Membership Best Practices From USCJ Marketing Chair Gurval Caer


Gurval Caer chairs USCJ’s Communications, Marketing and Branding Committee and holds the same position at his own synagogue, Ansche Chesed in New York. Currently founder and president of messaging platform company Stryng, Gurval has an extensive background in the world of digital marketing and social media. He was happy to answer a few questions about best practices in kehilla membership development.

For starters, what’s the best way for a kehilla to structure itself to best bolster membership?

Generally, and I believe this is the best delineation of responsibilities, well-developed shuls have both a Marketing Committee and a Membership Committee. The first works to bring in new members and the second looks to retain them. The important question is, at what point does the hand-off take place?

The skill sets needed to be successful in these two endeavors are quite different. Marketing Committee members should understand audience reach, social media, digital channels, and other ways to generate interest and awareness. The Membership Committee should include those skilled at nurturing and establishing meaningful relationships. This means creating engagement and programming, focusing on overseeing a welcoming, integrated experience for those who visit the congregation.

Once a prospective member knocks on the door — to look around, meet the rabbi, or have kids go to a Shabbat service — that’s when the hand-off between committees should take place. The Membership Committee is best equipped to welcome all visitors with programming that will inspire them to be loyal and active congregants.

You’ve chaired the Marketing Committees of USCJ and Ansche Chesed for two years. Are there specific membership development practices you’ve seen be successful?

Through my own experiences and discussions with others, the practices I’ve seen work comprise three main elements:

  1. Rabbi PR — Your rabbi is a magnet and absolutely the most important spokesperson for your shul. He or she must be used to leverage interest; to attract attention by vocally speaking about societal and community issues; by offering perspective that is relevant and fresh; and by doing all this, if possible, in a charismatic, well-spoken manner. Is your rabbi available to the media? Has he/she written op-eds for the local paper? Do they offer compassion and wisdom anytime a crisis arises within your community, even if it doesn’t directly affect your synagogue? Whether it’s organizing local events or handing out hamantaschen outside the train station for evening commuters, take the time to shine a light on your rabbi’s fresh, interesting, dynamic voice.
  2. Word of Mouth — Even in the digital age, word-of-mouth remains perhaps the most powerful tool for attracting new members. Unlike the Marketing Committee, congregants generally don’t spend time worrying about the size of their congregation. They have other things to worry about. It’s incumbent of both committees to remind members how crucial their role is, and that the shul can only thrive through continued growth. Here are a couple of particular areas to focus on:
    1. Membership Drives: A two-pronged tool, membership drives act to both actively seek new members and to remind current ones that they play an outsized role in the growth, and therefore health, of the congregation. Consider making your membership drive a contest, using incentives of recognition, reduction in dues or something else.
    2. Social Media: While it’s important to have a social media presence, which allows prospective members to learn about you, what’s way more crucial is for current members to leverage this presence within their own feeds. Activate your members to take pictures at your events and post them on their Facebook or Instagram accounts, or mention online when a program is satisfying. Let them know that the shul’s growth depends on promoting the valuable aspects of membership, from friendships, to programs, to religious understanding.
  3. Programming and Search: Life events, such as beginning daycare, preschool and bar/bat mitzvah training, are the moments when prospective members search for shuls to join, so it’s critically important to offer such family-friendly programming and properly promote it online. While word-of-mouth is paramount, people often Google “synagogues near me” and other phrases, so search engine optimization (SEO) is important. Your website should be content-rich, not only for your members’ education, but for the purpose of ranking high in searches. Non-members also search for somewhere to spend the High Holidays, so this is an important time to carefully consider your approach. Every congregation must answer the simple question: Do we welcome everybody or do we require tickets? No matter what you decide, a certain number of people will drop in. Are you capturing their names and contact info? Are you following up after the holidays are over?

What are the most important elements to consider with respect to inclusiveness and membership?

Most successful kehillot have a very clear point of view of who they are and what they stand for. If these values are not clear, they won’t be clear for prospective members. What do you believe in? What do you do? These answers are a critical element of your marketing plan.

Conservative Judaism straddles the world between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, creating a much more subtle, nuanced point of view with respect to our mission, vision and values. USCJ’s stated values are a great starting point for conservative synagogues to leverage. Whatever your beliefs, make sure they are clear.

Lastly, as a data-focused marketer, how do you mine data for new member leads?

Your most recent new members are probably your best source for informing you about the ones to come. Membership applications should include questions about what drove the decision to apply and you should follow up to flesh out those answers.

If you get 15-25 new families per year, it doesn’t take a long time to examine how these people found you. This will help inform where to place your resources.

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