10 Ways Your Genealogy Society Might Be Driving Away Visitors

There’s a secret about attendance at genealogy society meetings. It isn’t enough to get people in the door. You have to get them to come back.

Thumbs downI’ve been to a lot of genealogy society meetings over the years. I mean A LOT of meetings. Large societies, small societies, societies in the country and societies in the city. None of them have reported an overabundance of attendees at their regular meetings.

I’ll be honest. There have been times when I’ve sat in these meetings and thought, “You know, it’s no wonder only a handful of people come here regularly. Who would want to come back?”

Attendance is a recurring issue with some churches. Thom S. Rainer noticed this and did a Twitter survey about why people didn’t make return visits to a church. The top 10 list of responses sounded very familiar to me — and very applicable to genealogical societies. I have seen each of them happen in genealogy societies. I’ve adapted Dr. Rainer’s language and added my own commentary.

1. Having a stand up and greet one another time

Rainer reported that this response surprised him. It surprised me, too, until I thought about it. Think about a time when you’ve been introduced to a new group of people, such as being the new kid in class. Suddenly, all eyes are on you and you’re put on the spot. Who enjoys being in that position? My takeaway: Make people feel welcome without making them feel singled out.

2. Unfriendly members

Who wants to come back to a place where people ignore you or are rude to you?

3. Unsafe/unaccessible area

Rainer reported this as “unsafe or unclean children’s area,” which was a turn-off for attracting families with young children. For genealogy societies, we should evaluate if the meeting places are easily accessible and safe. Are there lots of stairs? Is the parking lot well-lit?  Accessibility could also be looked at in terms of meeting days and times. Is Monday at 3:00pm the most accessible time for people to attend?

4. No place to get information

Don’t assume that people know things like upcoming meetings, special events, or member benefits. Have a clearly-marked area where people can get this information.

5. Bad website

Don’t even get me started on this one. People might not even make it to your meeting if your society has a bad website. All of the basic info should be there, including the address and time of your meetings. I wish I had a dollar for every website that said something like “We meet the 2nd Tuesday of the month at the firehouse.” Uh, which firehouse? What time?

6. Poor signage

You know that the meeting room is up on the 2nd floor at the end of the hall, but new people might not. Make it as easy and painless as possible to find you.

7. Insider language

Don’t lose people with jargon. Rainer’s favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.” I’ve heard similar examples at genealogy society meetings. “March 31 is the deadline for SAs for the CPF.” Huh?

8. Boring or bad meetings

Because who wants to come back if the meeting is boring? Do you really need to have an hour-long business meeting every time or do you do it because you’ve always done it that way?

9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat

Hard to believe this happens, but it does.

10. Dirty facilities

I’ve been to meeting spaces where the carpet stains appeared to be a few decades old. It doesn’t make for a welcoming experience.

We don’t like to think of things like clean rooms or unclear signs as keeping people from returning. We certainly don’t like to think of our members as being a source of frustration for new people. However, all of it has an impact.

It’s cliché to say that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. But you know what? It’s true. Take a good look around at your society. What first impression is it making?

Walking away

Are your first-time visitors walking away and not coming back?

29 thoughts on “10 Ways Your Genealogy Society Might Be Driving Away Visitors

  1. jsandelw

    I would most definitely agree with 1, 2 and 8. There is another reason too and that is the genealogy group isn’t up to speed with new ideas and techniques. Subject matters seem to focus on what most of us have been doing for yours. One new example is DNA. I recently went to a large gathering for the first time. Only 2 of these “well-seasoned” genealogists had even had their DNA tested. It had only been tested on ancestry and they weren’t even sure what information they should expect. I didn’t return.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      That’s a great point. The topic of the meeting is so important to engaging people. Just rehashing the same ol’ stuff doesn’t generate any excitement. I’ve been on the program committee for several societies and state and national conferences; I know that it’s well-nigh impossible to please everyone all the time. However, if all you’re doing is hearing topics that the program chair wants to hear about, it’s probably time to shake things up a bit.

    2. Robin Thackston

      I agree Amy- they want to remain with the “tried and true”. While I so agree with this approach, newbies attend to learn first, socialize second. These older groups will “all pass away” before long and the sad part is they cant see beyond that. Enjoyed reading your comment and agree.

  2. Cara Jensen, historical researcher

    These are great tips for any group – I’m going to save this list for future reference – thanks!

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Thank you, Cara! It’s true that it’s not just genealogy societies that do these things. Maybe that’s why I find it so frustrating. We see these things happening in other groups we want to belong to, yet we do them ourselves.

  3. Karen Palmer

    Another one is the meeting turning into a coffee klatch. I’ve been to a meeting where genealogy wasn’t even mentioned let alone discussed.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Ouch! I love a good conversation over a cup of coffee as much as the next person, but if I’m at a genealogy society meeting, I want that conversation to be about genealogy.

