Facing Up to the Long-term Future of Your Genealogy Society

This article was first published as a Plus Edition (of Dick Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter – ed.) on March 7, 2012. It turned out to be a very popular article. At the suggestion of some newsletter readers, I am re-publishing it today as a Standard Edition article so that more people can read it. I have made a few minor updates to the original article as well. 

Please feel free to forward this article to others or to republish it anywhere you please for non-commercial purposes. There is no need to ask for permission; “just do it.” NOTE: This article contains several personal opinions.

I travel a lot, and I spend a lot of time with officers and members of many genealogy societies. Most everywhere I go, I hear stories of societies that are shrinking in size and even a few stories of societies that are struggling to maintain their existence. Even amongst all this “doom and gloom,” I do hear a few rare stories of genealogy societies that are thriving and growing larger. Not only are they attracting more members, but these few societies are also offering more and more services to their members with each passing year.

Why do the majority of societies flounder while a handful succeed?

I hear all sorts of “reasons” why societies are shrinking these days. I suspect many are not true reasons but are merely “shoot from the hip” excuses offered with no statistics or research to back them up. Common excuses include, “It’s competition from the Internet” or, “It’s the economy” or, “People just aren’t interested anymore.”

To be sure, competition and economic difficulties and even lack of interest exist everywhere. If society members and officers do nothing to offset these factors, inertia sets in, and societies suffer. However, these factors affect all societies. The question persists: why is it that some societies thrive and even expand while others are shrinking?

I think the answer is a combination of many factors. However, some of the causes and perhaps even a few of the solutions become obvious when we look at history. Our ancestors witnessed and perhaps participated in similar problems years ago in other industries. Indeed, in recent years, even those of us alive today have seen similar declines and occasional reversals in a number of business endeavors. Perhaps the answer to the future growth of your genealogy society may be found by first looking back at the history of similar problems in other fields of endeavor.

Here is the first question to ponder: What happened to all the railroads in North America? 

In the 1800s the railroad industry in the U.S. was a growth business. In some ways it was like today’s Internet businesses. Consumers couldn’t get enough of the railroads’ “product:” convenient and easy travel. People traveled to places they never visited before, even if only to visit relatives in another state. Corporations also rushed to send their products by rail because it was cost-effective to do so. Farmers sent their products to distant markets that had previously been impossible to reach. The economy improved for farmers and for corporations, and the money then “trickled down” into almost all other businesses. The country flourished, in part because of the railroads.

Most every year, inventors created newer and more efficient locomotives. First it was steam, then it was petrol, then diesel. Times were good, and America had a bright, rail-based future.

So what happened? Why isn’t North America blanketed in rail routes today? Why doesn’t everyone commute to work on the railroad?

Today, the railroad companies are a shell of what they once were. Why? Because automobiles and trucks came along and ran the railroads into the ground.

Senior managers at railroad companies seemed to believe “we are in the railroad business.” In fact, they were really in the transportation business, but few executives realized that. A very few railroads expanded over the years into bus lines, trucking companies, and allied transportation businesses.

One company provides a perfect example: Railway Express. This company specialized in brokering and delivering railroad freight, mostly smaller packages that required much less than a full box car for transportation. This was a “railroad company” that eventually was driven to bankruptcy by a newer company that saw the true business was delivering packages (parcels) by whatever means made sense: United Parcel Service. The new company, usually called “UPS,” seems to have done quite well by delivering packages by rail, truck, and airline. In short, the company succeeded nicely by doing exactly what the older company had done except for one major difference: the new company did not limit its services by calling themselves a railroad company, but by calling themselves a freight delivery company and then by doing “whatever it takes” to serve the customers.

The overwhelming majority of railroad companies tried to remain just that: railroad companies. Then they wondered, “What happened to all the customers?”

Let’s fast-forward a few years and look at another business: newspapers. Again, newspapers used to be multi-million dollar businesses that most everyone respected. They were the primary sources of news and information for most citizens. A very common question was, “Have you seen the paper today?” When was the last time anyone asked you that question?

