Monday, September 28, 2015

Learning From
the Other Side of the Fence

The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but even if we can't cross that barrier to get a nibble of the coveted stuff, we can still benefit from what cross-applies to our own discipline.

The other day I was reading something about marketing from a well-known online business resource—I told you I was an eclectic reader—when it dawned on me how pertinent that article was to our own experience in running local genealogical societies. Of course, it helped that the article was recommended by someone known to genealogists—Caroline Pointer in her Twitter stream—so maybe that was why I found it so easy to cross over from the marketing lingo to thoughts of improving our local genealogical society's efforts.

The article—10 Signs Your CEO Has an Outdated View of Marketing—appeared last Friday in HubSpot. (Hmmm...what was it about that title that immediately made my mind fly to thoughts of what younger genealogists say about genealogical societies? Some ideas I'll continue with, tomorrow.)

While I won't take the time here to rehash what HubSpot's blogger Nataly Kelly mentioned, here are a few thoughts prompted by taking the time to read it—applied specifically to updating and further developing our local genealogical society.

Who are you as a Society? We can't just presume all genealogical societies are alike. While, on the face of it, it may seem all societies focus on the same issue—genealogy, of course—there are a thousand approaches to representing that interest. More than that, I'm firmly convinced each society comes with its own personality. Granted, that personality will be a spin-off from who sits on the board, but it also manifests in which potential members end up being attracted to the society and motivated enough to join. Which closely aligns with the next question:

What is your Society's value proposition? If we think of our society's draw not so much as a beacon beckoning lost ships adrift at sea, but as a dialog of peers holding mutual interests, we see what we have to offer more as a process of entering into a partnership for mutually beneficial reasons. If we can't articulate what it is we are willing to provide, how will people with specific interests find us as potential partners? If we can't zero in on what that potential constituency is seeking, how can we address that perceived need?

What problems do you solve for your "customer"? Being able to put into plain language what your society can do for potential members appears self-evident from the name of most societies. "Your County's Genealogical Society" says it all, doesn't it? However, putting yourself in the shoes of someone considering becoming part of your organization may open your eyes to different ways to explain your mission. What does someone from the outside, looking in, expect as a satisfactory answer when wondering whether to commit to membership? I'll guarantee the answer they're seeking doesn't include the lingo we're accustomed to parroting on the inside. Clearly detailing what it is we're offering helps people decide whether to opt in.

What message does it take to build your "brand"? While words like "brand" don't seem to fit the profile of a nonprofit organization, genealogical societies do, in fact, represent their own kind of brand. Rather than thinking that all genealogical societies come with the same generic label, we need to realize what my society offers may be quite different than yours. The specific services offered, the benefits derived from them, and the way all that is packaged and experienced by the potential member—or even current members!—becomes a unique experience not replicated elsewhere. When we think of how much local memberships have fallen off since the introduction of online genealogical resources—and subsequently, how that attendance level may have risen, once customers realized there is something to be said for face-to-face interaction that can't be met via online research—the essence we are sensing is an aspect of branding. It's that irreplaceable something that brings customers back to say, "I choose you—again!"

How are you interconnected? This question has three components: interconnectivity with your members, with the surrounding community, and with other genealogical organizations. No organization can exist in a vacuum. It's my contention that the more we partner with others to achieve mutual goals, the more robust our organization becomes. We need to see our members as more than just those people who show up for monthly meetings; they, too, have resources which, shared, may build our organization. Rather than exist as an island surrounded by our city or county, when we seek out other organizations who share our mission, we build the kinds of win-win bonds that advance community-minded goals—and allow potential members to see the significance of our purpose. When other nearby genealogical organizations—or other community groups aligned with our mission—are willing to work together, the resultant magical synergy allows us to benefit from that value-added whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Before, we might not even have been able to afford that value-added whole.

