Ancestry.com has done surveys a number of times. “Almost consistently, every time, 80% of people say they have an interest in learning about their family history,” Eric Shoup said. “They want to learn something cool about themselves.”
“We as the leaders in this space,… it is incumbent on us to try and get as many other people involved in this great hobby as we can,” he said. For many people who come to a website or a library to become involved in genealogy, the experience is not what they expected.
“Where might we look for inspiration about the best way to engage people in family history?” he asked. It is not Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, other websites, or a library. “It is Who Do You Think You Are.”
Shoup said that in the United Kingdom the show has had 14 seasons where the average viewership is 4 million viewers per episode. Here in the United States on NBC, the average was 5 million. Halfway through last season 26 million unique people had seen the show. Add up subscribers to the various websites, members of the LDS Church doing genealogy, and everyone else actively engaged and there probably isn’t that many people. The show is bringing in more people at a higher rate than anything else we are doing.
So the question is, “What can we learn from Who Do You Think You Are about engaging people in family history?” And, “How can we apply it to what we do?” Ancestry.com believes there are five lessons we can learn from the show for engaging people in Family History.
1. Experts are essential.
It was fun to see several of the experts who have appeared in the show sitting in the room. Shoup called out Josh Taylor, who has been in four or five episodes. “He’s a reoccurring character now,” joked Shoup. (Gosh. When you think about it, Josh has appeared even more than any of the stars!) Shoup made the point that relative to the average person, we are all experts. “It is important for you to share your knowledge,” he said. “And you should be soliciting help from others in areas that are not your expertise.”
We need to think about the 80%. A lot of those people don’t want to become experts.We need to have proper expectations about what we can expect from them. Not everyone is going to be interested in citations or research or going into archives. We’ve got to guide them. “That is our job as experts.”
2. Records are a means to an end.
They guarantee that the story is real. They enable us to do family history. Records are the key to authenticity. “More importantly, they are the launching pad to the story.” When we find a census record, we need to look at what story it tells about our ancestors’ lives. “We need to suck the marrow out of these records to see what story is being told,” he said. As experts we can see what the story is in ways that others can not.
3. Context is key.
Many times we don’t have the full story. Basic records are great, but they don’t always tell what that person’s life was like. Personal accounts, societal themes, historical events, and period photographs add needed context.
4. Know your audience.
There are different approaches to sharing to different groups at different times. Not everything is of equal interest. “Talk about the ‘greatest hits’ in your tree.” And make sure they see their meaning to you.
5. Beat them at their own game.
We as individuals can do better at engaging the 80% than Who Do You Think You Are can. Unlike with a television show, the “viewers,” our friends and relatives, can interact with us, the “stars.” It’s a dialog. We can make it extremely personal.
Shoup said that to engage that 80% of the human race who want to learn about their family history, it is up to us. We can do so if we will learn and apply the lessons from Who Do You Think You Are.