  4. Mrs Hobus

    Great list! Thanks for posting. Completely agree with #1 and #8 as I have experienced those myself. #1 feels like a horror show and #8 makes me wonder why I came and the zillion other things I could be doing. Expanding on #8, well #5 & #7 for that matter, is the lack of volunteer opportunity information. What projects are the society doing and how to get involved? Many meetings do not provide project updates or do so with such insider language that a newbie has no idea it is a volunteer opportunity.

    I would like to add another item:

    11. Meeting in a private home. Feels like crashing a private party.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Yes! What is your society working on — and how is that project progressing?! So important to building excitement within and about your society! If it’s worth doing, it’s worth talking about. Thanks for sharing that reminder!

  5. Dave Liesse

    I like the thought behind #1, but with our meeting structure it would be a tad redundant. We have a social period for up to an hour before the presentation, which comes before our business meeting. It looks like I’m going to be President of our society for the next 2 years, so I think I’m going to push to change our current practice of doing exactly what this item advocates against. I’ll suggest that we identify newcomers somehow when they sign in and at the business meeting remind everyone to make them feel welcome. We just got booted from our old location (the State of Washington decided after how many years to start enforcing its law regarding how many times a church can rent its facilities to non-charitable organizations) and in our new place we have time to socialize after the meeting, as well.

    The program issue will be another challenge. It’s hard to anticipate what the members want when they (a) don’t respond to the monthly request to tell us what they would like to hear, or (b) don’t respond to our periodic surveys on the matter. Unfortunately, it’s like society at large (I’ve seen the same thing in my model railroad groups) — people just want to come, sit on their hands, and be entertained. No one wants to make any effort to get involved. But that’s a topic for another time!

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I would advise going very carefully on recognizing new people. In all of the comments I’ve seen here, on Facebook and on Google+, people really don’t like to be singled out. In my experience, genealogists tend to be introverts (with some notable exceptions). The key, IMO, is to make them feel welcome without singling them out. It’s pretty rare to find a person who truly enjoys being called upon in front of a group of strangers.

      Programing is always a challenge! Being the program chair is one of the hardest jobs in any type of society. When you ask them what they want to hear, are you giving them multiple choice or are you leaving it as a “fill in the blank”? Try doing it as multiple choice, to help make the decision easier for them. Maybe list 10 things and say “Mark the 3 topics that you’d most like to hear about.” That way, people don’t have to come up with the topics; they just have to express a preference, which is much easier to do.

    2. Mrs Hobus

      I agree with Amy on pointing out people. She is very accurate that people HATE this. Regardless of how nicely a new person is asked to introduce themselves, it still feels like a blinding spotlight and “Where were you on the night in question?” People may not return. If you have socializing before and after, you shouldn’t have any need for mass introductions. It would be nice for the president to introduce themselves to the newbies during networking time. Then you could ask what the person is excited about or where they are stuck, thus giving you topics for future meetings or speakers. Also, Amy’s idea of a list of items for ranking is great. People don’t know what they don’t know so prompting is necessary.

  6. murkeo01

    Having too much going on in one meeting – I went to a meeting as a guest and there was a team of three speakers who were going to talk about FindAGrave, Ancestry search, and then a walk through of someone’s genealogy (someone new who did not know how to do anything). Each of the three were good and had lots of information – too much for one meeting and by the time they got to the third person (who had 40 minutes of information that she ran through), it was mind numbing. Each could have been a stand alone topic (and should have been). We lost out on learning about the genealogy case study because it was an 90 minutes into the evening meeting, people were tired, I was worried about the pet I had left outside as it was now raining/ We lost out on some very interesting learning because they tried to pack too much in. And I would think twice about going back because it was overwhelming.

  7. Linda

    Sorry to say I agree with your article. My locate Historical Society has a VP who needs her ego feed all the time. The meeting are not fun.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Good point. The closest that I want to a political rant at a genealogy society meeting is whether your grandma’s sister is your grand-aunt or your great-aunt. 😉

  8. Amy Archibald

    I have yet to have a society provide me enough reason to join. And all the negatives I have heard about societies have outweighed any positives. Actually, I haven’t heard any really good convincing positive reasons to join a society.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I’m really sorry to hear that you’ve had such a negative experience, Amy. Societies can be wonderful! I’ve learned so much and have discovered more ancestors because of genealogy societies. They are the local “subject experts” when it comes to knowing about the records in the area — what exists, where they are, how to get access. They publish records. They provide educational opportunities. They work to keep records open. They help clean up cemeteries. Sure, there are some lousy groups out there. But I firmly believe that the field of genealogy wouldn’t be where it is today without genealogy societies — and that genealogists today are better off when they utilize this wonderful resource! It’s why I’m so passionate about societies improving and putting their best foot forward.

