Monday, August 21, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: The Ugly Truth

This is going to be a hard pill for some to swallow but here it is. Genealogical societies are made up of a bunch of old people who get their kicks from looking for the records of dead people.

OK, there I've said in print what most people (who aren't one of "us") think about genealogical societies. And it's hard to argue with the truth. Genealogical societies are in fact made up mostly of the over 60 crowd, the AARP crowd, the retired crowd. And in fact, the object of the game so to speak is to find records of people long into the hereafter. It's a perfectly respectable hobby, and those of us who are addicted to it can't understand why everyone else isn't. So, why is it that it sounds so unappealing to everyone?

The truth is, genealogical societies have an image problem. Our American society is phobic of old age. Think about it for a minute. Every other ad we see is for anti-wrinkle cream, plastic surgery... to look years younger, or hair color ads... to cover the gray. It's not fair, it's not right, but people will go to extreme lengths to avoid being associated with old age. In our society, youth is valued, old age is not. It's sad. It's very, very sad. But it's true.

In a recent Reuter's article we find a perfect example of this. "Sixty may be the new 40 but Bill Clinton hates it". Here we have a former President of the United States about to celebrate his 60th birthday and he's bummed about it, hates it in fact. "60 is the new 40" has become the mantra of baby boomers that are turning 60. They don't want to think of themselves as "old" so in essence they are propagating this image that 60 isn't so bad, in fact, it's just like being 40 again. So really, you shouldn't think of them as being old. Right. (The word "denial" comes to mind here.)

So, one aspect of the perception of genealogical societies that might be contributing to the decline in membership is that people may be resistant to joining a group perceived as being for old people. Another aspect of the image that has problems is the whole "looking for records" thing. Looking for records isn't sexy. It isn't exciting. And it isn't "cool". In fact, to most people's way of thinking it sounds boring. (Of course they've never experienced the Happy Dance we do when we've found that one document that gets us over the brick wall, so we have to be tolerant of their naivete ;-)

But seriously folks, looking for records isn't appealing. There's no cache there. Open a file drawer and invite someone you know to go looking for records and see if their face lights up with glee. Not gonna happen. "Solving a mystery" is cool, "sleuthing" is cool, "looking for records", is not cool. But genealogical research is really all of those things isn't it? But the images are so very different.

Is it important to be cool? It's important to be something that has positive attributes associated with it if you want new blood in your group. If it's fun to join, people will flock to your group. Just take a look at and you'll discover a group that isn't having membership problems. The website attracts 500,000 new members each week according to Wikipedia. And contrary to popular belief, it ain't all kids either!

The last point I would like to make on this subject is that the words "genealogical society" have a stuffy, scientific, academic, antiquated, and elitist sound to them. And just about every genealogical society has those words somewhere in its name. What's wrong with that? Nothing if that's the image you want people (read that: potential members) to have about your group. Is it? Or do you want people to think your group is personable, approachable, friendly, warm, fun, helpful, and family oriented?

It's time for a change. It's time for new thinking. It's time to redefine our groups and the way we've been doing things. Having a group of older people, with an academic and stuffy image, looking for records of deceased ancestors is an image whose time has come... and gone. It's time for an image makeover. This is a case of the old axiom, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". We aren't going to be able to reverse the tide of public opinion and convince everyone that being with old people and looking for records of dead people is cool. But we can redefine our groups as "search-happy sleuths seeking the gene line". Now see, doesn't that give a happier, friendlier, no-specific-age, and more fun connotation? No, I'm not suggesting that as a name but as a different way of seeing ourselves and our societies. It's all about marketing, my dears.

Next we'll look at redefining and reorganizing genealogical societies from the inside out. Time for a fresh coat of paint!