Up and down Bathurst Street in Toronto, the sidewalks are cluttered with sandwich boards advertising synagogue membership, with offers such as, “New member pricing,” “Student discounts,” and “Young family discount.” The advertising for membership is a far cry from generations gone by when people went to synagogues that reflected their ancestry, such as the Kiever, Anshe Minsk or Hebrew Men of England. Today, the choice of which synagogue to join – and to a greater degree the choice of whether to join or not to join – begs the question of how to develop and promote the value proposition of synagogue membership for a new generation.
While the signs appear on Bathurst every year, they are changing. I remember signs from years past advertising High Holiday tickets with hardly a mention of membership. Today, most signs push introductory membership prices that are often less expensive than purchasing tickets alone.
On one hand, it’s refreshing to see the move away from the transactional Judaism based on purchasing tickets for the High Holidays and toward a relational Judaism based on membership in a synagogue community.
In my heart of hearts, I would like to believe that synagogues are offering membership rather than tickets, because the market is demanding the services, pastoral care, locus for learning and prayer, and meaningful community that synagogues offer. In truth, synagogues are offering membership because it’s a deal. It’s a form of penetration pricing.
Penetration pricing offers a discounted rate for a limited period of time in order to hook customers. It’s a tactic that’s used to increase market penetration and is best used when the transaction cost – the cost of switching to a competitor – is high. Penetration pricing is the reason Internet providers offer reduced fees for the first six months and why you can buy a trial subscription to the New York Times for 99 cents. It can be a powerful way to build market penetration.
Except when it’s not.
I’ve often said that High Holidays are the worst time of year to experiment with a new synagogue. The charm and character of many synagogues is drowned out by the roar of the High Holidays. Clergy who are usually personable are under added pressure from the crowds, and congregants who are usually warm are lost in the mayhem.
Penetration pricing is designed to give the consumer a taste of a top-quality experience, but too many synagogues take a break from their year-round nature at this time of year and shift into High Holiday mode.
Moreover, penetration pricing in synagogues is difficult, because transaction costs are quite low. Without deep roots connecting someone to clergy or congregants, switching from one “provider” to another is relatively easy.
A Facebook friend recently asked me about synagogue choices. When someone in the thread suggested a particular congregation, my friend replied, “I grew up there, but I was totally turned off when we had to pay to be members for the first years after we got married – $100 isn’t a lot of money, but after all the money spent on the wedding, it was the principle.”
Notwithstanding her childhood experiences and wedding in the synagogue, the transaction costs of switching were so low that she was ready for a change. Her post ended with the words, “and the membership fee after is crazy high.”
The synagogue plays a central role in my life. It’s where we build community, teach our children and mark the turning points in our lives. The challenge to today’s synagogue is not to hook members with low prices, but to demonstrate the value that belonging adds to the lives of congregants.
In searching for a synagogue, I believe that more than seeking a deal, my peers are looking for value – the recognition that synagogue affiliation adds value to our lives that’s greater than the price of High Holiday tickets.