By Shuli Karkowsy
Ari Kelman’s new report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, has cast an important spotlight on the often ignored and undervalued revolution taking place around digital Jewish learning. In the process, it also highlighted the reluctance of many philanthropists to believe that online Jewish learning can be meaningful and transformative. This precise issue – how to create online Jewish content that’s reaching millions of people and is also deep, sticky, immersive, and transformative – is at the center of a new strategic direction for 70 Faces Media.
70 Faces Media was born in 2015 from the merger of two digital content creators – the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), a 100-year old Jewish news service, and My Jewish Learning, an 18-year-old nondenominational site dedicated to answering questions about living a Jewish life. At the time of the merger, My Jewish Learning was also operating Kveller, a parenting website engaging hundreds of thousands of parents interested in raising their children Jewishly, and The Nosher, a gorgeous food blog that provided an easy introduction to Jewish food and culture.
Pre-merger, these sites were already reaching 900,000 unique users each month combined – many of them without any formal Jewish affiliation or engagement..
The focus of the merger in 2015 was on scaling quickly and effectively, with a goal of doubling monthly unique users over three years. To make achieving this goal possible, longtime supporters (including The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the Crown Family, a coalition of local Jewish Federations, and many board members) made special additional investments that allowed the organization to build out an audience development team, a multimedia team, a technology project management team and business development and philanthropy teams.
The results have been staggering. Since the merger, 70 Faces Media has nearly tripled its audience to 2.4 million average unique users a month in 2018. We’ve also gone from a nominal number of video views to an additional 1 million views per month, mostly on social media platforms. And we’re continuing to grow – including 3.6 million in March 2019, our highest month ever.
We know that the majority of our visitors – like the 182,000 people who came to My Jewish Learning on the day of this year’s first Passover seder – are walking through our digital doors after typing a question into a search engine, questions like “What is a seder plate?” or “Do Jews believe in heaven?” Those who don’t find us through search are often landing on our sites after clicking on a social media post shared by a friend.
This is a unique and vital role to fill in the Jewish community, serving as the first onramp to Jewish life for the vast number of people who do not have a local rabbi or institution to ask these questions.
But it’s also not enough. Scaling our overall reach has been vital – but we also need to make sure that we are scaling our impact.
With traffic soaring, our next stage of growth requires us to do more than answer one-off questions or satiate temporary curiosities. It requires us to think about how we turn more and more of these one-off visitors into ongoing users, welcoming them to the Jewish conversation, and deepening their sense of connection to Jewish life.
Back at the end of 2017, when we started thinking about what deeper engagement could look like, a number of funders, including the the William Davidson Foundation and the Maimonides Fund, offered us resources to help us experiment: What would we do with a grant that was focused on building a more personal, meaningful, and consistent relationship with our users? Instead of simply continuing to grow our overall traffic, how could we provide Jewish digital touches that were more frequent, more personal, and more transformative?
The sad truth is that deeper and more sophisticated content is less likely to go viral. Our weekly Torah commentaries are almost never going to outperform a breaking news alert, a celebrity tidbit, or a funny listicle. But we jumped on the opportunity to experiment with initiatives that could try to bring users deeper into Jewish life and learning, even as we sustained the vast reach that makes our organization unique.
Our first experiment was in “Personal Email Journeys.” For many years, organizations, including ours, have communicated with their constituencies through newsletters – one-size-fits-all communiques “batched and blasted” to entire email lists. But new technologies enable us to provide more personal – and therefore deeper – touchpoints in people’s inboxes by allowing users to sign up for “journeys” that are responsive to their stage of life or particular interests.
For example, users who came to our sites last March and April with a query about celebrating Passover were offered the opportunity to sign up for My Jewish Learning’s new 8-part Passover prep email series. That journey, which covered everything from cleaning one’s home to making a seder plate to finding spiritual meaning in Passover observance, generated 8,000 sign-ups in the first six weeks it was available, generated off-the-chart open and click thru rates, and received extraordinarily positive feedback in surveys.
Since then we have launched eleven email journeys, focused on different holidays, lifecycle events and other Jewish topics, with thousands of people signing up for each one. The engagement rates and satisfaction levels are equally high.
For example, our Grief and Mourning Journey – which walks subscribers through customs and rituals like shiva, kaddish, and Jewish sources of comfort – has generated 2,319 subscribers and registered a 48% average unique email open rate (vs. 22% industry standard). When these users click through to our website, their behavior indicates a deeper level of engagement than the average My Jewish Learning user. These users average 2.03 pages per session – 41% higher than average for all of My Jewish Learning over the same period – and stay on the site for 2:45 minutes, which is almost double the average for My Jewish Learning visits over the same period. As with the Passover journey, the survey results were exemplary – over 94% of respondents said the email series “made [them] feel more supported and comforted during this time of mourning.”
