but on … youtube as premier distribution network

 What is good content?

  • Top YouTube videos gain 6-26 million views and typically last 7 minutes… so brief and to the point.

  • Best adverts are loved and watched by millions! not avoided… big surprise. For example Nike Football advert on Youtube released 6 months ago has 96 million views!

Social Media & Content

Tying together social media – particularly twitter – and content seems to improve the impact of advertising, particularly when the advertising is targeted to those who are most likely to view the content or is personalized.

Content Personalization

Delivery platforms are moving towards recognising and remembering the type of content that a viewer likes in order to display these first. The trend is what content I want, when I want it, where I want it…

 Live Streaming

Live streaming has experienced massive growth particularly around a spectator style service – mainly watching others playing computer games.

At the moment this market however has solutions for business or specific market areas (e.g. gaming) but doesn’t appear to have a equivolent ubiquitous platform like Youtube.

Church Impact:

YouTube has the concept of channels where a specific user has uploaded multiple videos it forms a channel. It is possible for a church to upload video content to YouTube and create a channel for its members to subscribe to – content on YouTube is of varying production quality so TV standard production is not required. Based onthe information above however it is probably best to keep videos short and to the point and to produce many brief videos rather than a few longer videos.

Personally I’m not too sure about whether I’d want to watch a recorded church service on YouTube – several things make me worried about this, firstly if I am watching a longer video on YouTube the video and sound need to be good and I want close up views of what is going on – and this would be rather hard for a small to medium size church, secondly I believe a church should check and edit the content first to ensure only relevant content is included – I’m not sure I want to sit through a video of communion taking place for example.

I do think that perhaps there is a place for Live Streaming a church service – particularly for people who can’t make it to a service but want to be a part of the church. But I think that this will probably require investment on the part of an individual church or group of churches to develop such a system and cost model. Again this could be something to be funded through crowd sourcing.


Conclusions

For me a few things come out of thinking about this:

Resourcing

1) A church isn’t a profit making organisation and cannot act like one in regards to internet content as it will not want to invest the volume of money required to keep up with internet trends.

2) A church isn’t a individual and cannot act like one, acting only as a consumer of internet content. Rather a church must somehow walk the path of minimal financial investment whilst making full use of what is available for free on the internet and paying for things that will really have results.

3) A church is made up of members who are in a way investors in the purposes of the church – namely the spread of the Gospel, as such these people should be used in any initiative a church sets out on – including maintaining a viable and vibrant internet presence. This means that in the same way as a church will have a preaching rota, people who look after the kids work etc a church should also plan how they will address their internet presence and who will complete this work.

Strategy

The internet and its growth is now so ubiquitous in our society that just having a internet site is no longer enough – rather internet presence needs to be planned and invested in. This means that a strategy needs to be developed around how a church will use the internet – in particular its own website, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc.

It is no longer good enough for a single person to be responsible for web content for the whole church – rather a team should be responsible for this ministry in the same way as churches have teams responsible for other areas of ministry.

Participation

Its crucial that the church members are involved in creating and sharing content relating to church on the internet. This should be a deliberate activity by the church as a whole and should enable people to get a good idea of what church will be like before they actually visit it.

Collaboration

Churches (and more broadly charities) will have similar requirements of the internet and content delivery over the internet and should work together to ensure these requirements are delivered. This could be achieved in a number of ways but at the moment it appears that churches are largely ignoring the growth of the internet, mobile usage, cloud and a large number of other areas covered by this blog post. Church related charities are doing slightly better than churches because in most cases their presence is largely internet based whereas a church has a physical presence in a geographical area.

Churches should work together in localities, within denominations and more broadly with similar minded churches nationwide to develop toolsets that are useful to groups of churches. Crowd sourcing should be investigated and encouraged for development of tools to meet new requirements – by doing this the burden of the development can be shared across multiple churches / church members.

Want to know more?

Why not subscribe to our FREE Newsletter to receive regular updates from us on ICT, technology and what we’ve been doing?