LDS culture may hold the key to a new Internet business.
Will Utah’s Mormons log on to an Internet site run by non-Mormons in San Francisco? A group of Silicon Valley tech veterans is banking on it, and has hired Steve Young’s personal assistant to help shepherd the faithful.
This spring, California-based Who New launched the Website LDS LinkUp as its first offering in the increasingly competitive world of online social networking. On the heels of the Mormon site is Who New’s ChosenNet, aimed at helping the Jewish community track down old friends, find a mate and make business contacts.
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Such online social networking sites have grown rapidly, but none have turned the phenomenon into money. Who New’s Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, who is herself Jewish, believes the key is targeting communities with strong offline ties.
What Mormons, Jews—and several as yet unnamed Who New communities—have in common is a powerful desire to marry and do business within the faith, said Shenkan, who pronounces “Deseret” with an “ay” ending, as if it were French.
The first question the tech-savvy in Utah have is: Is it Mormon owned?
Kevin Koger, marketing vice president for the Mormon dating site LDS Singles, said big non-Mormon companies have tried to enter the LDS Internet market before but haven’t found success.
Non-Mormon ownership could be a problem, he said. On the other hand, what users of his site want to know is whether the other users are LDS.
Brigham Young University Internet marketing teacher Doug Witt said Who New may have a good business, but he wonders if it’s good for the church. The businesses could exacerbate the LDS reputation “for being somewhat clannish” at a time when church leaders are encouraging members to open themselves to the wider community, he said.
Site operators aren’t saying how many are using LDS LinkUp. A check found one member’s online profile connected to 7,000 others.
Mormons on LDS LinkUp seem to like it.
Julie Rose moved to Salt Lake City two years ago from California and used LDS LinkUp to track down friends from her old San Francisco Bay area singles ward. Rose had received invitations to join non-Mormon networking sites, but “this was the only one that caught my attention because there were a lot of people I knew,” she said.
Rose—a 29-year-old with hazel eyes, endowed temple status, and into Lyle Lovett, according to her LDS LinkUp profile—said she isn’t yet comfortable using the new site for dating and belongs to a separate LDS dating site.
Most participants on LDS LinkUp, like Rose, are single, but founders are adamant about not becoming a dating site. That market already includes several players including LDS Mingle, HotSaints.com, and Singlesaints.com. The latter site asks on its front page: “So you still haven’t found your eternal companion, eh?”
Who New’s owners don’t pretend to be experts on Mormon culture. For guidance, they hired as a consultant Kaari Jacobs, a Mormon from Foster City, Calif., and Steve Young’s personal assistant.
Jacobs and a focus group provided advice on appropriate standards and content. LDS LinkUp membership grew from a base of seven of Jacobs’ friends. Jacobs said there are many Mormons who, like her, have recently married and want a Website that isn’t just for dating. She said her last ward made extensive use of e-mail but found it difficult to connect electronically to nearby congregations.
That is a common problem, said Witt. The church makes good use of the Internet, but is equally good at protecting believer privacy. Logging on to a ward network takes two secret passwords, he notes.
Koger said the key to LDS LinkUp success is advertising. He doubts people will pay to participate. “Singles will pay for a service to meet other singles,” he said. “There are a lot of services popping up trying to capitalize on this big (social networking) movement, but most have a hard time.”
Company founder Jed Dempsey, a former Internet venture capitalist, said if a large community can be cobbled together, a small portion will be willing to pay for premium services, and advertisers will pay to reach a “cultural concentration.”
Witt agrees. “The LDS community is very prone to what we call conspicuous consumption,” he said. A clever retailer could do well selling Mormon-themed merchandise, things “we wear that identify us as Mormon.”