Monday, July 12, 2010

The Holy Grail: New Genealogists

The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has started surveying its eNews readers with single-question queries. Recently they asked their members how long they have been researching their family history. The largest group, 17%, reported that they have been researching for 30 to 40 years. All together 81% of the respondents have been researching for 10 years or more.

Interestingly enough only 7% reported researching less than five years and 1% less than one year. What this tells me is that NEHGS has done a great job branding to and retaining experienced genealogists but they are having more trouble reaching newer genealogists.

There has been a great deal of talk in the genealogical community about the impact of nationally-viewed programs such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Faces of America and African American Lives. It seems fair to say that these shows are having an impact on the interest of Americans in learning about their family history.

New genealogists are the Holy Grail for the genealogical community and, dare I say, the genealogical industry. They bring the opportunity to replenish our genealogical society memberships, fill our conference halls and bring their buying power to industry vendors large and small. The question is how to engage these new family historians. has done a full frontal assault to attract the attention of new family historians. They advertised heavily during the television programs and they have a broad advertising presence online. They have been very successful, from what I can see, in positioning themselves.

But not every organization or professional genealogist has the financial or PR power to attract the attention of new genealogists in the national media. What options are available for everyone else?

I don’t have all the answers but here are a few suggestions.


Bloggers have leveled the playing field by producing top-notch content that receives high placement in the search engines. In order to attract new genealogists, some focus will need to turn to creating entry-level content that guides new family historians on their journey. Blogs specifically for beginners should be placing special emphasis on their keywords and tags so that beginners can find them.


Genealogical societies should have at least two events per year targeted toward beginners. These could be open houses where the general public is invited in. NEHGS, in conjunction with, recently did this in Boston with a Family History Day and was rewarded with record attendance. Not every organization is going to have to mailing lists like NEHGS or, but if you advertise heavily locally and post flyers you should be able to draw a good crowd for your events.


Genealogical conferences need to focus on new areas to keep the buzz going – such as free classes on basic genealogy in the vendor hall (or a widely publicized track in the main program) and a blogger lounge. Bloggers are the face of the future. If you want to get the buzz out about your conference, embrace bloggers. I can’t emphasize this enough. We need to do little more than look at the recent Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree to see proof of this.

Vendors and Publishers

Times have been tough for genealogical vendors and publishers. This group needs to focus on partnering with organizations/conferences that are thinking out of the box and successfully trying to attract new family historians. They should be carefully watching who can draw a large crowd, who provides offerings for beginners and who is reaching out to bloggers.

All of the above

All of the groups above should be embracing social media in their attempts to engage new genealogists and family historians. It has been said many times that the internet has leveled the playing field for large and small organizations. This is still true. A consistent Facebook presence is key for organizations to reach out to their existing and potential members as well as attracting the elusive Holy Grail of new genealogists. Both large and small organizations have succeeded in this. Take a look at NEHGS and for examples of larger organizations. But also take a look at the smaller Cambridge, MA Historical Society and the Little Compton, RI Historical Society – both of whom do a terrific job of engaging stakeholders.

Not interested in Facebook? Then try Twitter. You can have a strong presence there as well. The Nova Scotia Archives and the Connecticut State Library both have strong visibility on Twitter. If you do choose to engage your target audience on social media, make sure that you have a plan to succeed. Too often social media is embraced with gusto only to be abandoned later after running out of steam.


  1. I love the personal approach of our little library group in Turners Falls, MA. We encourage the newbys and give them tips, but I'm not finding them "studying" the concept the way I did early on. I took the "How To" books out of the library and read them all.

    I think it takes some level of comfort or commitment to sign on to a conference. They sometimes think they aren't "there" yet. I enjoy giving beginner talks, because it still amazes me of the basics that they are missing out on. The community college has asked me to do another series in their Community Ed division - maybe that forum is less intimidating to a beginner than a full-fledged conference, even with beginner topics.

    I'm with you that Facebook is a good tool. Things change so rapidly with internet resources that it is great to have instant updates rather than waiting for a newsletter or other publication. I draw on your links and others for news, and also because it is fun to see what everyone else is doing!

  2. Sara, great point about classes and community colleges. I shouldn't have overlooked those.

  3. Great article Marion! I will be teaching a Genealogy for Kids session at the library in the winter. Maybe we will plant the seeds for future genealogists. Also I've found parents are often interested in the programs their children are taking.

    Any tips from you or your readers re kids genealogy activities are gratefully appreciated.

  4. So Marian,

    You are so right on about bloggers having a voice in the genealogical community. I think we are finally getting some recognition for the impact we have on the genealogical community.
    What type of genealogy blogs should there be more of? Are there too many of one kind already?

  5. Great great post and you are spot-on in your evaluation of the genealogy industry right now. The "newcomer" crowd is what I call the "bright and shiny object" crowd and they tend to easily gravitate (with the attention and their pocketbooks) to sites and services which may not best serve them.

  6. Great post! As a "newbie" (four years into this), I know that starting my blog and connecting with other bloggers is what did it for me. I have learned and contributed a lot these past four years and the sense of community I have with other bloggers has been more than that I've felt with the genealogy societies I've been a part of (one exception).

  7. Marian,
    The California Genealogical Society Library opens its doors to the public the first Saturday of every month for an Intro to Genealogy class. Many of our visitors come back for Beginners classes and become members. What's important is for members of societies to remember to roll out the welcome mat.

  8. Marian - great post. We here at NEHGS agree with you that new genealogists are key to a flourishing field and industry, and we're thrilled that we can help foster education and interest for family historians of all levels. We too are offering introductory classes for new genealogists, and we were thrilled by the response to our February "Family History Day" event in Boston. It's something we will certainly plan for again.

  9. Kathryn,

    It seems like you folks are doing everything right in California. You are a real role model for the rest of the country. I'm going to keep my eye on you!