  9. Robin Thackston Paulding County Georgia

    Experience has shown me this so far:
    Constant UPDATED EDUCATION for the membership and officers alike needs to be priority; When you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got- stalemate.
    When you know better- you need to do better.
    Folks don’t visit/join genealogy societies to hear business; they come to learn and seek others who share the passion. If your business is the priority of your meetings- CHANGE NEEDS TO COME.
    Every visitor and new member is as important and valuable as the last one entering the membership; realize you’ve already allowed a preservationist, archivist, photographer, accountant, carpenter, and educator to leave the meeting without being spoke to, made to feel welcome or needed. The Old Regime hasn’t set the example of extending themselves to newbies.
    Volunteers need not only to be thanked, but thanked often. Those volunteers are leaders in the making- or do you resent volunteers that become leaders who bring change?
    Keeping a beautiful blooming plant on the coffee table without sunshine and water- essential for its survival- is a sure death.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      “Keeping a beautiful blooming plant on the coffee table without sunshine and water- essential for its survival- is a sure death.” — That sums it up rather well, Robin.

    2. Robin Thackston Paulding County Georgia

      I was thinking this afternoon about visitors and new members I.m responsible for reaching after meetings, offering encouragement and assistance wherever needed. People are changing in today.s fast paced electronic life, they don’t want to be put on the spot, stop their pace to communicate or connect. There.s too much time spent leaving messages that aren’t listened to than actual connection between individuals nowadays.
      Challenges ahead! Changing times, changing times!

  10. The Intrepid Sleuth

    Hi Amy. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I think a lot of societies have a “but we’ve always done it that way” attitude. Which is sad, let’s get the younger crowd coming to the meetings! The reciprocal learning could be astounding!
    I recently blogged about Cyndi Ingle’s visit to our local society and I pointed out something that bugged me. Boy are they mad! (Please note, I do NOT insult old people or handicapped people as accused. Nor am I teaching the youth of America to be disrespectful. I just give my take, honestly.) http://www.theintrepidsleuth.com/wp/cyndis-list-comes-to-colorado/

  11. Michele Kerr

    Great article Amy! As the genealogist for the Society of Indiana Pioneers, I have seen a general change in the age of applicants — they are getting younger. That is so encouraging to me but there is a gap between the same-old same-old that everyone is used to and the next couple of generations. I’m definitely bookmarking this posting!

    The Societyof Indiana Pioneers only have one annual meeting so it is always held at a nice facility that has dining arrangements. Our entertainment is always geared to something pertaining to Indiana Pioneer history so it is usually very interesting and entertaining — one time our fellowship winner presented his findings on Indiana pioneer music and we were treated to several wonderful instrumental songs!

    So, our challenge isn’t so much with meetings but with engagement the rest of the year! Trying to stay in touch with a more “social media” based section of our membership is something that I have been experimenting with myself for a while. I started a FaceBook Group for The Society of Pioneers and have been experimenting with Twitter for them as well.

    We do send out a quarterly newsletter but as my 27 year old would say, people have an attention span of a second and then they are on to the next thing. What I do find is that some people love it when I give out research tips and resource links. I think it gets back to what I hear a lot lately: we have to provide a benefit to the reader or member, in our case.

    That’s part of the reason that I always mention to applicants or prospective members that lineage societies are a wonderful way to make sure that their research will be kept for future generations! They seem to respond to this — especially when their children or descendants don’t seem that interested!

    I also make a point to share any relevant documentation that would be considered public if an applicant is related to one of our pioneer ancestors. With almost 100 years of applications, we have had a lot of priceless copies of things submitted. (Of course, I never share recent generation information!)

    I think we all have to re-think the way genealogy groups handle meetings — even as far as offering a way to join the group thru a webcast (maybe a Google hangout?) It all gets a bit overwhelming to make these changes but if we don’t start, then where will we be?

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  15. oldbonesgenealogy

    This is a super list. Our society has many of the issues mentioned both in your post and in the comments. As President I try to keep the business meeting as short as possible since I hate business meetings. I am also VP and Program Chair. I look to members to give me ideas for speakers because many of them want to hear about topics that don’t interest me. If I don’t get any suggestions then I book my own but do try to keep in mind topics I’ve heard discussed by members.

    No. 1 jumped right out at me. This past Monday we had an unusual number of guests at our meeting. My agenda and was I was told by prior presidents said I should have them introduce themselves. It was awkward. I could see some of them did not want to go through this “ordeal.” I remember feeling embarrassed and very uncomfortable in my first meeting as I am somewhat shy. Reading your article was an eye opener. I am going to see if I can change this to just raising their hands. It does the other members good to see lots of guests so it is good to take some notice of them.

    Thanks for the ideas.

  16. cbcfirstlady

    I’ve been a member of a genealogy group for a year. I’m not the Vice President. Your article clearly states everything that was going through my head in terms of making our meetings more appealing and welcoming. Thank you! I’ll be sharing this with our President.


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