The Washington Post has an interesting article about the church’s success with search-engine optimization, PR, and “controlling its image” online. There’s plenty of hyperbole in the article (have we really “infused SEO into [our] culture?” C’mon), some sloppy sourcing (of course a Protestant digital strategist says Mormons are taking over the web), and a misuse of the word “bloggernacle.”
But there were also some nuggets we can learn from, and plenty we should be discussing.
One of which is the effect of our own success: We’re an incredibly savvy church when it comes to online marketing. Mormon ads are everywhere online, our content ranks highly in search engines, and comment boards around the web are full of LDS commenters testifying and correcting (and arguing).
Which is mostly great, but there’s a real danger of overdoing it. Having a bunch of LDS commenters jump on a discussion board to testify at you is about like having a roomful of missionaries all try to teach you at once. It’s an outpouring of faith, yes, but it’s also really annoying. And who invited all those missionaries, anyway?
The article’s sources also point out less legitimate marketing tactics like link building (getting groups of people to click on specific links to raise them in the search results). I would add content farming and affiliate networks as well (pushing low-quality content out to hundreds of networked sites as a way to dominate search results). This stuff isn’t illegal, but it tends to boost search traffic at the expense of a brand’s public image.
And then there’s the horrible naming of the “Mormon Defense League,” which I heard about a couple weeks ago in conjunction with the FAIR conference, and which I hoped would get a quick rebranding as something less combative. It’s a big scary name that, to me, carries an implication of violence, and can even legitimize our critics—we need the defense of a league!
I’ll join with the WaPo reporter in criticizing some of the church’s more brute-force online tactics. But there’s another side to this conversation, and I’ve been talking about this with John F.: There really is an army of trolls out there who mean us harm. As John wrote me:
“The reporter did not mention that if you type in any Mormon related church term, you get hundreds, thousands, or even millions of anti Mormon hits. That is, not just neutral or uninformed websites with unofficial information about Mormons but rather explicitly and intentionally anti-Mormon.”
Our responses to those detractors might often be ham-fisted, but responses are necessary. And while I tend to disagree with tactics used by groups like The More Good Foundation, the truth is that there is an opposing force fighting for control of search terms, comment boards, and perceptions of the church. The WaPo article’s own comment board is a testament to how quickly conversations about the church can get nasty. The comments are full of trolls, along with Mormons battling them faithfully (but in many cases stupidly).
The balance for the church is the need to own Mormon-related search terms and its own public image, and at the same time avoid fighting crap with crap. We’re not selling a product, a lifestyle, a set of keywords, or a community. We’re sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our marketing tactics need to reflect the core principles of our “brand,” especially because online, the marketing tactics largely ARE the brand. If we engage in shady astroturfing, link networks, comment wars, and an overall strategy of shouting down or burying every dissenting voice, that’s what we’ll be known for online. If we feel the need to lash out and defend ourselves against every silly criticism, we will be associated with defensiveness.
Boldly, nobly, and independent—that’s how the gospel spreads. It’s possible for a marketing strategy to be bold, noble, and independent, and I do think most of the church’s current efforts are exactly those things.
But to answer the article’s challenge, it behooves any of us who feel the need to “control our image” to remember that our image should be that of the Savior. Let’s behave accordingly.