Thursday, August 17, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: Making Your Organization Accessible

In previous posts, we’ve looked at the traditional methods that genealogical societies have used to educate their members on research methodology. The two primary ways are via face-to-face meetings and printed journals. Now it’s time to look at new ways to expand the society’s outreach to its members using internet technology as a communication tool. Please keep in mind that this technology isn’t new, it’s just new to genealogical societies. A few societies are already using the internet in limited ways but most barely take advantage of it with a web site let alone exploring new internet venues.

To begin with, think about having an organization-sponsored and monitored blog, forum and online chat sessions in addition to just a web site. If you don’t know what these things are, stop reading this right now and click on the links above. Educate yourself. It only takes a minute! We’ll look at how you can use them to offer education in a convenient, accessible, and appealing way to members and prospective members.

A blog is simply an online journal. There are as many different kinds of blogs as there are names in the phone book (phone book? Does anyone use that anymore ;-) You can start a blog for free at a number of different web sites, 3 examples are Yahoo, Blogger, WordPress. You don’t need to know how to do anything more than type to create and maintain a blog. You don’t even have to do it by yourself. These blog sites allow you to designate additional members or users who can create blog entries too. So no one person has to have sole responsibility for keeping the blog updated.

Think about it, if your organization has 10 executives and each one takes a turn on consecutive days that covers 2 weeks of posts (assuming you take weekends off). Invite a few of your more experienced researchers into the pot of Bloggers and pretty soon everyone only has to write a blog post once every three weeks but the blog gets updated with a fresh entry every day (M-F).

Topics can include posts that don’t require much if any research such as “reflections on my research thus far”, “here’s what I discovered about my family this week”, “here’s a great genealogy web site I found”, or “here’s how I organize my research notes”. Additionally, it would be nice to rotate in some actual content articles related to the focus of the organization such as “what to expect when you finally find your ancestor’s vital records in Galicia” (Steven Danko does an excellent job at this type of blog post). Each person contributing to the blog will bring their own flavor of post and you can even invite guest Bloggers to create a post from time to time.

This is such a simple thing to get off the ground, and it’s another venue for sharing information and educating your members. You might want to consider giving access to the blog only to dues paying members of your society but that’s a topic I’ll address in more depth in another post. The main point here is blogs are a great way to make your organization more accessible to the membership. It’s about outreach and connecting!

Another easy-to-use and great-to-offer venue for genealogical societies to consider is forums. A forum is the perfect venue for Q & As. People can post a question to the forum and anyone with the answer can respond. The questions and answers stay on the forum indefinitely and they are searchable. So it becomes a repository of commonly (and not so commonly) asked questions. This is a great asset for those members who can’t attend face-to-face meetings but would like some advice on their research. And this is another feature you might want to consider offering to members only, but more on that in a later post. To set up a free forum, check out ForumsPlace, MyFastForum, FreePowerBoards.

The key to having a successful forum is getting good traffic to the forum, meaning a lot of activity. If people post questions and no one responds the forum will not be popular. But presumably there are knowledgeable people in your organization that can jump in with responses. Again, it doesn’t have to fall to just one individual to have all the answers. The beauty of this sort of venue is in the sharing. And this is a venue that members who live out of state (out of the society’s geographic location) can participate in and benefit from!

The last of the trio of easy-to-create-and-use venues of internet technology I’d like to mention is chat rooms. I know, I know, chat rooms have gotten a bad rap because of the media. When people hear about chat rooms they tend to think about places that online sexual predators hang out. But truthfully, they are great communication tools that genealogical societies should consider offering. To begin with, you need to know that you can control who gets access to a chat room. If you set up an online chat at say Yahoo Messenger or AOL Instant Messenger, you can pick and choose who gets to enter the chat room. So you can offer a real-time online chat for society members (or If you’re a really good sport, to all interested parties who you’ve prescreened) with no real skill necessary beyond typing.

Like forums, this venue is ideal for Q & As but it’s different in a few ways too. First, the chat conversations aren’t permanent (or at least not automatically). When the designated chat time is over, the text disappears and isn’t searchable at a later date (unless someone saves it manually and loads it on another page I believe). Secondly, unlike forums, it’s done in real-time. So you don’t have to wait until someone comes along to answer your question. Thirdly, and this is the down side, participants have to install the instant messenging software on their computers to participate. But if they want to participate they will. And truly, installing the software is very easy. A regular chat session, say, every other Thursday at 9pm, can be a wonderful way to get members to share and connect with each other. This is an absolutely great feature to offer to members and potential members that live out of the area. And it's still convenient for those who live close by too! It’s another tool for making your organization more accessible.

So we’ve looked at how genealogical societies can offer blogs, forums, and online chats as a way to expand their outreach to members and give something more of value to out-of-the-area members. These things are so basic to internet technology these days that they are practically a “no brainer” to use. But those aren’t the only options. There are more, but the next few are newer technologies that involve more effort to make happen. But I think they’re worth the effort.

Next we’ll look at podcasts, Skypecasts, and wikis.