In what ways can you build those stronger connections? This is a question for which I hope people will continue to jump in with their own input. We can all learn from each other. Every society has some bright ideas and great successes that can be replicated elsewhere. While every idea will need some customization to better craft the "fit" for our membership and our community, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Sharing ideas—through journal articles, membership in such groups as the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and through conference sessions like Jean Wilcox Hibben's facilitation of idea-sharing at Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree 2015—helps all of us adapt to changing times and challenging organizational scenarios.

Above: "A Group of Artists," 1929 painting by French post-impressionist artist Jules-Alexandre GrĂ¼n; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Our local Genealogy Society couldn't find a way to get along with each other so they disbanded and gave all their money and stamps and stationary to the historical member took many of the records home...never to be seen again:(

    1. I remember you telling me about that, Far Side. So sad to think a group couldn't find a way to work for the greater good of the community. There is so much that can be done collectively that far surpasses what one individual, alone, could accomplish.

  2. Great article that I would like to share with my Board of Directors. How can I do that??

    1. Jeff, this is so much at the heart of my concerns for the genealogy universe. Anything you can do to encourage local groups to re-think their role is great. I emailed you concerning your question...but if anyone else is asking, I may as well repeat it here for anyone else involved in the board of a local genealogical society: you have my permission to reprint this article IF you provide author credit (that would be me!) and include a hyperlink back to A Family Tapestry.

      I believe updating our societies and re-envisioning our role in the changing milieu of genealogical research opportunities is crucial. I want to do anything I can to help and encourage others to catch that vision and develop a workable plan that is right for their organization!

      And please, don't leave me in the dark after sharing this article. Please drop me a line (or leave me a comment) and let me know how things are going. We need to crowdsource our ideas--sharing what works is so helpful!

  3. Being in business with my brother - I think I'll attempt to answer some of those questions for my business!

    I find some of the lingo to be "eye-rolling". Heck, I even hate the phrase "grow the business." Sounds like one needs to pour manure on it and fertilize it!

    1. Too funny, Iggy! It's when we get mired in the lingo that stuff gets stuck. But when the thought was fresh, it did have its application--mainly to jar us out of our complacency into seeing things with fresh eyes. That's why thinking in analogies can be so helpful.

      I've found that reading thought leaders in fields other than our own can prompt some creative problem-solving. I'm probably the antithesis of marketing gurus, but lately I find their writing inspires me to see what I do in the field of genealogy--and especially in the administration of non-profit organizations like genealogical societies--in a different, more productive way.

  4. Amen. And amen. Thank you for the kind words, Jacqi. I'm often asked by genealogical societies, "How do we get more members?" My reply is always what is your cause...your mission and purpose? What do your bylaws say that you do? Are you doing that? Over and over? And are you communicating what you're doing over and over? Today's world is quite visual and with today's technology we are blessed with an easy way to capture images and video. So, snap those pics, take some quick amateur video and convey what you do over and over again. People like to be part of something and a cause that is bigger than them, not another program. They are attracted to action. So that has to be conveyed. Many genealogical societies are fundraising in various ways to fulfill their preservation and access missions. So, capture that and share that over and over again via all your marketing channels — print, website, social media channels, etc. People naturally want to be a part of an active society which knows its purpose and mission and is singularly focused on accomplishing their missions and who conveys that in numerous ways. Examples: Indiana Genealogical Society, NEHGS, NYG&B, Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society (recently donated the money to pay for a summer intern archivist for the Tennessee State Library and Archives), etc.


    1. Caroline! Thanks for stopping by. You've mentioned several pertinent ideas here. It does all jell with that question, "How do we get more members?" And point back to that essential core mission. The more unified those actions are with that mission--the more each event resonates with the organization's purpose--the more successful that Society will be.

      I particularly appreciate your point: "People naturally want to be a part of an active society which knows its purpose and mission."

      I think the more we societies share ideas and discuss our mutual organizational challenges among ourselves, the more likely we are to prepare ourselves to remain pertinent in the changing context of our times. Thanks so much for stopping by and continuing the conversation! I hope we all continue to pursue those ideas in our own areas, as well.


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