Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ancestry.com's Key Messages

In a previous life I somehow landed in an executive position without an MBA. Perhaps it was my lack of proper schooling that prompted a communications executive to arrange for some media relationship training. I learned that companies, spokespersons, candidates and politicians prepare to meet the public and the press by deciding the key messages they wish to communicate. Speeches, advertising, trade show messaging, press releases, press campaigns and pre-prepared answers to press questions are crafted to best communicate the key messages. That's why politicians often sound like they are evading questions; they respond with prepared key messages instead of addressing the questions addressed to them.

Ancestry.com has an excellent PR guy, Mike Ward, so it came as no surprise to me when mid-afternoon Friday (Bloggers' Day), it hit me that there were several messages common to almost every presenter. At the time, I thought there were only two key messages. Companies have to keep the number pretty limited; people just can't pick up more than a half-dozen, tops. Three or four key messages is probably optimal.

Andrew Wait, Sr. VP and GM Family History at the Generations NetworkAndrew Wait, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Family History, was our host for Writers' Day. Somehow I never got to spend any time with Wait when I worked at Ancestry.com, so I didn't know him. Wait did a great job communicating the key messages. He seamlessly integrated them into his presentations. You see, you don't want your key messages to sound flaky or forced. The messages become less believable that way.

Several times throughout the day Wait reiterated that Ancestry.com knew that various aspects of the website don't work well, that they had made wrong decisions at times, that they were working hard to fix the problems and even stuff they were pleased with could still be improved. At different points, Wait shared several anecdotes about his wife's use of Ancestry.com, at one point sending us into loud guffaws when he announced that his wife would divorce him if he were ever to do away with Old Search. He was completely believable, authentic and open. Hat's off to Andrew Wait.

Mike Wolfgramm, Senior Vice President, Development, made a couple of presentations during the day. Wolfgramm showed obvious enthusiasm for Ancestry.com's technology, server architecture and content pipeline processes. He did an excellent job explaining some pretty complicated technologies and it was apparent that he enjoyed working at Ancestry.com. When I worked at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org always did a much better job communicating how awesome the technology was that they were developing to digitize their vault holdings. Friday, Wolfgramm did a credible job claiming that Ancestry.com was doing some innovations of their own.

It was during our tour of Ancestry.com's content production facility that I became aware that we were repeatedly hearing key messages when a couple of the male presenters, after explaining their area's role in production, made virtually identical tangents, talking about passion and caring and doing genealogy.

Tim Sullivan, President and CEO of the Generations NetworkTim Sullivan, President and CEO, concluded his Saturday night speech, indeed the entire evening, with these three messages:

  1. Ancestry.com employees are real people who care about their work, want Ancestry.com to work well and use it themselves.
  2. "We're having a blast doing what we do," Sullivan said, and
  3. "We'll continue to make mistakes, but our hearts and our passions are in the right place."

I immediately recognized all three as the key messages we had heard over and over, all day Friday. More importantly (for the Generations Network, at least), after what I had seen and heard, I believed him.


  1. 1. Ancestry.com employees are real people who care about their work, want Ancestry.com to work well and use it themselves.
    2. "We're having a blast doing what we do," Sullivan said, and
    3. "We'll continue to make mistakes, but our hearts and our passions are in the right place."


    Re #1: Their caring about their work, while I don't doubt they do care, they clearly don't care enough because their tolerance for error by either their own employees or vendors is too high, and doubly so for not correcting known errors or taking forever to do so. Bottom line is they need to care more about putting out a quality product with truly as little error as possible.

    Also they need to act like the customers matter in their communication with them, which starts with acknowledging a communication. Refusal to answer message board posts or only doing so belatedly is a horrible and disrespectful practice. And while doubtless Ancestry like other companies would prefer error reporting be done privately through phone calls or automated systems, if they have a true commitment to fixing problems promptly then public discussion of errors would not be damaging to their image.

    Re #2: Who cares? What does that mean to me as a customer? I don't mean to be overly snarky here, but that "passion" stuff is PR buzz mostly.

    Re #3: See comments on #1. While any organization is always going to make well intentioned mistakes, too many of Ancestry's are due to poor planning and design, poor execution, and a refusal to correct mistakes before moving on to other projects.

    The only reason Ancestry does not pay a higher price business wise for its errors and poor customer service attitudes is that it is the biggest in depth of content and the competition at present are poor alternatives if one is only going to subscribe to one. Footnote looked as if they were going to be a serious threat, but from your doppelgänger's unofficial Footnote blog, it looks as if they now are going the route of declining investment in content acquisition (plus he got canned).


  2. I am so fed up with pages at ancestry.com that do not work. When I call for customer service all I get is some lame excuse for how I can completely redo my internet exployer, instead of someone at ancestry.com trying to fix the problem they created by creating programs with bugs. I have to tell anyone considering a membership to NOT DO IT. You will be able to view lots of information, but you'll be agrivated to no end because you cannot save it or work with it.

  3. Dear Mike and Westgalady,

    It would be most helpful to ancestry users, potential subscribers, and to Ancestry.com decision makers if you could list specifics.

    -- The Insider


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.