Amazon Shouldn’t Know Your Church Better Than You Do

The more time we spend shopping online—or even using certain companies’ services and products, the more access companies have to our personal information. When you stop and think about how companies are using our data, it should give you pause. Did you know that…

  • A company called Workday has developed new software for human resource departments. It alerts managers that employees might quit based on trends in their activity and communications, last promotions, regional factors, and industry changes. It’s ability to accurately predict when an employee is about to leave the company is said to be “very high.”
  • Mattel and ToyTalk have released an artificial-intelligence-driven Barbie with a microphone in its necklace. Barbie sends recordings of what is said to her to ToyTalk, and a response is sent back in seconds. ToyTalk stores these conversations on servers where Mattel and ToyTalk employees—as well as other partners (?)—can listen to them for marketing and product information.
  • Data brokers who buy, sell, and analyze customer data have been known to help questionable companies market consumer products to financially at-risk customers. For example, they may use information like marital status or familiarity with the English language to build a profile that’s “likely to appeal to companies that sell high-cost loans and other financially risky products.”
  • Grocery stores use loyalty cards to create a profile of you based on products you buy and how much you spend. This information is used to choose what brands to carry and how to market you.
  • Apps with location data often collect your “road travel speed information.” TomTom, the navigation tool company, was forced to issue an apology in 2011 when it sold consumer information to police.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about how data is being gathered and used, but maybe there’s another question churches need to ask first. In the age of big data, do companies know more about the people in our churches than we do?

Think about it. A 2014 study by Bogdan State (a Facebook data scientist) found that Facebook could predict with incredible accuracy whether a relationship would last. Should it bother us that a data gatherer at Facebook has more insight than we do into relationships within the church?

 

What Does Amazon Know about Us?

Amazon is one of the best when it comes to turning observations into insights. For an online retailer, I’m constantly surprised by what Amazon knows about me. It’s better at predicting things I want than I am. How do they do that? And more importantly, how are they getting that information?

Since its inception, Amazon has been paying close attention to your behavior and patterns. It’s tracked your purchases and preferences and turned them into recommendations. They gather all that information from…

  • Your user profile
    Amazon stores all the information you put in your Amazon profile. It has personal information like the addresses you ship to, as well as all the payment methods you use.
  • Your order history
    Not only does Amazon have a list of everything you’ve ever purchased, but they can also tell you when you bought it and how much you paid for it.
  • Your browsing history
    When you’re flipping through coffee-makers, Amazon is paying attention—but it’s logging more than your preferences. It’s also paying attention to your location, operating system, and the length of time you spend on each page.
  • Your wish lists
    Like your browsing history, Amazon pays attention to everything you put on your wish list, not to mention wedding and baby registries.
  • Your reviews
    Everything you rate and review provides a goldmine of information about your personal preferences.
  • Your survey answers
    Periodically, Amazon will ask you to answer some questions for a survey. The responses aren’t anonymous; Amazon stores them with the rest of your user information.
  • Your Amazon app
    Information about your location is transmitted back to Amazon whenever you use their app.
  • Your Amazon services
    If you watch movies on Amazon Prime, listen to music with Amazon music, or use Amazon Drive, information about your viewing, listening, and storage habits is further used to fine-tune your profile.

Taking Data Gathering to the Next Level  

These data gathering techniques are impressive, but Amazon has truly upped their game. Gadgets like Amazon’s Fire Stick, Fire HD tablets, and Echo have introduced next-level data gathering.

The Amazon Echo is a smart speaker with a voice-controlled personal assistant named “Alexa.” All you need to do is wake up the device by calling its name and it can…

  • Check your calendar
  • Remind you of tasks
  • Set a timer
  • Update your to-do list
  • Give you information
  • Play your favorite songs
  • Turn on lights in your house
  • Lock your door
  • And more

As of November 2016, Amazon has sold over five million Echo devices. And Nikko Strom, a founding member of the team that built Alexa, commented at the 2017 AI Frontiers Conference, “We get an insane amount of data coming in that we can work on.”

Interestingly, Amazon Echo became embroiled in a 2016 murder investigation. When a gentleman was found murdered in another home in Arkansas, detectives noticed that the house had an Amazon Echo. During the inquiry, the Bentonville Police Department requested any “electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed words, text records and other data” that the Echo might have picked up.

Amazon initially refused but ended up providing it after the defendant offered to turn over the data voluntarily. The case raised some serious concerns about First Amendment rights and the privacy issues at stake with electronic listening devices.  

Let’s Not Forget Amazon Prime

Amazon started dabbling with physical bookstores back in 2015, bought Whole Foods in 2017, and opened Amazon Go to the public at the beginning of 2018. Why would Amazon get into the brick-and-mortar retail game?

Loyalty.

When I’m shopping at Whole Foods, my Amazon Prime membership gets me exclusive savings and discounts. Starting in February 2018, an Amazon Prime Rewards Visa card would net me five percent cash back on all Whole Foods purchases.

Amazon wants to make it foolish not to have an Amazon Prime membership. As Amazon gets more embedded in our everyday lives, it will seem like lousy stewardship not to pay $99 a year for an Amazon Prime membership.

And that means every item we scan with our app at an Amazon bookstore or Whole Foods, or purchase at an Amazon Go store, will be added to the mountain of data that Amazon is amassing on us.

 

What Can the Church Learn from Data Mining?

The point of this discussion isn’t to create fear, identify the Illuminati, or suggest that data mining is going to deliver us into the clutches of the Antichrist. The truth is that a lot of these practices make everyday life more convenient.

