Reaching an organization’s friends and supporters has become more and more difficult as modes of communication have exploded, resulting in a “communication overload.” Today, so many of us receive messaging and news in such various ways that the result is many people are potentially missing what could be very important messages.

Over the last decade, Jewish nonprofits of all types and sizes have opted to use email communications instead of sending hard copies of newsletters, “traditional” correspondence, bills, and invitations.  All membership-based nonprofits, especially synagogues and day schools on tight budgets, face communication-related challenges daily.  For other nonprofits, where staffs are pulled in multiple directions and where formal communications plans seldom exist (or get implemented!), even more opportunities are lost.  If an email blast today shows an open rate or a read-only rate of 25-30%, agency leaders express excitement, or minimally satisfaction, that a respectable percentage of possible readers received the intended message.  This means, however, that 75% of the targeted audience avoided reading– or even worse based on how “clean” your database is – never received your valuable message. So what is an organization to do?

Now is the time to think creatively.  One option which we, at Evans Consulting, have started recommending to our clients is to return to traditionally successful modes: resume printing hard copies of newsletters, invitations, and letters. Don’t be reluctant to use postage stamps!   This advice may be more applicable for older audiences and is not fool-proof, as not all mailed documents are dependably reviewed. But if a segment of your targeted group is more receptive to hard copies, it would be short-sighted to view them as outdated.

Our survey of several large Jewish nonprofits revealed that major organizations have already tackled the introduction of new approaches or are currently undertaking total upheavals of their communications and outreach programs, with the goal of having segmented communications: really trying to target groups of supporters in ways that successes may increase drastically.  In the current state of communication,  it is more imperative than ever to reach potential donors where they are.

Recently, Cision, a major communications giant, issued a whitepaper that argued that “in today’s world, listening carefully requires monitoring conversations in real time. Ninety percent of the data humans have amassed from the first cave painting to the latest tweet emerged in the last two years, largely thanks to people’s passion for creating and sharing content.”

The authors wrote that “the number of tweets has stagnated at 500 million per day, but emerging social platforms and tried-and-true media outlets and blogs have set us on a hockey stick-shaped trajectory in terms of content creation.”

For example, Rebecca Dinar, PR and marketing director at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), highlighted that their work in helping Jewish federations evaluate existing and potential ways to communicate better and to build community has taken on new challenges. She identified four Jewish communities where especially innovative efforts are happening:

Howard Tevlowitz, executive of The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, and his team that includes Kim Mullins, chief communications and marketing officer, and Ilene Fox, chief development officer, told me that this federation is now building programs and communications around the arts and communicating with their donors with an arts orientation . . . in almost everything they do. Even their interfaith efforts, pro-Israel programs, and other community partnerships have taken on new arts-focused vocabulary.  They mail a monthly newspaper to 12,000 people while an e-blast goes out to a more targeted 6,500 people.  Included in well-received efforts is a glossy magazine that goes out to 14,000 people. “We do lots of listening,” Tevlowitz said, “as we build a model for the 21st century.”  He noted that the number of donors to the Sarasota-Manatee Federation has increased since their new approach began, along with substantially increased financial support.

Jackie Congedo, Public Relations Manager, and Pam Geller, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Cincinnati, Ohio, Jewish federation, emphasized that their organization has undertaken new approaches to “encourage community-wide collaboration and trust.” A 508-person unity mission to Israel in July included representation from nine different local Jewish congregations and has become the groundbreaking effort targeting many subsectors of the area’s Jewish community. “Our marketing and communication efforts were significant for the 2016 Cincinnati Congregation and Community Israel Mission, and we expect the after-effects of this major community effort to be long-lived,” noted Congedo.

Jim DiPeso, Editor and Writer at Seattle’s Jewish Federation, found success with limited segmentation of outreach messaging, especially geared to Jews in their 30s and 40s.  Their emails boast a 35% open rate, highlighting special events and community news.  Seattle, he noted, is experiencing a growing Jewish community and their “newcomers list” goes out bi-weekly, with significantly high open rates. “We are emphasizing ways for people to connect to Jewish life, offering lots of options, and the results are very significant,” he said.

In Philadelphia, Steven Rosenberg, the Jewish Federation’s relatively new Chief Marketing Officer, is using all social media efforts and is considering eliminating direct mail to those under 35 years of age.  He revealed that the average age of people on the Jewish Federation’s data base is 65 years of age.  As a result of significant analyses, he will unveil a complete rebranding and updated communications model in September, reflecting a “strong Jewish federation system with an updated and better story than ever before.”

