Rabbi Jason Miller, my close colleague and friend, is also my social media strategist. Social media, digital content and community were a few topics that my co-author, Terri Elton and I wrote about in our recent book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose so I was interested in his perspective. When we first started working together about 7 years ago, his title was “website designer.” In the interview that follows, you’ll learn more about the need to think far beyond websites and social media. I wanted to hear from him about the best ways for congregations and nonprofit organizations to pull together the various tools that exist (e-mail marketing, social media, gamification, internet advertising, blogging, etc.) to deepen and expand their impact.
Hayim Herring: Clearly, you’ve developed years of experience in website design and a deep understanding of social media. How do people consume information today differently than even five years ago?
Jason Miller: Most content that I consume is on a digital screen, but, a confession – I still enjoy reading the newspaper each morning because I am a tactile learner. Similarly, many people still use (and enjoy) traditional media, like hardcover books, magazines and newspapers for a variety of reasons. I’ve been building websites since 1995 and have been involved in social media marketing on a professional level since 2009. I’ve watched as both the web and social networks have moved from curiosity to commonplace. We don’t even think twice about seeing a toddler launching apps on an iPad or a senior citizen casually using FaceTime to video chat with her grandson a few time zones away. Increasingly, people are consuming content through the Internet on a much larger scale than only a few years ago.
HH: So what does that mean for congregations and nonprofits?
JM: This means congregations and nonprofits, just like businesses in the for-profit world, must adapt and do so quickly. For example, by now, the synagogue’s monthly bulletin should be in a digital format for most consumers. Congregants who request a hard copy should be in the minority because the default should be a digital format. So too, members should be expected to register and pay for events using the website or a third party application like EventBrite or Constant Contact. One of my biggest pet peeves is when congregations and nonprofits wait too long to adapt to new technology and then don’t want to update when that technology has gone stale. Organizations’ websites are prime examples of this. Websites should receive a complete refresh every 3-5 years.
HH: To clarify, are you saying that a congregation or nonprofit should budget for a major website refresh every 3-5 years?
JM: Yes, but in certain cases some cosmetic tweaks might do the trick. Technology changes so quickly and every few years there are some significant innovations in web design. My company is building a lot of parallax websites now, but I’m sure in a couple years there will be a new trend in the industry. Remember, a website is the first impression potential members will get about your congregation or nonprofit. It’s also on the web, which means it’s “Hello World” – anyone anywhere in the world will see your website. They may never see your bricks and mortar building or the inside of your synagogue’s sanctuary, but they can tell a lot by looking at your website. A fresh-looking website every few years also tells your membership you care about your appearance to the world.
HH: You’re right. I don’t want to minimize the commitment of resources that are required, but I can also say that a refreshed website when done well always generates interest, and it takes about one third of the time or less than it used to when we first started.
JM: Exactly. Many of our clients are surprised that we can do a complete overhaul of their website in less than 2 months. Of course, the part that takes the longest is the internal decision making of the committee figuring out what it should look like and which interest groups should be prioritized on the home page!
HH: So, what does it mean for a congregation or nonprofit to have a “social media strategy?” How is that different from posting content on social media sites and updating your organization’s website?
JM: Quite frankly this is the most profound difference between having a professional social media marketing (SMM) strategy and letting your organization run its social networks like a teenager on Snapchat. When it comes to social media, my company functions much like a PR agency. We work with companies and nonprofits to articulate their brand and then amplify their message to the public through digital marketing. I like to focus on 5 D’s when working with a client on a SMM strategy: Discover, Define, Design, Deliver and Data. We first meet with the stakeholders to DISCOVER a clear vision for the scope of our SMM work. We then work to DEFINE the roles and goals for the campaigns. Then we DESIGN a schedule of posts including relevant social media posts that are informed by the brand and blog posts that tell a story to help boost engagement. We then DELIVER the message by executing and implementing the creative assets. Finally, using various analytic research tools we monitor and report on the DATA to help identify and prioritize messaging for future communication development.
HH: What’s the best investments for congregations and nonprofits to make in digital media to expand their reach?
JM: While everyone needs a basic working knowledge of social media and digital communication, it is important to have a dedicated staff member for this task. A dedicated staff member can play a key role in deepening and expanding engagement. In addition to having a full-time staff member (or a company that can dedicate several hours a week) overseeing the digital media, it is also important to invest in marketing through the Internet. This means everything from Google AdWords and remarketing efforts to paying for sponsored posts on Facebook and incentivized marketing (like sweepstakes or giveaways). I know that this might make some nonprofit executives uncomfortable to think that synagogues should be investing in Google AdWords campaigns, but organizations can think of it as a digital version of the kind of ads that they run in the local Jewish newspaper.
HH: What are some of the best practices that congregations and nonprofits can follow to tell the stories of their excellent work, that often go underreported, using digital media?
JM: Whenever I talk about SMM, I always explain that part of it is education, part of it is psychology and it is all about storytelling. We Jews love telling stories. We just concluded Passover when our core mission at the Seder is to tell our people’s story. We should continue telling stories through digital media as well. With today’s technology, that storytelling can be in the form of videos, animations, augmented reality, infographics, whatever. Even Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook have begun using the term “stories” to let people share their narrative – no matter which medium they use. Any organization should be able to tell a captivating story through social media to inspire people to want to be part of that community.
HH: And some tips to make that story more inspiring?
JM: It is certainly important to keep it very simple when telling a story on social media. People have short attention spans these days. When an organization has a great event, it should tell a story through photos, videos and words with positive emotions so that people realize that they missed a great event and will make sure to attend the next one. And stories must be authentic. If an organization wants to promote the fact that young families are involved, it should not only showcase those families on their website and through social networks using photos and video, but let them directly tell their stories, and avoid the temptation of having someone older (not in that demographic) talk about it.
HH: In my recent book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose, co-authored with Dr. Terri Elton of Luther Seminary, we heard clergy leaders express deep concerns about the kinds of questions that trigger thoughtful discussions and others that can harden differences. What are your thoughts about the kinds of discussions that work well on social media, and the kind that need to happen face-to-face?
JM: Engagement, engagement, engagement. By far, that is the term I use the most when talking about social media with my clients. Our ultimate objective is getting our followers and potentials engaging with our institutions on social networks. On all social networks, engagement can be broken into three actions: liking, commenting and sharing. How do we get people to engage? I think it’s precisely what you heard clergy leaders expressing: you must ask the type of questions that trigger discussion. I’m not concerned so much about hardened differences, so long as people are engaging. The magic of social media is that in this digital storytelling, we’ll ultimately be able to join others throughout the world in virtual communities, which ultimately will strengthen our communities IRL (in real life).Tags: Blogging, Congregations, Facebook, Gamification, Google, Internet, Marketing, Nonprofits, Rabbi Jason Miller, Social Media, Synagogues, Websites