I "virtually attended" this year's JFNA General Assembly via Twitter, specially noting the tweets about the social media workshops and the night-time Tweetup: the sense of excitement was palpable, not just that people who already use Twitter showed up for drinks, but that there were many older people there, people who were less experienced with social media, but wanted to learn.
There was a time in my life when I might have considered myself primarily a freelance writer. But as Jewish journalism struggles with its relationship to technology, it has also cut back on freelance budgets. Although I still primarily define my life's work as writing, this year I've done more paid work in blogging, social media and online marketing/PR consulting than I have Jewish journalism. My clients have been individuals and non-profit organizations, have hailed from both New York, Los Angeles and Canada, as well as Israel. (Some L.A. clients I still haven't met in person). Nearly all of my work is through personal referrals - people who trust my expertise and approach and refer me to other people they know and are inspired by. I felt comfortable moving to L.A. last October because I had "met" enough people online to build a community with offline, even starting over in a new city. This world - of social referrals and connections - is my professional and personal world, but increasingly, it's how we all live.
It was for this reason that "You Can't Tweet Your Way Out of This Dilemma," Gail Hyman's post in eJewishPhilanthropy, caught my attention and inspired what has become a somewhat lengthy post about social media's culture and impact potential for individuals and Jewish organizations.
Hyman writes (emphasis mine):
The good news is that lots of people who either wanted to ignore or minimize the importance of the rapid rise in social media, are now paying attention. The not-so-good news is that they are stressing over their own ignorance about how to effectively use the new tools, how to respond to pressures from some of their younger, hipper supporters to get proficient and get onboard, and most importantly worrying about where to find the talent to lead their newly important technology-driven marketing and communications efforts and make them look good.Stress over ignorance
While this fear and stress is true for some organizations, I've found a steady demand from Jewish organizations who need decently-priced, accessible expertise to help them understand the culture of social media and suggest solutions to take them to the next level. (I know that some of my colleagues, including my friends at Darim Online, will agree.) These organizations are a delight to help, because they a) are forward-thinking enough to consider what their futures look like in the technology age, and b) acknowledge that they need someone to help who can respect organizational history and still offer solutions that will advance their mission. To invoke the old "how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb" joke, "the lightbulb has to want to change." The culture of change is very difficult to embrace, but if there's anything that Jews believe across denominational lines, is that ignorance is not a chronic condition, and learning is good.
How to use the tools
Not every organization needs a blog or a Twitter account. That's right, I said it. Although I personally believe in the transformative power of blogs, Facebook and Twitter, I don't get a toaster for every 100 people I convince to join. While these tools may not be right for everyone, I do believe that every communications department (at least) needs to understand what these tools are, how they work, what special vocabulary might be filtering into the vernacular (the OED just announced their "word of the year": "unfriend") and what these tools achieve for other organizations, before they rule them out. "I've investigated it and it doesn't look like the right fit for our constituents" is a valid excuse; "I can't be bothered to learn a new technology" isn't. However, if you do commit to using these tools, you have to maintain them in a way that enables them to be effective. If you're going to set up a Twitter account and never give your followers anything worthwhile, there's no point.
How to respond to their younger, hipper supporters
It's not necessarily about youth, or "NextGen" recruitment. It's about a person's communication style. Communication isn't a top-down endeavor anymore - it's bi-directional, creating an unprecedented opportunity to grow a deeper relationship through feedback. Facebook's older audiences are growing - one website indicates 513% growth in the 55+ sector in the first six months of 2009, while noting a dropoff among younger users (likely because anywhere that their parents go regularly becomes a little less cool - which might be its own lesson for Jewish organizational life). And I know many people in their 20s and 30s who don't use Twitter, or who still won't visit my blog unless I sign them up for an email that goes straight to their inboxes. (There are even a select few who won't join Facebook. O the humanity.)
Generally, people who don't use social media tools opt out not because they think they're worthless, but because they're afraid of the learning curve, the time commitment or privacy issues. These are valid concerns, which I've decided are risks worth taking to expand communications and platform, but which, for them, is not how they want to spend their time. But what is important is reaching your current (and if you're interested in expansion, your future) audience, listening to what they want and need, and giving them information that's of practical, educational, spiritual or emotional value consistent with your organizational mission. Social media makes all of this - listening, responding, and connecting on a deeper level - possible to a degree never before possible.Where to find the talentIt's like Dorothy said, if you ever go looking for your heart's desire again, look close to home. (That's a paraphrase, but you know how wordy Dorothy gets.) Hyman wrote that "some of the most talented young tech-savvy talent have left the Jewish community because there were no career advancing opportunities, few champions for their ideas, and little in the way of compensation to keep them inside the tent." People disengage for many reasons, primarily after being mistreated, underestimated, underpaid or most infuriatingly, being ignored in conversations of "how can we get younger members." I stayed because interesting opportunities found me, mostly through my social media activity.
Organizations with younger employees should seek out their opinions and expertise. Not always do younger people have specific expertise with social media strategy, but growing up with computers can lend a more instinctive understanding of how technology can help. Plus beyond that, if you're looking for younger members, it makes sense to find out what they want. Yet, so many people resist using their in-house resources as a focus group, instead preferring to limit people to the jobs they were hired for. In many cases, this strategy is self-defeating.
Outside the internal networks are a number of organizations emerging that foster innovative youngish Jewish endeavors (many of which I've worked with) - ROI, PresenTense, Joshua Venture, Bikkurim, Jumpstart, UpStart Bay Area, and the late PLP are just a few of the ones I can rattle off without even doing an online search. Each boasts a large network of talented individuals with skills that could immeasurably enrich Jewish organizational life, if organizations were open-minded enough to seek out and accept the help.
Moving forward and making yourself look good
If you're looking to a social media tool alone as the cure to what ails your organization, you're probably going to be disappointed. But if you're looking to use social media's strengths as part of a larger context of relationship-building, then you should start by listening to the conversations. I propose three stages.
In Stage 1, you "lurk," or "eavesdrop," or check in with social media on a regular basis, to listen. You're Jane Goodall: you observe, you take notes, you learn. You develop what I like to call an "ambient awareness" of social media - minimized on your desktop while you do other things, or music you play in the background until you get used to it.
In Stage 2, you begin to engage. When you don't understand something, ask the question into the ether and see what the universe provides. You look for ways to make the information more accessible to you, whether it's on your desktop or on your mobile device. You interact one on one with the people who impress you, or who make comments on things you care about, and you begin to build relationships with the people you follow, and certainly with those who follow you.
In Stage 3, social media is part of your daily routine, but with the added excitement of never knowing exactly what you'll find. It could be becoming one of the first people to hear about a celebrity death or attending a distant conference by Twitter proxy. At this stage, you know that social media can deliver insider information about trends, refer you to professionals who come with a social stamp of approval, grant access to conversations by passionate people, and give the chance to build new and deepen already-existing relationships with people and organizations grappling with the issues and challenges facing in our community in the 21st century. Social media works best when we use it to express ourselves authentically, making ourselves - and each other - look good.