The numbers are great. But the qualitative truth behind them is what’s most important: We are doing more to support and empower people at moments of deep emotional resonance. One survey respondent told us that thanks to our email series: “I feel as if all of the Jewish world is supporting me.” Another Grief & Mourning journey subscriber who lost her husband told us: ”I looked forward to your e-mails because I was home 24/7 as a caregiver and had not been able to join a congregation (unable to leave him alone). The emails have given me a connection. No one to sit shiva with me…Thank you for whatever emails you can send.”
In another initiative intended to more deeply and consistently engage our audience, we have created new pages, content, and a newsletter on My Jewish Learning dedicated to prayer and spirituality. The Jewish tradition boasts a rich canon of Jewish prayer, but due to language, issues of faith, and other barriers, it is inaccessible to many people, even those in search of spiritual meaning. We have started to invest in enhanced prayer content to help users explore the hows and whys of prayer in a non-preachy and accessible manner.
Our weekly Prayer newsletter was launched in July 2018 and has already welcomed 3,699 subscribers. Again, we can see that these people are engaging with our content at higher levels. When those users click through to the My Jewish Learning website, they spend more than twice as much time on site than the average user (3:08 minutes vs. MJL average of 1:29).
This deeper content is not limited to My Jewish Learning; we are also seeing a desire for greater depth on our lifestyle sites – The Nosher, Kveller, and Alma (a newly launched site for millenial women). Our initial assumption was that visitors to these sites would be primarily interested in lighter Jewish content (drool-worthy food pictures, pop culture) or content of interest to Jews but without an explicit Jewish angle (general parenting issues). While these sort of offerings certainly play an important role in attracting large audiences, we are finding that once they arrive and grow to trust our brands, many of these visitors are interested in deeper content. As just one example, one of the top 5 articles on Alma in 2018 was the explainer piece “Everything You Need to Know About Anti-Semitism in the Women’s March.” Dealing with questions that were tough and deep, we were honored to provide an even-handed explainer to women struggling with issues of Zionism, feminism, and intersectionality. The success of this piece has led us to create a full range of resources for young readers seeking to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thanks to the generosity of the Schusterman Foundation.
This year, we also moved forward with two exciting Kveller initiatives aimed at deepening engagement (both supported by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Fund): A new podcast, “Call Your Mother,” (25,000+ downloads) and The Kveller Haggadah, a unique resource for families to create meaningful and memorable seders (14,000+ downloads and 6,400+ purchases on Amazon).
Even on channels that we previously saw as mainly audience-growth tools, such as video and social media, we are pivoting to projects that allow us to go deeper with our users. During the first two years of our foray into video, we focused on short Facebook-friendly videos aimed at going viral. But last year, in conjunction with Israel’s 70th birthday, with support from the UJA-Federation of New York, we produced a 14-part mini documentary series exploring the range of Jewish identity in Israel and the United States. Since then we have been supplementing our shorter video offerings with various deep dives, from engaging explainers on the Middle East conflict to a first-person account of the Tree of Life massacre from a young Alma reporter sent to cover the tragedy’s aftermath.
We have also been organizing Facebook Live Q&As with Jewish experts in advance of various holidays and multiple Facebook groups catering to different demographics and communities.
Through these pilot initiatives, we have reached tens of thousands of people at a time of deep spiritual need or intellectual questioning. And the behavior of those users have proved that they are experiencing a deeper level of Jewish engagement.
Like most good experiments, this pilot phase is raising new questions: Do these journeys and resources go far enough? How do we better connect recipients of these resources to even deeper Jewish opportunities – particularly in-person events or community-based institutions? What other tools can convert our expanded reach into increased depth? Could other organizations deploy these tools to deepen the engagement of their participants before, after, and in-between events?
The shift to deepening engagement also raises complex questions about metrics and ROI. When our main goal was simply overall audience growth, we could just rely on monthly unique visitors to track our progress. What metric (or, more likely, what combination of metrics) makes the most sense when going for depth? How do we learn to value an initiative that goes deep with thousands of people at the same time that we continue to serve millions of people?
It will take years of continued experimentation to figure out the answers to these questions (and many others that are sure to emerge).
But one important lesson is already clear: The beauty of digital media is that it turns breadth vs. depth into a false choice. In our case, by vastly expanding our overall audience, we are greatly increasing our ability to go deeper and deeper with more and more people.
Shuli Karkowsky is the Vice President of Development and Strategy for 70 Faces Media. Before joining 70 Faces Media, Shuli was Campaign Director of the Lawyers Division of UJA-Federation of New York Prior to that, Shuli was a litigator at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. Shuli graduated from Harvard Law School in 2009, and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland in 2006.