Almost everyone's pouring time and money into smartphones these days. Social networking giants mine them for ad revenue, retail stores use them to reach customers, and credit-card companies want to turn them into wallets. And then there's the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The 15 million-member church has a full-fledged mobile strategy and numerous apps, but all with a set of objectives and challenges that run counter to the big trends in the industry.
"Our measure of success isn't revenue," said Clint Bishop, senior mobile advisor for LDS, also commonly known as the Mormon church. That sets him apart at conferences like the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco, where he sat in the front row on Monday morning for sessions on mobile sports, travel apps and carrier strategies.
Much of the talk at such events revolves around monetization, which isn't especially useful for an institution that aims a little higher than the Nasdaq for its reward.
"Our goal is bringing people closer to God," Bishop said. Success on that front is hard to measure, but some common industry metrics, such as how much time users are spending in an app, can be useful, he said.
LDS offers a range of apps to help members carry out their roles in the church, Bishop said. Several are for learning, and those are designed to keep users in the app as long as possible. Others are administrative tools to help so-called lay clergy, and they're designed so users can get in and out quickly and get on with their work.
Lay clergy are church members who have ordinary day jobs and do church work in their spare time. For example, many make regular visits to other church families for teaching and assistance, Bishop said. Each is assigned two or three families to visit, and the assignments change once or twice a year, so LDS provides mobile contact-management apps to help keep the process organized. If they have to give the families specialized help such as financial advice, they can refer to resources in other LDS apps, he said.
Another mobile challenge for LDS is reaching the faithful, who don't all live in places the industry considers good for business. About 60 percent of Mormons are outside the U.S., many of them in developing countries. The church wants to use mobile technology to serve those populations, but in some cases it must blaze its own trails.
For example, LDS is exploring how to make better use of mobile messaging in Africa. It could be a good tool for church leaders to keep in touch with members and for members to chat among themselves. But the technology choices vary among different places: In countries like South Africa where most people have smartphones, free applications like WhatsApp may be the best way to reach people, while in poorer places like Swaziland members may be limited to feature phones and often expensive SMS (Short Message Service), Bishop said.
It can be hard to get good information about mobile use in some places because no one's done the market research yet, he said. Companies may not consider the area lucrative, but LDS's mission can't wait for a region to become economically attractive. The church could fund its own custom research, but that might not be the best use of members' offerings, he said.
And those developing-world efforts are only part of a global mobile effort that has to serve a wide range of cultures and income levels, Bishop said. "We can't just do one thing to reach all people."
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