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Peretti's Secret to Internet Success: Be Like the Mormons



According to a prominent Internet memologist, one of the best strategies for maximizing your Web exposure is to be more like a Mormon than a Jew. ---

BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti spoke Thursday at the New York Viral Media Meetup. The title of his presentation? "Mormons, Mullets and Maniacs." I haven't yet found a transcript, but if (judging from his slides) I'm reading him correctly, Peretti's argument is as follows:

Although Judaism is a "high-quality religion" (!), its growth over the past 60 years has been dramatically outstripped by that of the LDS Church. This can be attributed to Mormonism's built-in evangelistic component -- not just the Church's highly successful missionary program, but the fact that proselytizing is sort of a built-in part of the faith. (This is certainly true; cf. President David O. McKay's famous motto "Every Member a Missionary").

As Peretti's analogy goes, having high-quality Internet content is not enough to "go viral." You must also "make evangelism core to your strategy" and "focus on the mechanics of how an idea spreads, not just the idea itself."

Makes sense. Basically, it's a restatement of a trend that's been sucking all the fun out of creative media for years: Now, your job is not only to write (or film, or edit, or compose, or whatever), nor is it also to spend a reasonable amount of time promoting your work. Instead, you must monitor publicity in minute detail, use every tweetin' form of social media known to mankind, track what works and what doesn't, check your clicks and shares from minute to minute, and continually adjust your viral strategy to meet current trends. Perhaps as you're engaged in all this frenetic calculation, you might find a moment now and then to actually create -- but don't forget the needs of your "audience," and remember to plug your Website, newsfeed, FaceTubeTM channel and pLiNkRTM stream or whatever.

Now, I have no illusions: This really is the harsh reality in which today's content creators must operate. And there's no doubt that Peretti knows his viral media.

But I don't think for a minute that this is how the LDS faith works, and I hope Peretti doesn't either. (Also, I really don't think it would be helpful or fair to infer from Peretti's slides that, by contrast to "high-quality" Judaism, he considers Mormonism to be a "low-quality" religion -- he must have clarified this point in his speech but, again, I haven't found a transcript. Such an implication would, of course, be beyond the pale.)

Like every sizable organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does have a department to deal with media inquiries. Undoubtedly, it must formulate strategies to cope with controversial issues (e.g. its position and activities regarding California's Proposition 8) and misinformation (e.g. the widespread delusion that the Church still endorses polygamy).

But if the rank-and-file members -- the everyday Mormons who are analogous to the media creators in Peretti's equation -- have any "marketing strategy," it's the same one they've used for decades: being friendly, helpful and neighborly; elevating the importance of the (heterosexual) family above nearly all other concerns; valuing education, thrift and self-sufficiency; and pretty much simply being all-around nice people*.

On the other hand, considering the Church missionary program, missionaries are trained to present a series of tightly scripted "discussions" complete with multimedia materials -- and, undoubtedly, these presentations are vetted and tweaked in the same way Peretti recommends media content be made "easy to understand, easy to share, and [to include] a social imperative." (In other words, "milk before meat.")

So maybe there is something to Peretti's analogy. The Church leadership is likely more with-it and media-savvy than anybody gives it credit for.

Still, I get the feeling that most converts join the LDS Church, and stay converted, not because of those gawky, name-tagged teenagers who go door-to-door seemingly with the sole purpose of interrupting your bath-time -- converts stay because they find themselves in a supportive community of like-minded folks.

It is that sense of community which is the real high-quality viral content. And the rank-and-file members who create that successful content are not using the shiny, new, technological, stats-oriented, metric-obsessed publicity model. They are fortunate enough to be stuck in that outdated, old-school world where creative people follow their hearts, and the most genuine work is that which is done out of love. And, I think, it is that genuine love the members have for their faith and their communities which is really behind the successful growth of the LDS Church.

So it may be that media creatives in today's data-driven world are not so fortunate as Mormons. But unless someone can find a way to put their focus back on creating, leaving the publicity to the experts, the next Truman Capote or Upton Sinclair will be famous -- not for authoring an In Cold Blood or The Jungle -- but for a particularly memorable lolcat.

* There are exceptions, of course -- every group has its intolerant loudmouths. And, while even some high-profile Church leaders have taken positions I and my family find hurtful, it would be just as unfair to judge all Mormons by their actions as it would be to judge all gays from, say, lurid video footage of the 1983 Los Angeles Pride Parade (not that there's anything wrong with leather chaps!).

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