Standing outside on a hot summer day, you see two young men riding their bicycles toward your driveway. With their pressed shirts, black ties and bright smiles, it doesn’t take long to determine who they are — Mormons.
These ubiquitous missionaries are known for their zeal and door-to-door evangelism. Mormon men devote two years to missionary activity, many of them biking through neighborhoods across the country.
But today, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) don’t only evangelize door-to-door. They’ve now gone computer-to-computer. By reaching the digital continent with remarkable success, they’ve provided an example that Catholics would do well to imitate.
Searching for faith
Mormons, at about 12 million faithful, make up just 1.6 percent of the U.S. population. Despite their small numbers, they’ve blanketed the online world. For instance, the most popular religious website in America is LDS.org, the official website of the Latter-day Saints.
When you search on Google for “Old Testament,” the first result is from Wikipedia but the second is from LDS.org. Likewise, if you search for “church,” LDS.org appears fourth, ahead of any Catholic entry.
Such search engine dominance is no fluke. There is a calculated science behind it. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the technical art of pushing a link to the top of the list. Major corporations pay millions of dollars for SEO in order to ensure that their websites appear before those of competitors.
Though it can be a nebulous process, there are sure-fire ways to move higher. And Mormons have mastered them. For example, they host link-clicking campaigns that encourage all Mormons to click on particular links at certain times. This increased activity quickly boosts the rankings of those sites.
Mormon SEO experts also strategically place keywords within their content. Words like “Jesus,” “church,” “family,” and “friend” target the phrases people are searching for on Google. This is one easy thing Catholics can imitate on our own blogs and social media accounts.
As search engines increasingly become the main way people find information, appearing high in the results is vital. Stephen Allen, head of the Mormons’ missionary department, explained in a recent Washington Post article that, “If we don’t show up in the top 10 results on Google, we don’t exist.”
The same holds true for Catholics. If we’re missing from search results — or if the results are antagonistic toward Catholicism — then we’re losing out.
Social media success
Search engines aren’t the only place Mormons are finding online success. They’ve also mastered social media. The official Facebook page for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 500,000 fans. By way of comparison, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ page has a little more than 30,000 fans.
But the Mormons don’t just use their Facebook page to post news. They use it to host a dialogue among the 750 million Facebook users around the world. Anybody can comment and discuss religious topics on the page. For example, a recent post on sacrifice garnered more than 320 comments, while another on Mormon iPhone applications had more than 90.
Most organizations use their Facebook page as a broadcasting tool to push information out to listeners. But the Mormon community uses it as a discussion forum, a place where answers can be found through conversation.
Jesse Stay, manager of social strategy for LDS, explained how new communication tools allow seekers to comfortably investigate Mormonism.
“Because of social media, you get to learn about the church, on your own terms, from people you know,” Stay said. “You don’t have to take the church’s word for it — you can hear what the church is about straight from your closest friends and family who are Mormon.”
Besides Facebook, the LDS community’s YouTube videos have been watched more than 30 million times. The group’s mobile apps have been downloaded 13 million times, as well.
While Mormon online evangelism extends to millions of people, the success has come one person at a time. Elder Russell Ballard, in an interview at LDS.org, explains, “All conversations have an impact on those who participate in them. Perceptions of the Church are established one conversation at a time.”
Mormon.org provides a great example of this. Upon visiting the site, users immediately see large, vivid pictures of real people sharing how faith has shaped their lives. The first thing promoted on the site is individual testimony. Theology and doctrine come later.
A prominent link at Mormon.org invites visitors to instantly chat one-on-one with a missionary representative. They are available 24/7, 365 days a year and answer questions with a personalized response.
So, what can Catholics learn from online Mormonism? I see three primary lessons.
First, online ubiquity. Mormons infiltrate every Internet sphere with their message. Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter reverberate with Mormonism. To do this they’ve studied not only social dynamics — what are people looking for? — but the technical ones as well — how can we get our content on more screens?
Catholics need to master the art of SEO so that Catholic content pops up on search results across the globe. We should be the first response to any search relating to Jesus, the Church, the Bible or faith. And we should also target terms not explicitly religious — love, life, family, and marriage.
Second, lay expertise. We need to tap the skills that already lie within our Church. If a worldwide community of 14 million Mormons can produce such incredible efforts, how much more could a Catholic community of 2 billion do?
Finally, personal evangelism. Our Internet mission must be just as personal and relational online as it is offline. When you visit Catholic websites, you should see real people sharing real stories and be able to chat instantly with real human beings. These online connections should lead to offline witness.
Overall, the Mormon online success should encourage us to refocus our missionary activity. Now, more than ever, we need to engage outsiders through the Internet. Mormons have become the most visible religious tradition on the Web. As Catholics hoping to expand the Church throughout the digital continent, we can learn a lot from their success.
Brandon Vogt blogs at The Thin Veil (www.ThinVeil.net) and is the author of “The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops who Tweet” (OSV, $13.95).