Response to Sam Glassenberg Video

by Lisa Colton

Today we’re working in an attention economy as much as a financial one. While of course the dollars matter, we cannot achieve any communal goals without the attention of the people we seek to impact, inspire, connect and educate. As educators we need to have our own agenda. But without a way to deliver that agenda to the people we want to reach, it hardly matters.

Our institutions are good at creating content and less good at understanding the demands of an attention economy. Children and adults alike have many demands, crazy schedules, multiple gadgets and a constant onslaught of media pounding them. How can we possibly compete for their attention?

Sam Glassenberg, in his ELI Talk, advocates for finding for-profit solutions to some of Judaism’s biggest challenges. Glassenberg points to JDate as a successful example of a profitable business that has positive impact for the Jewish people. He suggests that other businesses, video games, for example, could be a powerful – and profitable – tool for Jewish education. He argues that be giving people what they want, we expand our reach exponentially. And if done in a smart way, we can also solve big Jewish challenges as a byproduct of giving people what they want.

While I have reservations about this hypothesis, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the bigger point he is making. Glassenberg has put his finger on an important equation that we have yet to really crack, and we have to struggle with it. That is, to compete in an attention economy, we must be offering experiences and opportunities that people want. Too often I observe highly skilled and well intentioned Jewish professionals and lay leaders cooking up ideas and programs in their own Jew-y echo chamber, only to force feed it to amcha (the general public) or be surprised when it is not met with great enthusiasm.

While much of the Jewish community may currently operate in a nonprofit and philanthropically supported market, we still are operating in a free market for attention, time and energy. Accordingly, we need to understand that we are competing for attention in this free market. Not with the other Jewish programs, but with soccer, book clubs, piano lessons, careers and more. At least a handful of innovative Jewish education programs are addressing these needs. Edah in Berkeley, CA, and Kesher, which began in Newton, MA, and is now in multiple cities, combine Jewish education with after school care on weekdays for families where both parents work full time. It’s a win-win.

venn diagramMy favorite image these days is the Venn diagram, which we can use to articulate Jewish communal or organizational goals (“A”), and “selfish” (that’s not judgmental, it’s just reality in an attention economy) goals of the individuals and families we seek to engage (“B”). What’s the overlap? If we can successfully identify and design around that sweet spot in the middle, we’ll be positioned to compete in today’s attention economy.

We can also think about how to grow that overlapping area by creating demand. JDate was able to create demand for something that Glassenberg argues had tremendous stigma, one-line dating, before they started a smart advertising campaign. Similarly, most of us know the famous line about how Steve Jobs dismissed any market research before creating successful Apple products because he claimed the market didn’t yet know what it wanted. Glassenberg suggests that beyond looking for what people want today, with the right investments and the right frame of mind, we have the power to influence what people want tomorrow. While we may not be Steve Jobs, we can shift from a mindset of “playing catch-up” to anticipating tomorrow and positioning ourselves to grow new demands.

It may be that the professionals in our community who are best positioned to create the content for the Jewish people, are the least equipped to sell it. Over and over again I witness fantastic Jewish programs, educators and opportunities falling victim to poor marketing and too-bland communications strategies. Glassenberg demonstrates to us that there are creative, successful people that our community can tap into in order to marry this need for consumer interest with real content. Have we reached out to the filmmakers and artists, designers and chefs in our midst and asked, not for their money, but for their creative energy?

It would be a mistake to only see this talk as about video games. As he says, “there’s an arsenal of exciting ideas within our grasp.” Are we open to these new ideas? And maybe more importantly, are we open to people like Sam Glassenberg, who don’t live everyday within the Jewish professional world, but who have powerful energy and, perhaps, innovation to give to the Jewish people? How can we collaborate to find and design for the sweet spot in that Venn diagram where communal and individual needs meet? That’s the win-win moment we need.

Join us for an online conversation with Sam Glassenberg and Lisa Colton on March 20th; register here.

Lisa Colton is the Chief Learning Officer at See3 Communications, and is passionate about helping nonprofit organizations and their leaders embrace the tools and strategy that will help them succeed in our networked world.