Case study: original content powers non-profit organization Shavei Israel’s social media success

Shavei logo“People often think that social media is about technology, but it’s not,” explains Avi Abelow, who directs social media strategy at the Israeli non-profit organization Shavei Israel. “Success in social media is all about psychology. It’s about knowing how to connect with someone, to meet their needs so that they feel better about themselves.”

Those needs are clearly being addressed, as Shavei Israel’s main English-language Facebook Page surpassed 25,000 “likes” earlier this month. (Shavei Israel runs a second Page in English with which is closing in on 10,000 “likes,” a Spanish-language Page with a whopping 42,000 fans, and a smaller Facebook Page in Polish with nearly 3,000 fans.) All this in just 15 months of dedicated social media attention.

Established in 2000 by Michael Freund, who had previously worked as the Deputy Communications Director under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shavei Israel (which literally means “Israel Returns”) is a non-profit organization that reaches out and assists Lost Tribes and “Hidden Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

From a social media perspective, Shavei Israel started out in a good position even before opening its first Facebook Page: there was already a considerable amount of interest, both among Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel and the Jewish people, for the communities Shavei Israel works with. These include the Bnei Menashe of India; the “Hidden Jews” of Poland; the Bnei Anousim of Spain, Portugal and South America; a small but growing Jewish community in China; and the Subbotnik Jews of southern Russia.

Social media key: original content

Shavei Israel delivers its social message through three main media channels: Facebook, a weekly email newsletter, and its website. Content comes from a variety of sources. Of course, Shavei’s social media followers post, comment and share to and from the organization’s Facebook page. But Shavei Israel does something that is less common but utterly invaluable: it creates its own original content. A staff writer creates a minimum of two feature-length, 700-1,000 word newspaper-style articles a week, which are published across all of Shavei channels.

These articles may be about activities that Shavei Israel has sponsored around the world – and there are many, from weekend seminars for Marranos (Jews whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago) in Spain, to Hanukah celebrations in Krakow and Kaifeng.

As part of its outreach work, Shavei Israel employs a team of emissaries who serve the various communities where Shavei is active, and who, in addition to planning the events themselves, actively take pictures, shoot videos and provide written reports back to the organization, all of which can be turned into stories for social media.

Shavei’s original articles also create a “content repository” for the organization that influences search engine page rankings. This is important because Google and other search engines respond more favorably to frequent updates of fresh content than the SEO “tricks” of yesteryear.

Control your own message and branding

But there is a second, perhaps even more crucial benefit of original content for organizations plying the social media waters: it allows them to take control of their own message and branding.

And so, while the media often picks up on stories about Shavei activities (the posthumous pardoning of the Portuguese “Alfred Dreyfus” that Shavei Israel’s Michael Freund helped broker drew international attention), there is no substitute for getting the words exactly the way you want them. And moreover, when you want them: doing your own writing means you don’t have to wait for the public relations people to knock down doors; you publish immediately via your own channels to the people who today undoubtedly have the greatest influence – your social media fans.

Another advantage: the media can sometimes be lazy and Shavei-written articles have sometimes found their way word-for-word into the press, as happened with an article about the establishment of a new Jewish center in Trancoso, Portugal, which once had a thriving Jewish community that was emptied during the Inquisition; that piece appeared in a prominent U.S. newspaper.

Dial up the emotions

As important as doing “reporting” on events and news is for an organization, Shavei Israel’s secret sauce is dialing up the emotions. A major component of its content production, therefore, consists of profiles of individuals who have received help from Shavei Israel. These stories connect big time with social media followers.

“We could talk about the various achievements of the organization; its major milestones,” says Shavei’s Avi Abelow, who has a background in organizational psychology. “But there’s a better way to get the message across, and that’s to focus on the human connection. To let readers see the faces, hear the personal stories. That’s the golden nugget. That’s what makes people want to follow us or share a post on their Facebook Timeline. The feeling that they are growing personally by being connected to Shavei Israel.”

While not every organization or company is as people-focused as Shavei Israel, there is nearly always a way to put the human angle up front. It can make all the difference.

For example, for the past year, a major focus of Shavei Israel’s social media strategy has been raising awareness around the renewal of aliyah (immigration) of the Bnei Menashe from India. The Bnei Menashe claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They wandered throughout Central Asia and the Far East before eventually settling in the northeastern corner of India, along the border with Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh.

