Head in the Clouds

By Sam Friedman

It was my first year as Central Florida Hillel’s communications director, and I had a brilliant marketing idea. It had the benefit of never having been tried before, and in hindsight there may be a good reason why.

I hired a banner plane.

In the spring of 2015, our Hillel was gearing up for Birthright Israel recruitment. And this banner plane would be our full-proof solution to boosting our recruitment numbers.

At a cost of $2,500, the plane circled the University of Central Florida’s campus for four hours during the middle of the day, pulling a banner that read “Free Israel Trip #UCFHillel ISRL@GOHILLEL.ORG.”

We ran a weeklong social media campaign telling people to “look to the skies” on the first day of trip registration. When the plane was above campus, we told students that whoever took the best selfie with the plane, tagged us and posted it using the hashtag #Birthflight, would win a $50 gift card.

It was perfect. It was creative. It was grassroots. I was sure it would go viral.

When the day finally came, I made my way to the center of campus, armed with a camera. The sun was bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was as if Florida itself was excited for the plane.

In the beginning, everything went exactly as I envisioned: Students stopped in their tracks when they heard the buzz of the plane, briefly paused from their phones or conversations and tilted their heads skyward.

They got a free show, and we got zero signups for our trip.

I heard honest feedback from some of my Hillel regulars:

The banner itself was small and hard to read, they said. The hashtag in the banner didn’t match the hashtag we were promoting on Facebook. The message in the banner said nothing about the trip other than it was free.

It turns out that even a creative stunt doesn’t automatically lead to conversions. Just because you get people’s attention for a moment doesn’t mean you’ll get them to commit to something, especially an immersive experience abroad.

Our whole team was disappointed. But we were buoyed by the words of our executive director, who told us that being innovative means taking big risks, and those risks don’t always pay off. He added that the only time we fail is when we don’t learn from our failures.

So, here’s the lesson I learned when my idea took a nosedive:

When you take big risks with time or money, do your homework first. Gather input from your audience and find out if your elaborate plan meets an existing need.

Doing audience research doesn’t negate your inspiration or your creativity. It’s a necessary part of the planning process. Think about it: An airline doesn’t create new routes before gauging passenger interest. They don’t want to fly empty airplanes.

So, when we formulated our next big idea, we did our homework. After having conversations with dozens of Jewish students on campus, my colleague Danielle McKinstry identified a real and pressing issue.

During the first week of classes every semester, students have great difficulty finding parking on this campus with a total enrollment of nearly 70,000. Not to mention the choking humidity, which makes schlepping across the 1,415-acre campus almost unbearable for students.

So, in fall 2016, we created ‘Jewber,’ a free ride service that shuttles our students to class during the first few weeks of each new semester. We used our own two electric golf carts, decorated with blue and white Israeli flags, as the means of transportation. Students just had to text us their name, location, destination and requested time of pick up and a staff member would arrive in Jewber.

Was Jewber guaranteed to succeed? No. But we believed, based on audience research, that this idea had a high probability of success.

And we were right. As soon as we launched the service, our phones started blowing up.

Once in the golf cart, we were able to use this time to build one-on-one relationships with our students, especially those who hadn’t stepped foot into Central Florida Hillel. Casual chats turned into deep conversations, and some unaffiliated students turned into Hillel regulars.

And we even had some special guests, including the associate vice president and dean of students at UCF.

Over the past three years, the Hillel staff have given more than 700 students rides – a major time commitment but with huge return on investment.

Looking back on these two experiences, I still believe in taking big risks and that every Jewish professional can soar. But before you take to the skies, talk to some folks on the ground.

Sam Friedman currently serves as the executive director of Stetson University Hillel.

From a series by Hillel professionals who share their stories of failure and what they learned in the process.