Jan 12, 2023

Expanding the Reach of Genealogy Societies and Conferences

WARNING: This article contains personal opinions. The intended primary audience for this article is the members and officers of genealogy societies.

There are two contradictory “facts” floating around among genealogy societies, points that I hear discussed at almost all the genealogy conferences and meetings that I attend:

Fact #1: Genealogy is more popular today than ever before. It is the second or third or fourth most popular topic on the Web, depending upon whose sources you care to cite. 

Fact #2: Attendance at all genealogy venues is down. The average attendance at genealogy conferences is declining. (Note that I wrote “average.” There are some notable exceptions.) Membership in genealogy societies is also declining. Finally, the number of visitors to most major genealogy libraries reportedly is declining.

Is it just me, or does anyone else see a contradiction in these two “facts?” If interest in genealogy is growing, why aren’t we seeing more and more people at conferences, libraries, and society meetings?

I would like to offer some possible solutions to this quandary. 

In the past few years, I have attended dozens genealogy conferences in four different countries. I have also worked in genealogy society booths at two different non-genealogy events, one with a few thousand attendees and another with more than one million attendees. 

Over the past 40 years I have attended more than 150 regional, national, and international genealogy conferences and have visited several dozen genealogy societies. I have seen some ideas that worked well, some that did not work so well, and a few that totally fizzled. I am not sure if I am an expert in the topic of shrinking attendance, but a few observations stand out in my mind.

First of all, genealogy societies need to grow in order to succeed. To be sure, some societies have existed for years with a more or less stable number of members, or even with declining membership numbers. However, the societies that seem to succeed in producing new services and publications are those that are growing. Constant growth means new people joining with new ideas and invigorated interest levels. Newcomers soon gain experience and then become the “movers and shakers” within the genealogy community. Those who have been around for a number of years, conversing with the same people time after time, tend to settle in and enjoy the social aspects of the local society, but they do not strike out with new ideas and new energy levels. The genealogy societies with declining memberships rarely produce new and innovative products and services.

Next, when we (the long-term the members of genealogy societies) go to genealogy conventions to advertise our services and products, we are “preaching to the choir.” Who goes to genealogy conventions? The long-time genealogists who already know about our products and services! Yes, the attendees at genealogy conferences typically are those who have been researching their family trees for some time. They probably already know about your society and made a determination some time ago whether or not to join. The bigger the conference and the more people attracted, the truer this seems to be. 

For instance, I have attended 32 of the last 34 annual national conferences of the U.S. National Genealogical Society. I have also attended a number of other national, international, and larger regional conferences. You know who I saw at recent conferences? Mostly the same people that I saw the previous year and the years before. Some of those faces look very familiar; in many cases I think I have been seeing the same faces for 34 years! These are the people who already know about the services of your society. Exhibiting at national and local genealogical conferences may be a desirable thing, but it does not attract many new members!

What we need is new blood. We need those mysterious people who are buying the software and surfing the web’s genealogy pages and newsgroups. These people are in “stealth” mode; we know they are lurking out there someplace, but we have difficulty locating them. We need to attract these people to both local and national genealogy conferences. If they could become “hooked” at the conferences, I bet a significant number of them would join local and ethnic genealogy societies. Yes, they could energize societies as we watch membership begin to increase.

So, how do we find and interest these people? We (the old-time members of the societies) have to go to the potential newcomers. We cannot wait for them to come to us. We cannot go to genealogy conferences that keep attracting the same crowd and expect our membership numbers to grow as a result. We have to seek out the potential newcomers wherever they are. And I assure you that is not at genealogy conferences.

Some years ago I spent several days working in a genealogy society’s booth at the Eastern States Exposition, an event locally referred to as “The Big E.” This Exposition is similar to a state fair, except that it covers all six New England states. It was an eye-opening experience. More than one million people attended this 17-day event, and an estimated 750,000 of those people walked by the genealogy booth where I worked. To be sure, not all of the attendees stopped to talk, but thousands did. Yes, thousands. I think we (the society) talked with more people at this one 17-day event than we do the rest of the year at all the genealogy events combined.

Talking with the general public is a fascinating experience. To be sure, the conversations mostly were at an introductory level since most of these people had no idea who their great-grandparents were. We had a high-speed Internet connection in the booth and spent many hours looking at Social Security Death Index records, as well as a variety of Web sites in addition to our own. We handed out blank pedigree charts by the thousands, along with some advertising materials.

Not all of these people went home and started looking up their family trees that evening or the next day; but, a significant number did. I also believe that we planted many “genealogy seeds” that may not sprout for months or perhaps years. What we did do well is that we got many of these people to start thinking about their family heritage, people who would not have started that thought process if we only exhibited at genealogy events. I believe that some number of these people will join a genealogy society in the coming weeks, months, and years. Admittedly, I do not have an accurate yardstick to measure the success of our efforts at this non-genealogy event. All I have is intuition and some one-on-one feedback from individuals. Yet every staff member and volunteer who worked in the genealogy boot at this event has expressed satisfaction with our efforts and believes that we “did good.”

Other venues that would seem suitable for a genealogy society’s booth would include:

Any event that celebrates history, such as “Old Time Days”

Any ethnic heritage events, such as St. Patrick’s Day celebrations or Highland Games

State, county and local agricultural fairs

Civil War re-enactments

Revolutionary War re-enactments

Antique auto shows

Steam engine and old gasoline engine meets

I am sure that you can add to the above list. You can probably find other potential events within the next year in your vicinity.

In short, I would urge you and every other genealogy society member to creatively find new places in which to advertise your society’s products and services. While it is good to advertise to genealogists, it is even more important to generate publicity among those who never heard of your organization. In short, you need to advertise to the general public. The only way to do this is to go out and find the general public at the places where the public gathers. It works best if the people you talk to have at least a casual interest in history and/or heritage, such as the people who attend the types of events I listed above.

I am reminded of a very old joke that has been told millions of times. Many years ago, a shoe manufacturer felt they had saturated the U.S., Canadian, and European markets. They already sold millions of pairs of shoes every year but wanted to increase those sales even further. Seeking new markets, they sent a salesman to darkest Africa where there were no shoe manufacturers.

The salesman wired back to the home office, “The people here do not wear shoes. There is no opportunity to sell shoes. I am returning home rather than wasting my time any further.”

Undaunted, the home office sent another salesman known to have a unique way of looking at sales situations. A few days later he wired back, “The people here do not wear shoes. The potential market is unlimited! Please send all the shoes you can spare, I am going to stay and make a fortune!”

The joke is an old one but perhaps it does point out that new viewpoints and new approaches are needed. I would suggest that it is time to throw away some of the ideas we have held for years.

How does your genealogy society “sell” its services and products? Are you seeking new members/customers in markets that are already saturated? Or are you seeking opportunities in places where genealogy is unknown? Where are you most likely to find new members?

Has your genealogy or local history society had any success publicizing its efforts and attracting new members via nontraditional methods? If so, would you mind sharing your success stories so that others could benefit from your ideas?