What the Kardashians Can Teach Us About Connecting

Copyright 2011 by Adam Gold/iPhoto

By Pamela Richards Saeks

Seriously? The Kardashians? Why all the fuss? They’re just famous for being famous. So what?  

Here’s what: They’re worth billions of dollars, they’ve got hundreds of millions of followers and, more importantly, they have the ability to influence what’s in, what’s out, and what’s about to be the next big thing. That’s what!

You’re probably thinking… Okay, big deal. What does that have to do with my Jewish organization?

It has everything to do with your Jewish organization. Because if yours is like 98% of the Jewish organizations out there right now, you’re finding it more and more challenging to come up with effective ways to attract your target audience, retain them and build meaningful relationships with them. So, it pays for any organization that wants to increase attendance, recruit new members/campers/students/congregants or human beings in general, to take a cue from the Kardashians… because they’ve figured out how to cash in on something that money can’t buy – the ability to influence others.  

Let’s face it, most people want to be around people they admire and respect. They want to do what they do and go where they go – For better or worse, it’s just human nature. So, why not embrace it? There are a lot of ways to leverage the power of Influencers in your organization or community. I know because my team and I were tapping into the power of Influencers way before the Kardashians’ took their first selfie, Tweeted out a hashtag or posted a pouty pic on Instagram.  

Several years ago, we worked with a JCC that was having difficulty breaking  into the very competitive twenty- and thirty-something YP (young professional) market. The sad truth was, there wasn’t a YP to be found within miles of the place. And who could blame them? A quick scan of the J’s lobby was a study in extremes. On one end, a sea of strollers surrounded by Lululemon-clad moms sipping lattes. On the other, the 80+ crowd seated behind a wall of walkers enjoying their Senior Meal Deal Lunch Special. There were very few other demographics in between. It wasn’t any wonder that Millennials didn’t see a fit for themselves in that space. We knew we had a lot of work to do.

First, we gathered a representative sample of the target audience we wanted to reach, and we talked to them. The good news was, they cited health and fitness as a top priority. The not so good news was, most didn’t have a ton of disposable income and weren’t willing to pay the higher membership fees to join the J, especially because they didn’t feel there was anything in it for them. Not only were the classes and equipment designed for a much older population (i.e., too much cardio, not enough free weights), they wanted to be where their friends and other young people were, Jewish and not. And clearly, that wasn’t the J.

Based on the results of our focus group we knew it wasn’t just going to “take YPs to attract YPs.” It was going to take the right YPs to attract YPs. So… we started a very exclusive YP Connectors initiative.

Now, before you say, “So what? Lots of organizations have ‘Ambassador’ programs,” read on… 

For Ambassador programs to work, you actually have to have people who want to be ambassadors. Typically, those people come in the form of “super fans” who would love nothing more than to be cheerleaders for the organization they love. No such luck here. At least not yet. So, with the help of some folks in our target demographic, we identified twenty of the top Jewish YP Influencers in the city. We invited them for dinner and a drink on us (at a trendy restaurant we knew they’d love). We filled JCC gym bags with T-shirts, water bottles and other goodies and topped it all off with a free one-year JCC membership for each of them. We told them we were willing to do what it took to make the J the gathering place for Jewish YPs and their friends. That included giving them carte blanche to collaborate with the J’s Fitness and Rec departments, Program and Event Coordinators, etc. so they could design their own workout classes, pick-up basketball games, pool parties, happy hours and more.

But even though we were offering them the moon and the stars, we still knew it was going to take more than some swag, a free membership and a hand in designing their own programs and events to get them on board. We had to sweeten the pot to insure their iron-clad buy-in so it would be worth their while to start coming to the J, and just as importantly, so they would start bringing their friends. We knew we had to tap into the true essence of what makes an Influencer… influential.

And we also knew that for this to work we’d have to come up with something that would elevate their standing even more… a little something called Social Capital! So, we gave each of them 50 (with the promise of more if needed) complimentary JCC guest passes, personalized to include the YP Connector’s name, with copy that read: Please be my guest at the JCC that they could distribute to any of their friends between the ages of 21-35. The only rule was the free pass holder could only come with a J member. We then asked the JCC to institute a deep YP membership discount that was less than the cost of the most popular fitness clubs in town so that when the time came, converting them from guest to member would be a lot easier.

But the JCC pushed back big time: “That’s going to cost us too much money!” they argued! These kids are going to take advantage of the free passes and it sets a bad precedent for us to kowtow to them like this. They’ll expect this kind of treatment all the time now. (You mean they’ll begin to expect that their good ideas get executed, their needs get met and they get treated like valued members of the Jewish community and the J? That would be just terrible!)

But we pushed back even bigger time: The J spends tens of thousands of dollars a year to advertise for members. Giving 20 Influencers a free, one-year membership is a drop in that bucket and amounts to very little out of pocket for the J in the short-term. However, it will likely result in ten times that amount in ongoing membership revenue in the long termIf they start abusing the system, we’ll put a stop to it. But we have no reason to think they will. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

They agreed… reluctantly – but they agreed. And it worked! Do the math and you’ll see why:

Twenty YP Influencers + a dozen new YP inspired classes, sports events, workout sessions and parties (that they helped develop) X free passes that they handed out to numerous friends  =  many hundreds of YPs coming into the building, exercising and socializing, which created buzz and excitement, attracting even more YPs, ultimately turning the J into the YP hot spot it was born to be! 

Bottom line: it was all about creating critical mass. Just instituting a YP membership discount wouldn’t have done the trick in a case like this. Tapping into the Influencers was the key factor. They used their free passes to bring their peers to the classes they helped design. They brought them to shoot hoops, attend parties and special YP health and wellness events, cooking classes, Jewish holiday celebrations and more. And yes, it wasn’t long before lots of YPs could be seen hanging out in the lobby too! On average, it took just 2.5 visits for a free pass user to convert to a full-blown member. 

In less than one year, the J was teeming with YPs, and in less than two years, more than 400 YPs became paid members of the J. And P.S., even the majority of the initial 20 Influencers who received free memberships the first year became paid members in the second year, proving that if you offer something of value, people will pay!

So, when it comes to connecting like a Kardashian, here’s the big bottom (get it?) line: Influencers are more valuable than rubies! Because if you want to do a better job of attracting a particular demographic… of breathing new life into old programs… and/or increasing overall membership or participation, you don’t have to have a superpower, you just need to know how to get the most out of the “people power” that’s all around you. The Kardashians know how to work it, so consider taking a page from pop culture and it can work for you too!

Pamela Richards Saeks is a Jewish Engagement Expert and the author of I DARE YA! Secrets to Successfully Attracting and Retaining Jewish Audiences. She is the President of Be Bold Creative, a consulting firm dedicated to helping Jewish organizations build relationships with their target audiences and move the needle toward greater Jewish engagement. For nearly two decades prior to that, Pam was the Director of Jewish Innovation and Engagement for the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation.