Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Growing a Synagogue Part 3: Communicating in the Twenty-First Century

C. Email, Listservs and Social Networking.

We are working from the inside out when it comes to publicity. Once you have a good looking and up to date website, you now need to get word out that you are open for business. When Ikar, the successful young synagogue in the Los Angeles area, was ready to start, it sent an email to everyone who was a friend of the founders telling about what the congregation was about and how they were going to be different from other congregations. The email stated that “if this kind of a synagogue sounds like something you would be interested in, join us for a service on Shabbat and pass this email on to others you think might be interested.” Over 200 people came for that first Shabbat.

If you have a core of members of a particular demographic and want to increase participation in that group, email can be a very effective way to spread the news. Everyone who inquires about your congregation should be asked to leave an email address in addition to more conventional contact information of address and phone number. Instead of a weekly announcement sheet, (or in addition to that sheet) there could be a weekly email about what is happening at the synagogue. This email should mention that recipients can forward the information to anyone who may be interested. Try not to make these announcements just plain blocks of text. Include graphics, the synagogue logo, and even pictures if possible. It should always include both a phone number for information and a link to the synagogue website where more information can be found.

This announcement email should go out to every email address you have on file. You do not, however, want to end up as spam in somebody's email box. There are a couple of things to do to be kind to those who will receive your email. First of all, never send an email out with every one's name in the “To:” box. Email addresses should be as private as snail mail addresses. You would not sell your snail mail list; don't publish your email list either. Emails from the congregation to the list should only have the synagogue's email address in the “To” box. Consider using a mass mailing/marketing service such as Constant Contact. If you do send the email directly, all the other addresses should be sent out as “blind copies” (BCC). If you don't know how to do this with your email client, then get someone to teach you. Keep away from sending attachments and links to untrusted websites. Be considerate of your users and try not to send more emails than they want to receive. Having someone's email address is a privilege; don't make them regret that they gave it to you. It is also proper web etiquette to include an opt out link at the end of every email so users can remove themselves from the list. Don't take requests to be removed personally, but it is a good idea to try and find out why they left the list. Perhaps they have moved to a different community or have joined another synagogue and no longer need your information or perhaps your email is not meeting their needs. Consider having a variety of mailing lists focused on different groups so that you can target parents with small children for one type of program, and for another, reach everyone who has participated in a food drive. This ensures that you are making the most of your email list and reaching members with the information that is of particular interest to them.

A variation on the email list is a Listserv. This is a forum where everyone on the list can contact everyone else on the list with one email. This can be used for announcements but usually it is a way that members can stay in contact with each other. The list is usually private, for congregational members only. They can share ideas, look for babysitters, recommend a plumber or give away tickets to a show they can no longer attend. It’s a good idea to establish guidelines and policies for use of the list. Make clear what sort of communication is welcome and what is not. Also be clear about what the consequences are for unwelcome behavior. A Listserv can be a way to discuss interesting articles or lessons with the group. Like the mailing lists above, your Listserv does not need to be all members. You can have targeted lists for college students who are away at school, for the youth group, for the Sisterhood or Men's Club. If you have multiple minyanim at the synagogue, each minyan can have its own Listserv to stay in touch with its group and to assign parts in the service in advance.

There are also a number of other social networking sites that members may already belong to and you can stay in touch with them by asking them to connect with you there. Social networks are a great way to extend relationships or start new ones. Instead of reaching members only when they are inside your building, you can extend your reach to meet them where they are. Social Networks are often the first place where people post their news, both good and bad, and presents many opportunities to hear from, help, and be there for your members. It is also a good place to ask questions about what they may like to see in the future from the congregation, survey your members as to which programs they might attend and have them give you a hand in planning what the next program might look like.

One common objection to social media is that it opens up the channels of communication and creates the possibility of negative publicity or a forum for those who are dissatisfied to let others know about their unhappiness. This objection is rooted in a misunderstanding of the medium. Whether you are on Facebook or not, the conversation is already happening! Isn’t it better to keep track of issues and use a negative post as an opportunity to fix the relationship and let others know what you are doing to resolve the situation? Making this shift can be difficult, but it is very worthwhile.

If you’re not familiar with the variety of social network options, take the time to learn about each of them. One common mistake is to treat them all the same. Instead, determine your goal and then choose the right tool to meet your needs.
  • Do you want to bring more people to your building? Consider using Foursquare to offer a promotion for anyone who checks-in at the synagogue.
  • Do you want to establish a professional network to help congregants find jobs? Start a group on Linked-in.
  • Do you want to send out short blasts to the public? This may be a good use of Twitter.
  • Do you want to establish mutual relationships with members? Start a page on Facebook.

Ea  Each of these methods can be very powerful tools when used correctly, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the tool you’ve chosen and take some time familiarize yourself with them. Social Media users can be very forgiving so don’t be afraid to try new things or take chances.

Texting is mainly for personal communication. Since texts can cost the recipients money, ask for permission before sending out text messages, but they may be good tools in certain circumstances, when time is short, such as notifying parents of an emergency.

Instant Messaging (IM) is also often personal, but consider having someone in the office staff an IM account to answer questions. The more entry points you have, the more you enable your members to connect.

One last thought, consider finding out what mediums and tools your congregants are using and meeting them there. Don’t jump in just because it sounds cool to be on Facebook or Twitter. Starting a Linked-in group if your congregants don’t use it doesn’t benefit anyone. Make sure that you’re where your people are, or work on a plan to help them gain the proficiency that they might need to connect with you.