Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: A Vision for the Future Starting with Redefining the Membership Pool

Redesigning and reorganizing a genealogical society has to start with a vision. This vision is not limited to the mission of the organization but rather an image that encompasses who the members will be, how the group will function, as well as the purpose or mission of the group. For now we'll assume that the purposes of genealogical societies haven't changed from those I outlined in my post of August 15th. To reiterate:

Most genealogical societies have as their main purpose to share and educate members about genealogical research methodology. Secondarily, most also see themselves as social opportunities for those interested in researching their family histories. Beyond that, purposes and definitions become more individualized for each organization.

So we'll leave that as is with the assumption that it still holds true and move on to look at the other aspects of our vision.

First let's look at who the current members of genealogical societies are with an eye towards increasing the membership. One common denominator among genealogical societies is the predominance of seniors on the membership rolls. In the past, genealogical societies were made up almost exclusively of seniors. Partly this was because younger people were too busy raising their own families or out partying to stop and think about the families of their ancestors and partly because it was a very time intensive hobby and many people didn't have that kind of time for a hobby until they retired. But that has changed tremendously with computers and the internet. Now younger people with families can fit in a half hour here and there to go online to do some searching. And web sites like EllisIsland.org, and Ancestry.com are making it easy to actually find a good bit of information in that half hour! Same is true for singles, and college students. And they are more likely to have some success (read that: get hooked) in a short period of time than in the days before computers. It hasn't come to the point yet where all of our genealogical research can be done online. But more and more information is available on the net every day. We're heading in that direction.

The reality is that the potential member pool that genealogical societies draw from today and have drawn from in the past, that being seniors without computer skills, is shrinking by natural attrition and by the availability of affordable computers and relatively easy access to computer user classes. The pool is shrinking and it will continue to shrink until it no longer exists because the next generation, the Baby Boomers, is pretty darn computer literate as a group. They've had to adapt to using computers as they've been phased-in in the workplace. They are retiring in droves or reducing their workload to part time. They have the time, the tools, and the skills to do genealogical research online. And their preferred "go to" place for research is the internet. It's becoming the "go to" place to socialize as well. So guess what? If genealogical societies want to stay in business they'd better find a way to tap into this pool of potential members. And they better be ready to play their game with computer skills being a given or they won't be able to attract them or keep them as members.

And behind the Baby Boomers are Gen Xers and Gen Yers. These folks grew up with computers and video games in the home as well as at work. You won't have to bring them up to speed on computer skills to do genealogical research. Just point them in the right direction and off they'll go, stopping now and then at an online chat room or message board for some advice along the way. These are the potential genealogical society members of tomorrow. But they can also be members today if you market to them, and if you don't frustrate them with the traditional research and education methods of old.

A good many of these younger potential members are used to Nintendo and Xbox games that require quick reflexes and instant feedback. They are used to much more immediate gratification than the seniors of today are. If you're going to capture and hold their interest and membership you'd better be ready with a whole new model for genealogical societies, because they're not going to wait until next month to attend your face-to-face traditional meeting or next quarter to read your journal.

Of course there are those who will be quick to remind me that most people will still need to research beyond what is available online. And that's absolutely true. But it's also true that with each new database or document that goes online the ultimate length of time it takes to make substantial progress on their family tree is shortening. There are less and less documents that have to be found on microfilm or requested by snail mail. The LDS has already started their project of putting all of their many, many thousands of rolls of microfilmed documents online. This is a one way street folks. There's no going back to the old way of doing things.

So what does all this mean in terms of gaining members? It means that genealogical societies need to broaden their outreach to include people not considered likely candidates for memberships in the past. They must pump new blood into their organizations from a huge pool of potential members out there that they can't afford to ignore. They must change their orientation from traditional to adaptive. They must announce, advertise, and promote their groups where the potential member pool lives. We're talking, cafes and coffee houses, college campuses, recreation centers, workout facilities, and online of course (see my previous post of August 18th) in addition to the more traditional places like church bulletins, community newsletters, and public libraries.

Is that it? Is it as simple as redfining our member base? Do we just promote/advertise our societies to this new pool of members and they'll jump on board? Well, no. It's not that simple. You have to make your organization appealing to them. You have be the kind of organization that they want to join.

Next we'll look at a new model for a reorganized genealogical society and how it would function with the goal of appealing to this new pool of potential members.