The church needs to start looking at the ways it can use digital technology to its advantage to know our churches better and to serve them more faithfully. This doesn’t mean we should aspire to amass personal data on people in our churches or try to learn more about them than is essential for our mission.

But perhaps we can start using digital tools to discern the needs and desires of our congregations.

 

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Making Decisions Based on What You Can Learn

Churches could learn a lot from companies like Amazon by focusing on how they make decisions. These companies thrive because they don’t merely make cause-and-effect decisions. They’re not just thinking, “Let’s create a product people want to buy.” They’re thinking more strategically; they’re thinking long term.

With every decision they make, they ask themselves, “What can we learn about our customers by offering this service or product?” A lot of times, the desire to learn more about their customers actually drives their innovation. Amazon sells an Echo for $99.99, makes thousands more in future purchases, and gets an almost unlimited amount of marketing information that they can use to make future business decisions.

Churches, on the other hand, are already on a content treadmill. Week after week, their focus is on sermons, children’s ministries, Bible studies, Sunday schools, small groups, etc. So when a new technology or platform comes along, the natural thinking is, “How can we use this to serve up content?” And oftentimes all they end up with is a higher demand for content.

With every new tech solution, churches should think about how they can use this tool to learn more about their communities. You should ask how this tool can be used to…

  • Learn more about the kind of content your church members want or need
  • Get church members more engaged throughout the week
  • Discover what content resonates with them the most
  • Encourage members to share your content with others

Thinking creatively about ways you can use technology to learn more about your church members, create smarter content, and impact congregational behavior makes your tools that much more efficient and powerful.

 

Considering the Church App

There’s already plenty of great reasons to consider a mobile church app:

  • An app helps you communicate more effectively
  • An app increases the opportunities and ease of giving
  • An app creates a single place where people can find sermons, lessons, and teaching resources.
  • An app makes it easier to communicate with volunteers—and get them to communicate with you
  • An app reduces cost and time on mailings, bulletins, registrations, etc.  

We don’t often consider what an app can tell us about our churches, but this factor might be one of the best reasons to get one.  

Discovering Your Church’s Level of Engagement

Historically, there haven’t been many ways to get a clear reading on participation in your church. You could always take church attendance, but that only tells you the number of bodies in pews. How do you gauge what’s happening the rest of the week?

An app allows you to bring a lot of your ministry together into a central location and have a lot more visibility over how often it’s getting accessed and for how long. It gives you a high-level overview of how often people are accessing information through the app without invading the privacy of each user.

What You Can Learn from a Church App

An app can tell you things about your ministry that you might not know otherwise. Here are some of the big-picture elements you have visibility over and what you can learn from them:

  • Total app downloads
    This tells you how you’re doing at app adoption. The first battle is getting people to decide to download the app. Naturally, as more of your church starts using the app, downloads will drop. This is an excellent time to establish a plan to get people outside of your church interested enough in what you’re doing that they want to download your app, too.
  • Average monthly and weekly users
    It’s not enough to get people to download the app. You want to incentivize them to use it. This offers visibility into engagement that you might not have otherwise. These numbers show you how many people are in the app watching sermons, reading devotionals, checking the calendar, filling out sermon notes, etc.
  • Median time spent in the app
    Next to the number of users, this is one of the most critical engagement scores. The more engaged people are in the church’s mission, the more time they’re going to spend in your app.

What Are People Focused On?

In-app behavior can give you insight into the struggles and needs of your congregation (and maybe even your community). For instance, you might notice that your sermon series on marital communication gets 20 percent more traffic than anything else. This could be an indicator that you should invest more time into relationship-specific content.

This doesn’t mean you have to commit to another sermon series on relationships. You could write a series of blog posts focused on improving communication and empathetic listening, and those can be accessed through the app, too.

Over time, you’re creating an interconnected suite of material that informs and encourages your church members. And as you do, they’re going to become more engaged with your app and more invested in your church community.

A natural byproduct is that they’ll talk to their friends, families, and social media platforms about what they’re learning. That’s free app promotion! And this helps you grow your church beyond your campus. And all of this comes because you’re using the information you’ve gathered from technology to inform how you serve your church.

Using an App Interactively

You don’t have to think about an app as a passive piece of technology. Like I pointed out earlier, an app isn’t just a place to put content. It can be used interactively to gather data and inform behavior.

Polls and surveys

There are many ways you can put polls and surveys to good use in your church. They can be used to impact sermons in real time. You can provide questions through the app, and the input of members can influence the direction and thrust of the message, or even the service.

They can also be used to help make decisions about future ministries, outreaches, and anything else that will affect the life of the church. Finding clever ways to use polls and surveys can supply you with an unlimited wealth of information and encourage regular app use in church members.

Push notifications

A push notification is a message you can send to users, even when the app isn’t open. There are some ways that they can encourage behavior. These include things like…

  • Inspiring people to use the app
  • Reminding them of upcoming events
  • Requesting volunteers for ministries and events
  • Offering pastoral encouragement
  • Asking for prayer

Finding creative ways to use push notifications keeps you on the forefront of church member’s minds.

 

Information Is Power

We’re not talking about gathering information as a way to benefit the church at the expense of its members. But it’s time to start looking at ways prominent brands use technology to learn about us so that they can ultimately serve us better. There’s no reason that a company should know how to meet the needs of your church members better than you do!

 

 

Jayson D. Bradley

Jayson D. Bradley is a writer and pastor in Bellingham, WA. He’s a regular contributor to Relevant Magazine, and his blog JaysonDBradley.com has been voted one of the 25 Christian blogs you should be reading.

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