At one major East coast federation, communications efforts reflect very contemporary approaches. For example, traditional emails go out to almost everyone but finance and other corporate professionals receive more tailored messages than for other professions.  ‘Snail mail’ to those under 40 years of age has been eliminated and in its place this federation emphasizes social media, including Snapchat, to highlight events of all types. Instagram and Facebook posts target millennials, among others, while trying to encourage donors to choose how they prefer to receive information.

Chabad-Lubavitch is perhaps best recognized for its outstanding efforts to penetrate subsectors of the world-wide Jewish community.  Chabad.org remains the most visited Jewish web site in the world with no less than 44 million unique visitors per year.  The web site’s editors offer versions in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese, Hebrew, German, and Italian.  Editors regularly compare notes about content, emphasizing that each language carries some consistent content but tailored messaging, too, reflecting interests of the readers. Chabad consciously targets specific demographics from preschool, Bat and Bar Mitzvah-aged kids, teenagers (through their CTeen network of 258 chapters), college students with 235 Chabad on Campus centers, young adults, parents of preschoolers, seniors, and other subsectors of the Jewish community.  According to Rabbi Motti Seligson, social media expert at Chabad.org, special emphasis has been directed towards teens, college students, and young adults over the last 15 years. “We intend to unveil some newer approaches in the fall that will reflect even more creative and effective communications,” he announced.

I contend that the fast-paced society in which we live requires communications strategies that target various components of the population and take advantage of technology in ways previously never considered.

A recent article in the online version of The Forward identified one communications vehicle “old-timers” could never fathom:  Snapchat.  According to the writer, Snapchat was launched in 2011 by Evan Spiegel, 26, who came up with the idea for a class project while he was a student at Stanford. Spiegel dropped out in 2012 to work on Snapchat full time. “It’s now worth more than $2 billion and has over 100 million daily users — that’s more than Twitter. Over half of Snapchat users are millennials, and they are on it all the time.”

One of the prominent institutional users of Snapchat, I learned, is the Israel Air Force. The Forward reported that “the Israeli Air Force has found the perfect way to reach out to teens: a well-curated and visually stimulating Snapchat account that includes interviews with Air Force members and lots of videos of planes. The Air Force cleverly uses Snapchat to both share information about service and to celebrate its soldiers. While the account is in Hebrew, you don’t need the language to follow some seriously impressive flight-training videos.”

One prominent synagogue where we are currently working as fundraising counsel wants to attract younger Jews as members so we have strongly recommended that their marketing and communications program includes Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  In fact, as my colleagues and I developed this blog we investigated to determine if any other congregations have remarkable communications and outreach efforts adequate and vibrant enough to engage and familiarize Millennials about synagogue programs that would appeal to them.

One creative Conservative congregation in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Temple Emanuel, experimented in July with a video used for targeted Facebook advertising to get its message to as many local Jews as possible. According to Rabbi Marc Kraus, the one-month effort was designed to shift misimpressions about the congregation, emphasizing diversity, interfaith outreach, dynamic programs, and contemporary Jewish life. “We saw the power of targeted based communications,” he told me. “With two dynamic videos, one about the congregation and the other about its religious school, more people seem to show interest in joining our congregation. With an investment of barely $600 on Facebook, we are hoping for as many as 20-25 more member units, but we’re really looking for engaged members,” he reported. The congregation is hiring a director of engagement and outreach “to help our congregation feel more knitted together and expand volunteer engagement.  There’s a limit to what our videos can do but they reflect our new philosophy of engaging people. We are targeting with precision to get our message out,” Rabbi Kraus emphasized.

The four most important take-a ways from this overview have relevance to every Jewish organization, whether membership-based or not:

  1. An effective communications program today requires segmenting messages and directing them to appropriate sub-groups.
  2. Successful communications require time and an investment of resources, including experienced staff dedicated to these efforts.
  3. Discontinuing the monthly hard copies of newsletters and replacing them with an electronic version is now an outdated concept.
  4. Disregarding Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat as methodologies spells doom for any organization.

Because of the complexities of technology today, every nonprofit must invest in efficient ways to maximize time well spent.  What is your agency doing to cope with communication overload? Is your communications and marketing plan up-to-date?  Have you taken time to evaluate honestly which approaches work and which messages resonate? Are you being creative and reaching out to each segment of your targeted groups where they are? Are you listening?

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