The newspaper business was almost an exact repeat of the railroad business. New competition arose from radio, television, the Internet, and a host of small electronic devices. Even bloggers are competition to newspapers. Generally speaking, the new competition has been cheaper, faster, and much more flexible, able to change quickly to meet customers’ demands.

The result was predictable: stodgy, old newspaper companies with inflexible management started losing business. Customers abandoned those companies where management said, “We are in the newspaper business.” Yet a few forward-thinking managers said, “We are in the news and information business,” and they survived by adopting the methods of their new competitors. A very small number of newspapers, such as USA Today, adopted modern business methods and built upon their strengths: dozens of reporters, editors, advertising departments, and more. They built multi-media organizations capable of delivering news and entertainment to their customers, wherever and whenever those customers want it.

I will suggest that it makes no difference how a news story is delivered to a customer. One (slow) method is to print it on paper and send it out via overnight trucks to be sold in stores and newsstands. Another is to broadcast the same story on radio and television. Perhaps still better is to place the story on a web site where customers can retrieve it whenever they wish. Another option is to build the story into an RSS newsfeed where customers can access it via a newsreader. Better still, if the customer has a strong interest in some topic (sports, financial news, or most anything else), PUSH that information as it becomes available to the customer’s smart phone that is on his hip or in her purse.

Executives who think they are “in the newspaper business” will fail. In fact, the PRODUCT is news and information, and that is important. The DELIVERY METHOD might be paper or broadcast media or Internet. I will suggest that delivery methods are important, but never as important as the product. The product is INFORMATION, and companies in the information business have a better chance of survival than those companies that believe they are in the newspaper business.

Let’s look at a third example, although one with a very different ending.Apple started in the computer business 30 years ago at about the same time as did Microsoft and a few dozen other personal computer companies. Some built hardware; a few created software. A very few, including Apple, tried to do both. In fact, Apple floundered for a few years as the company’s managers tried to become the best and most successful computer company in the industry. By most standards of measurement, the Apple executives failed. Sales were down and continued to drop every year. At one time, Apple was close to bankruptcy.

Apple’s board of directors then re-hired Steve Jobs. He was a founder of the company but later left to pursue other opportunities. Newly-re-hired Steve Jobs was given one objective: turn the company around. He was given a free rein to do whatever he thought was best.

The rest is history.

Even today, Apple does not build as many personal computers as some of its competitors and does not produce as much software as its biggest competitor. Yet Apple is now more profitable than any other company, even more profitable than Microsoft. In fact, Apple now has the highest corporate valuation IN HISTORY.

How is this possible? There are a number of reasons, but the biggest seems to be that Apple stopped being a computer company years ago. Instead, Apple is now the world’s leading PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY COMPANY.

To be sure, Apple does make a significant amount of income from sales of personal computers. However, that revenue is not as big as the money derived from the sales of personal music players, cell phones, and tablet devices. Apple also produces devices to stream movies and television programs across the Internet. The same company even manufactures and sells battery chargers. Indeed, this is no longer a computer company.

Apple failed as a personal computer company, but it became wildly successful as a personal technology company.

Better than any other tech company, Apple paid attention to the trends of what consumers want, and they’ve never been afraid to experiment with other products. Some of those products failed miserably, but others succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations. The result is the most profitable company in the industry with more money in the bank than the gross national products of many countries.

The railroad moguls of days past said, “We’re in the railroad business!” when they should have been saying, “We’re in the transportation business.” Newspaper managers used to say they ran newspaper companies when they should have been managing news and entertainment companies. 

Steve Jobs and Apple got this right by saying, “We’re not a personal computer company; we’re a technology company.”

So what does this mean for your genealogy society? Are they societies, or are they providers of genealogy information and education and other services?

