PROVO — Whether it’s a bearded motorcyclist who sculpts or a stay-at-home mother raising six kids, the members are the face of the LDS Church, and that will not change going forward.
That was the main message to emerge from a panel discussion at BYU’s Mormon Media Studies Symposium on Thursday regarding the origins and evolution of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“One of the things we have learned is that the face of the church are members of the church, and we’ve made sure that is a really big piece of what we are doing,” said Ron Wilson, senior manager of the Internet and advertising for the church's missionary department. “But we haven’t done the best job of talking to the members of the church, explaining what this is, and that’s one of the reasons we are here today, to try and help get that word out, so members of the church understand what we’re doing, how they can be involved and how they can be part of the conversation.”
The four-member panel included two men from the missionary department and two men from campaign partner Bonneville Communications: Wilson; Steven D. King, of the missionary department; Brandon Burton, vice president and general manager of Bonneville Communications; and Parry Merkley, executive creative director at Bonneville Communications.
The discussion started with a brief history of the LDS Church website, Mormon.org. It was launched in 2001 in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. For many years, the website’s purpose was to present the basic doctrines of the church.
In 2008, the missionary department and Bonneville Communications led a massive research study that resulted in the global “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which they hoped would reverse the course of stereotypical perceptions.
Burton said the study indicated that there were large percentages of people who walked and talked like Mormons, with simple Christian faith and family values, but they didn’t know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We were encouraged by that,” Burton said. “But the challenge was those people had no awareness level, and those who had some awareness level had negative perceptions. We landed on the idea of putting the church members on display and started with that foundation.”
The campaign was launched in July 2010. Wilson, designated spokesman for the missionary department, said when the improved website commenced that summer, it still provided the basic doctrines of the church, but also introduced visitors to church members by sharing personal profiles with accompanying video vignettes in which the subjects described their lives and values.
“What we did before was help people know what we believe, but we didn’t talk about who we were or how we lived our lives because of what we believed," Wilson said. "We really wanted to give a better look, almost a 360-degree look, at Mormonism and say this is what our members are like, this is what they believe, and therefore this is how they live their lives. They serve, they do all these different things. It helped people understand better who Mormons are, how they live their lives and how they present themselves.”
Curiosity by nonmembers and media scrutiny regarding the church and its members have increased over the past two years, thanks to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the "Book of Mormon Musical" and other high-profile events involving Latter-day Saints. There’s no question these events enhanced curiosity, Wilson said.
“Basically, our philosophy is if someone is going to be talking about us, we want to be part of the conversation, wherever that is,” Wilson said. “We contributed to the ‘Mormon Moment.’ ”
King, with his wife, Michelle, recently returned from serving as mission president of the Georgia Atlanta North Mission. He described how going door-to-door is less effective because there are gated communities that don’t allow missionaries, and when missionaries can reach the door, people are rarely home. When they are at home, they don’t want to be bothered. Missionaries can’t call on the phone because people don’t answer their phones, they text, he said. The way into homes and hearts can be through tools like Mormon.org, videos, electronic devices and conversations. People can also learn more about the church by visiting a new website, Mormontopics.org.
“In my opinion, missionary work still comes down to us preaching the gospel the same way the Savior did, with the Holy Ghost,” King said. “You find that soft spot in their heart by using tools like Mormon.org.”
Wilson shared some statistics that illustrate the church’s effort to use the Internet and social media to accomplish missionary work.
The church’s Facebook page has 835,000 fans. Its potential Facebook reach is 115 million (fans and friends).
The church’s Youtube channel has 19,000 subscriptions and 30 million video views.
The church’s Twitter account has 21,000 followers.
The church’s GooglePlus +1 account lists 3,700 friends.
In the past 12 months, Mormon.org reports:
110,000 member profiles.
15 million visitors.
640,000 chats with missionaries.
46 million page views.
Profiles in 20 different languages.
"Social media is today’s town square,” Wilson said. “So we try to use those platforms to help people find content about members of the church, wherever they are comfortable, so they can share with friends or talk with people. Our goal is to get as many tools to members of the church as we can to spread the gospel.”
When asked if the “Mormon Moment” will continue, the panel agreed that only time will tell. The missionary department and Bonneville Communications will continue to look for ways to improve Mormon.org. The panel encouraged members to have the courage to “engage” in conversations through social media.
“Church members need to reframe how youthey think about missionary work,” Burton said. “Be willing to speak up and share your thoughts and engage in a conversation.”
Wilson added a suggestion of his own.
“If someone asks you a question and you don’t know, have the courage to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you, or I’ll send you where you can learn about it.’ No one knows everything,” Wilson said. “Just be yourself, share in whatever way feels most comfortable to you.”
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