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Going Viral to Entice the Unaffiliated Young

July 22, 2010 By:
Rachel Vigoda, JE Feature
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The Collaborative hosted a recent networking event in Center City.

Rather than follow the old-fashioned model of opening the doors and waiting for the Jews to show up, newer Jewish groups are aiming to engage Jews where they are. And where the Jews are, if they're in their 20s or 30s, is online.

Local organizations targeting Jews in the post-college, pre-marriage range -- such as the Collaborative, the Philadelphia branch of Birthright Israel NEXT and Hillel's Jewish Graduate Student Network -- are relying on Facebook and other social media tools to connect with existing members, attract new ones and give those with even the most tenuous connection to the Jewish community an effortless way to keep up with the latest buzz.

"It works because over 400 million people are on Facebook. If Facebook was a country, it would be the third largest country in the world," said Seth Goldstein, founder of Goldstein Media, a Web-design and Internet-marketing company in Doylestown, and of the online magazine "A2SM," short for "Addicted to Social Media."

"Everyone -- plus their mom, dad and grandma -- is on Facebook, so it's a really easy way for an organization to reach out," he said.

About 66 percent of Americans who are online use social-networking sites, up from 20 percent in 2007, according to the "2010 Social Networking Report" released last month by the market-research firm Experian Simmons.

The numbers are even higher in younger demographics: Almost 90 percent of online 18- to 34-year-olds regularly use social-networking sites, and they're not just "friending" friends and co-workers. A majority of people who visit the sites say that they've shown their support for a product, service, company or band by becoming a fan.

The Facebook page for the Collaborative has roughly 1,100 friends. The group also has 95 followers on Twitter (a site it doesn't use as much) and a database of 3,000 e-mail addresses.

"Our mission is to give Jewish people an opportunity to socialize with each other. It's really as simple as that," said the Collaborative's program director, Joshua Hersz. "We're giving them the opportunity to create a Jewish community -- their own Jewish community -- and using social media helps make the connections."

New Branch of the Tribe

Hersz and the Collaborative's executive director, Ross Berkowitz, are in the process of developing Tribe 12, a new nonprofit that includes the Collaborative; LimmudPhilly, a weekend learning program; and a Philadelphia branch of the PresenTense Community Entrepreneur Partnership, which Hersz describes as an "incubator designed to provide support for really small Jewish projects."

The PresenTense partnership recently received a $50,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; the Collaborative and LimmudPhilly got $50,000 and $20,000, respectively.

While Hersz and Berkowitz say that it's too soon to divulge their strategy for Tribe 12 -- the organization officially launches on Sept. 1 -- they have already set up "Where Jew At Philly," a Facebook page where anyone can promote "anything related to Jewish life in Philly."

"Most of the groups targeting younger Jews work really well together, promoting and supporting each other's events," said Hersz. " 'Where Jew At' is part of the idea of supporting each other, rather than competing against each other."

Much of this outreach is fairly new. When Hersz joined the Collaborative two years ago, most of the marketing was done on paper, primarily through a brochure mailed out every other month. Hersz's first move was to take everything online.

"We had to plan out all the events three months ahead, then print brochures and sit there folding, stamping, mailing," he said. "And 25 percent or 30 percent of them would come back in the mail because people had moved. It limited the flexibility we had in our programming."

Now he can post details of an upcoming event, such as a "How Jew Meet Singles" party or a walking tour of Jewish Philly, on the Collaborative's Facebook page, giving 1,100 people instant access. He can also make updates, and respond to questions and comments immediately.

Since the Collaborative started reaching out to its audience online, the number of unique event attendees -- a figure that counts each attendee once, even if that person goes to multiple events -- has increased from about 1,750 to 2,500 per year.

The main advantage of marketing through social media is that it's viral -- it spreads on its own, explained Adam Oded, director of the Philly chapter of Birthright Israel NEXT. "Our constituents aren't just responding to a message I put out there; they're broadening the conversation themselves. They're talking about what we're doing on their own pages. They're tagging themselves in photos and posting comments to their friends, and then their friends are contacting us. It moves in every direction."

Oded also uses Foursquare, a site where users announce their locations, whether it's a coffee shop, museum or anywhere else, by virtually checking in to the location on a smart phone. Depending on how a user sets up an account, Foursquare can publish the locale on Facebook or Twitter. Birthright Israel NEXT's shore house is a Foursquare location; so is its porch.

"Everyone hangs out on the porch, and it has its own Foursquare 'check in' -- and that was set up by one of our guests, not by me," said Oded. "It's just another way of engaging people. For this generation, if you're not online, you're invisible."

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, director of the Jewish Graduate Student Network, cites a mix of the group's Web site, Facebook page and her own personal Facebook page as a recipe for success -- with hundreds attending the Grad Network's major events.

"I posted a link about a dinner for Penn grad students on people's Facebook walls, and right away, I saw other people posting it, and more people I don't even know reposting it," she said. "It's hard to tell where it all starts, but when there's a free event, people will find out about it."

Of course, Facebook and Foursquare don't get all the credit. While Hersz, Oded and Steinberg-Egeth all praise social media as a marketing tool, they each point to face-to-face interaction as the heart -- and driving force -- of their group.

"I've been with the Grad Network for four years, and our numbers have grown," said Steinberg-Egeth. "But in addition to being out there in terms of social media, I'm out there in terms of just knowing people, talking to new people, connecting with new people -- in person."

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