Friday, August 25, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: Two Plans for Marketing Your Group

Boy, I have a lot of ground to cover here because there's so much room for improvement in the way genealogical societies market themselves. Let's face it, most don't do any marketing at all. But there is so much competition out there for people's hobby time that you have to find a way to draw attention to your group (and entice people to join) or they won't stand out from the crowd. Let's try to keep this simple with two 3-step plans. The first plan will be for general things you can do to help with marketing your group. The second plan will be specific to marketing on the internet.

3-Step Plan for Marketing Your Genealogical Society

There is no substitute for a professional image. Having a professional image makes your group look more organized, more substantial, and more serious. So make the "face" that you show the public as professional as possible. And then "show your face"!

1. Start with a professionally designed logo. If you don't have someone in your organization that is trained to do this than you need to find someone who is. There is no substitute for someone trained in graphic design when it comes to creating a logo. Now this doesn't have to cost a lot of money. If there's no one in your group who can do it, make a call or stop by your local community college or high school. Ask to speak to the department head of the art/graphic design program. Tell them you need a new logo for your not-for-profit group. Most instructors and program directors love having real-life projects for their students to tackle. They could even turn it into a competition among the students. You could offer the winner a $25-$50 gift certificate at Best Buy, or wherever, and you've just bought yourself the best value money can buy for a well designed logo.

I participated in one such competition as a student (I won too!). The logo happened to be for a new restaurant but that really doesn't make any difference. I can tell you that the competition was great fun. There were a lot of great logos to choose from and it was a win-win situation for everyone.

You could take it a step further and invite your local media to the final judging. Not only does the winner get his/her name in the media (which all struggling designers need to do to establish a reputation for themselves), but your organization is getting free press coverage as well.

2. Get a professional publicist to write up some pitches (pay them if you have to!) that have a cross gender, cross generational appeal. Think fresh! It doesn't have to be a big budget item and it doesn't have to be done on an ongoing basis. If there isn't anyone with PR or advertising experience within your organization, consider another trip to your local community college or high school. What you're looking for is a byline or tag line to use along with your logo. You'll put it on your group's stationary, business cards, web site, etc. PR professionals are trained to put a positive spin on things. They're all about promotion. They can help you come up with catchy slogans to grab people's interest. Some communities have business retirees who volunteer to do some consulting for small business owners. This is another source you can tap for help with advertising/PR.

3. Print up business cards that have your logo, slogan, group's name, web site address, and meeting dates/times/places if the group meets regularly. Have a batch of business cards printed up. Business cards don't cost much to print. You can order them online in large quantities if need be. What you're then going to do is give a dozen or so to every member in your group. Include them in initial membership or renewal packets or pass them out at meetings with the instruction to "become an ambassador for the organization".

Members should be encouraged to pass out these cards to anyone they have a casual conversation with when they're at the library doing genealogy research, chatting with someone at the bus stop, or even leave one with a tip for their favorite waitress. The point is to use these cards like a mini brochure for the organization. Ask group members to talk up the group whenever they get the chance... and pass out those business cards! Leaving brochures around the library is fine, but leaving a marketing piece with someone after a personal conversation inviting them to visit the group will have much more impact. Remember, genealogy is a people-based hobby if ever there was one. Word of mouth advertising by your members is a very personal and powerful resource. Use it!

3-Step Plan for Marketing Your Genealogical Society on the Internet

You must use smart marketing for your group, especially in terms of the internet. While it's important to have valuable content on the organization's web site so that people will visit and make return visits, you don't want to give it all away to the public or there's no incentive for them to become members. I am a big promoter of making content information available and accessible on the internet. But, you should carefully select a feature(s) or venues that are for the exclusive use of members only. It will become an enticement for visitors to join the group.

1. Have a "member's only" section of the website and give them access to information that the public doesn't have access to. You're already doing that with the society's journal. The society's meetings may be open to the public but everyone who attends a meeting doesn't get a copy of the latest journal. Only dues paying members get the journal. Treat the society's web site the same way. A very simple way to do this is to start a Yahoo Group. For those who aren't familiar with the concept of a Yahoo Group see my previous post. In this case, the idea would be to make the Yahoo Group private to dues paying members only. When members register with the society they would need to give an email address and then the Yahoo Group's moderator (appointed by the society) would "invite" them to join the group and in this way control who gets access and who doesn't. Once they login to the Yahoo Group they would have access to group member messages, databases, photos, polls, files, links and calendars. The society could upload selected files, databases, photos etc. here for member access only. This would have to be strategically planned content that members would find of value, not simply a collection of past newsletters. Offer some information they can't easily access elsewhere and you've just given them a reason to join your society. You'll also need to describe this "member's only" content on the society's web site so that people who visit the site will learn about it. Just be careful not to over do it and put too much of your content into the "members only" section. If you do that you'll start to see a drop in the traffic to your web site. There are some people out there who are only interested in free and you don't want them to stop coming to your site. The amount of traffic to your web site is one element in the algorithm that search engines use to determine rankings. And you want your society's web site to be highly ranked.

2. You also should have a plan to market your organization on the internet. There is an entire industry built around search engine marketing, that's how important it is. It's not enough to just get your organization's web site listed with a major search engine or two. You need to go beyond a mere listing to one that gets people to actually click on the link to your society's web site. There's a craft to that. If I type the words "Polish vital records" into Google, I get 1,510,000 results. And that's just today. Tomorrow there's likely to be even more (because the internet is always growing ;-). But searchers will rarely look past 3 pages of search results. That's the industry average. So you need to get your organization's site listed in those first few pages to drive potential members to your web site. And your organization's site needs to be well listed for a variety of search terms, because "vital records Poland" will get you an entirely different set of results (2,040,000 of them, today, in Google, to be exact), than did "Polish vital records". And if you have good information about finding vital records in Poland on your organization's web site you need to make sure it's submitted properly to the major search engines so that your site comes up in the first few pages for all relevant search terms. And you need to make sure that the information that comes up when the listing appears in Google's search results is current. At some point I'll write a separate blog post on the dos and don'ts of search engine marketing. But for now what your web master needs to know is that search engines like Google, Yahoo, and all the others, index your site based on text. So they better have text on your society's home page and that text better include key search terms that people are likely to use when looking for the information you have on your site.

3. Probably the most important thing you can do to promote your society and its web site is to frequently add new content to the site. The more often the better. People will visit more if they find some new content when they do. That may mean that you'll have to reassess the time/talents of the volunteer members and their roles in the society. You may need to have more people writing for a blog than the printed journal. Or you may need to invite guests to write a blog post. Of course Blogs aren't the only answer, but they are probably the quickest and easiest way to add fresh content to a web site on a regular basis.

So we've covered two 3-step plans for marketing your genealogical society. They aren't all-encompassing plans but hey, if your group doesn't have a marketing plan now it's a good place to start. Next I'll post some of my thoughts on writing this series of articles and give a last little bit of advice.