Churches turn to ‘digital intervention’ to find new members via online personal data

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As more continue to suffer from declining membership, churches are increasingly turning to Big Data to help get new folks into pews.

A small firm called Gloo is taking the lead in efforts to analyze personal data on Americans as well their online activities to help churches reach out to people who are deemed more likely to be open to religious messaging and join congregations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The company is essentially borrowing techniques used by businesses and political campaigns that also rely on consumer data to target specific groups. But Gloo’s focus is aimed more at personal data, with an emphasis on reaching people who are experiencing some of life’s toughest moments.

“Just as retailers or political candidates send out online ads to groups of people with particular characteristics—including demographics, browsing activity, purchasing behavior and other factors that advertising platforms allow clients to choose—churches can use Gloo to show ads to groups of people they believe are most receptive to becoming members, or they think they could help,” the WSJ reported.

Church leaders say that folks experiencing a personal crisis of some sort are generally more responsive to outreach efforts, and Gloo uses technology to locate them. In marketing materials, the firm said it is able to identify characteristics of those who could be having marital issues, depression, anxiety, or may have a predilection for becoming addicted to drugs, the WSJ noted.

The company utilizes thousands of data points gathered by third-party providers and also incorporates information that it collects on its own via the churches that it works with.

After the WSJ first reported on Gloo, the company announced that it no longer uses mental health data while also going on to change some of its previous techniques and practices. In addition, the paper said, one of Gloo’s biggest providers of data no longer works with the firm.

“Gloo also puts together webpages that offer to get people suffering from issues like grief or marital distress in touch with local churches,” the Journal noted. “The webpages are promoted through ads on social media or through Google ads linked to particular search terms, such as around loneliness.

“People can submit their name and contact information through the pages, and Gloo passes on the details,” the paper added.

Gloo officials say that more than 30,000 churches have signed on with the platform, which accounts for about 10 percent of the total number of churches in the U.S. The firm’s clients range from free to premium users, with the average premium customer paying $1,500 annually.

Some churches have said that the online ads are necessary to re-grow congregations decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which merely hastened years of falling attendance.

“The church is committed to going out at whatever cost to find that one lost sheep that needs help,” said Randy Frazee of Westside Family Church, a nondenominational Christian church near Kansas City, Kan., told the paper.

“There are a lot of people who are in pain and isolated,” Frazee added. “If you don’t come to church, the church will come to you.”

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