Technology gave President Barack Obama an edge in his 2012 reelection campaign. Data analysis allowed for micro targeting, helping his campaign to craft directed messages to persuadable voters and identify existing supporters who might need additional reminders to actually vote. Mobile technology helped to coordinate the efforts of volunteers on the ground. The campaign made use of advanced software and Internet portals to integrate and analyze all the activities done on the local level to coordinate the effort. The project was a spectacular feat of software engineering.
The goal of data driven targeting is to identify what messages particular voters need to hear in order to be convinced to vote for your candidate, and to ensure that those who would vote for your candidate actually take that action. Candidates have done these sorts of activities for a long time, but traditionally the efforts would be necessarily broad. Advertisements would be tailored to appeal to as many voters as possible. Phone calls and visits would be made to people living in areas likely to support your candidate, or with broad identifiable features that suggested support. This carpet bombing approach had a number of real drawbacks.
With targeting, President Obama’s campaign was able to get the right message to the right people. Moreover, his organizers could do it in a way that did not excite his opposition. The whole effort is generally regarded as an amazing achievement.
Why should these techniques be of interest to committed Catholics? How does political campaigning connect up with spreading the faith? What has Washington to do with Rome?
Well, simply put, we could learn a lot about evangelization from professionals committed to spreading messages. As Jesus told his disciples, “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
The goal of any marketing effort is to identify an interested audience and get them to perform a particular action. In politics, the goal is to find people who would vote for your candidate and get them to vote. These techniques are less about convincing people to support your candidate, and more about persuading people who already support him to actually cast a vote. This involves finding the right time to send to the right message.
According to Pew’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (PDF table), 92% of Americans believe in God (71% are absolutely certain). Even among those with no religious affiliation, 70% believe there is a God (36% with absolute certainty). Yet only 39% attend some kind of religious service every week (PDF table), and just 42% of Catholics reported weekly Mass attendance.
Despite the impression we might get from reading some prophets of doom, Americans are not implacably hostile to God. Many people have an inclination toward worship, but are in need of a nudge, a reminder of what they already know to be true.
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, describes how Target sought to identify expectant mothers (the New York Times published an excerpt of this chapter). Since major life events are the times when people are likely to make permanent changes in their habits, finding out who was pregnant and marketing especially to them was an important tactic.
Major life events are also when people take stock of their lives and prepare to take on new religious practices. Using publicly available data as well as a parish’s own records of inactive members and mobile technology, parishes could use the techniques of politics and business to help people connect with the God they have been seeking.
Technology cannot replace the importance, first and foremost, of grace and, secondly, of true human relationships. Committed, personable, and—most of all—loving Catholics would have to actually use the tools to make real human contact. The tools could identify which houses on a block might have a child of Catholic parents still in need of baptism. But a form letter in the mail is not the same as a personal invitation from a loving, prayerful human being.
Coming to know God is personal and communal. The individualized yet still impersonal tools of targeted marketing cannot replace the intimate nature of belief in and worship of the Almighty. But just as the Apostles took advantage of the network of Roman roads and as the medieval scholastics used books, it belongs to us to put to work the tools of our age for the benefit of the Gospel.
God gives the grace of faith to those whom he wills, but we can use the tools of this world to make known his invitation.
Image: William Hogarth, Election Propaganda