Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lessons Learned from WDYTYA at #FGS2013

Who Do You Think You 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.”

Shoup spoke at the Breakfast Saturday morning of the 2013 conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Shoup is senior vice president of product for

“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, 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?” 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.


  1. 100% agree. If organizations want to engage more people in family history, they should "ask the experts" - Who Do You Think You Are producers.

  2. As a WDYTYA researcher for several episodes, I must say clients' are asking more informed questions, referencing what they have seen on the show. Now we still have the humorous requests of "can you find that in a week?", but the sharing of historical documents, historical context and local repositories sparks the curiosity of viewers. Looking forward to more episodes, diversity, and sharing on WDYTYA and similar shows.

  3. One of my favourite shows. I love how they start with what the client's know, and let them guide where they want to go. I particularly enjoy that they take the person to the areas that their ancestors lived in which provides some context, then to the archives, libraries etc. looking at specific record types, learning and understanding as they go, they seem to have a deeper understanding of who they are and deeper respect for their heritage. Looking forward to more episodes.

  4. Two critiques of WDYTYA as an amateur genealogist and an avid lover of history. First , a few of the stars this season seemed to have no historical background for the period they were researching and were totally shocked. I'm sorry, but I would have thought someone would have given Kelly Clarkson a brief History lesson on the Civil War - after they found out she had not studied it during High School. Also, the average person can't jet across the country or world to access records or sites. There are 10 or 12 really good genealogical libraries scattered across the country that participate in the inter-library loan program. if they don't have the record you need.

    Yes, WDYTYA is a great show and given me great ideas, but it generally isn't as easy as the show makes it appear and seldom do you have as much closure.

  5. Thank you for coming to the breakfast, and for capturing notes from Eric's presentation. There are a lot of great lessons to be learned from this type of show - top 5 noted above - and hopefully, the stories we share via this format do inspire more people, from several generations, to start looking into their own family histories.

    And then for all of us to be there - ready to help - when they need it.

    Kristie Wells
    Director, Global Social Media and Customer Engagement


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