Shavei Israel helped bring 1,700 Bnei Menashe to Israel up until 2007 when the doors to immigration were abruptly closed. Just in the past several months, however, after intensive lobbying on the part of the organization, the aliyah has resumed. Nearly 200 have already arrived; another 7,000 Bnei Menashe are anxiously waiting in India for the day when they too will be allowed to join their families in the Holy Land.

Each one of those Bnei Menashe has a moving and inspirational story, and those are shared via social media through a series of “Shavei Profiles.” Some are full articles; others first-person narratives. All are among Shavei’s top “liked,” shared, and commented posts.

Some of the most popular stories on the Bnei Menashe have included profiles of Dina Samte, a blind Bnei Menashe teenager with a powerful voice and relentless talent who sings and plays keyboards at Bnei Menashe celebrations; Itzkhak Colney, the first Bnei Menashe to become a social worker in Israel; and Yonatan Haokip, who is single handedly translating the entire book of Psalms into the Bnei Menashe language of Kuki.

Shavei by the numbers

While most of Shavei’s growth on Facebook has been organic, the organization has juiced its acceleration with some paid advertising. The “Israel Returns” URL was selected for most of the attention “because it’s easier to remember than ‘Shavei Israel’ if you don’t know Hebrew,” Abelow explains. The ads run daily and always include a Jewish symbol, like a Star of David, followed by text. Some ads are generic, other highlight a particular community (like young Polish Jews rediscovering their heritage which was hidden after the Holocaust and often only revealed by their grandparents on their deathbeds).

Shavei’s ads are generating a click-through rate of 0.267%, which far surpasses the industry average. A study of 11,000 campaigns on Facebook by the Internet marketing firm Webtrends found that anything over .051% (about one click-through for every 2,000 ad impressions) is flying high. Another stat of note: about 15% of Shavei Israel’s Facebook fans are interacting with the Page – by sharing, posting or commenting – well above the 1% that direct marketing consultant Michael Leander considers an acceptable social media “engagement rate.”

Just the same, not everyone is using Facebook yet. Some people still prefer – gasp – email. Shavei Israel has that covered, too. The organization publishes a weekly newsletter using ConstantContact as the platform. (There’s no particular preference over other newsletter services such as MadMimi or MailChimp, it’s just where Shavei started and it’s hard to switch mid-stream.) The newsletter features the two main stories of the week and has close to 6,000 subscribers. Newsletters average a 20-25% open rate, again higher than the minimum of 15% to be considered healthy.

The newsletter articles run 3-4 paragraphs with a picture and link back to the website,, which has a “blog” style to it. The home page features the 10 most recent articles with 75-word summaries and thumbnail pictures. But surrounding that, there are categories for each of the communities Shavei Israel works with. All told, there are more than 500 articles on the site, plus hundreds more photo albums, meaning that someone who wants to learn more about the organization will have plenty of resources with which to do so.

Does a website still matter?

In today’s short attention span social media theater, does a website still matter? Why not just have a Facebook presence? “A big part of our methodology is understanding all the tools that are out there,” Abelow says. “Facebook is great for awareness, but it’s still the most distracting environment. No matter how much attention you’re getting, a second later, your readers can be somewhere else. The only place where people are prepared to spend a few minutes on what you have to say, and where you can follow through with targeted actions, is on your website.”

Keeping up with all the social outlets today is a major responsibility for non-profit organizations. Shavei Israel also operates a thriving YouTube channel with 150 videos and nearly a million total views to date. The most watched video is of the wedding of an American immigrant to Israel to a Chinese Jewish woman that takes place in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue; it has close to 300,000 views. Abelow says he is looking into Twitter, Google + and Pinterest, but “in the end, you have to do your own cost benefit analysis. My conclusion is that Facebook currently offers the biggest bang for the buck.”

Shavei Israel has not had anything go “viral” yet, in the sense of millions of hits or views. Virality cannot be easily manufactured, Abelow insists. “For non-profit organizations, we’re not talking about a cat falling out of a tree nine times. You need to think about how to build and strengthen your community of supporters to be better connected to your organization, day in and day out. You have to be constantly communicating with them about who you are, what you have to offer and, most of all, how you strengthen their emotional bond to your organization.”

That bond appears quite firm: in the time since we started putting together this article, the Israel Returns Facebook Page jumped by another 4,000 “likes.” To paraphrase a Jewish expression, “until 120…thousand.”

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