First, let’s stop calling them “societies.” That is a very narrow term that encourages members and officers alike to narrow their focus. We need to look at a bigger picture. Perhaps we should call them “genealogy organizations” or invent some other term that better describes the myriad of services possible. Such services can include:

Education
Publishing (on paper as well as electronic publishing)
Travel services to local and distant repositories or even to “the old country”
Lobbying services
Fraternal organization services, somewhat like the Elks or Lions or Masons or other fraternities and sororities, all working towards common public service goals
And perhaps the most important of all: entertainment
Probably not all genealogy organizations need to perform all of these activities, but I will suggest that most organizations need to perform at least several of the above. Like Steve Jobs’ experiences at Apple, some of these services will flounder and become miserable failures. Chalk those up as “learning experiences.” All you want is to make sure that enough of your organization’s efforts succeed and generate enough revenue to help sustain the organization.

Most societies already perform educational activities for members and sometimes for non-members. All we can do is to expand this. Perhaps societies should be holding classes and information sessions for the general public. How about establishing scholarships for local high school seniors planning to pursue studies in history or allied fields?

Publishing is performed by many societies today although often is limited to small booklets that are published only on paper and are not well advertised nationwide. Yet today’s technology allows for electronic publishing at far lower costs than older methods of printing books. Shouldn’t we be placing all genealogy publications online and making them available to anyone and everyone worldwide for a modest fee? Or will we continue to act like newspapers?

Travel services can be a major service for members. How many of your organization’s members have ever visited the state historical society’s library? Or a nearby university’s archives? Organize a trip! A trip doesn’t always have to involve airfare to distant locations; a local visit can be just as valuable for members and non-members alike.

Lobbying is perhaps one of the greatest needs of genealogy organizations today. We are under constant pressure from well-meaning, but ignorant, legislators to limit access to the very records we depend upon. Genealogy organizations need to make sure that legislators understand that identity theft is not a factor when looking at death records from many years ago. In short, we need to lobby!

Speaking of members, do services have to be restricted to members? Why not make all services available to the general public? Sure, you might offer a discount to members, but restricting items “as a benefit of membership” rarely benefits anyone. By restricting services to members, all the society is doing is locking out potential new members and others who may have an interest in genealogy. The best advertising to attract new members is to let non-members use the organization’s present services, although perhaps at a slightly higher price than what members pay. Some of these “outsiders” will be motivated to join. The remainder at least will have added to the organization’s treasury.

As proven recently by the television networks, genealogy is also “entertainment.” Yes, we are in the entertainment business, whether we realize it or not. Let’s entertain our members and especially let’s entertain our potential future members!

The above list only “scratches the surface.” I am sure you and your associates can create a longer list of worthwhile activities. We need to exist, thrive, and even grow in a high tech world of instant communications and collaboration. We cannot sit back and complain of “competition from the Internet.” Instead, we need to embrace the Internet and every other form of technology and use all these tools to further our own interests.

My prediction: many genealogy societies will continue to shrink and will eventually die. Genealogy “organizations” with a broad outlook and a willingness to experiment with new methods of delivering services will expand and become influencers within the genealogy world.

Where will you and your society fit into all of this?

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others. Tweet it, share it on Google+,Facebook or on your preferred social network.

Republishing of this article in newsletters, blogs, and elsewhere is allowed and encouraged, with a few minor restrictions. Details may be found at http://goo.gl/hoHH1.

Of course, if you haven’t done so already, you should join my email newsletter mailing listt o stay current on my latest articles and announcements. You can also cancel at any time within seconds.

The following article is from Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at http://www.eogn.com

Thought For The Day: 21st Century Record Searching

Thanks again to James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star blog. He’s a deep thinker who can get me (Deason Hunt, your editor ) thinking.

In his latest post on Genealogy’s Star

(http://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2012/11/primary-and-secondary-sources-looking.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FGACzzI+%28Genealogy%27s+Star%29) titled Primary and Secondary Sources — Looking beyond the Census, he makes the following comment about finding records.

“What, you say, actually go somewhere to search for records? How Twentieth Century! Yes, I suppose, since genealogist(s) dwell in the past that we are still retro and searching paper records. But until I find local records being digitized wholesale online, I will still get in my car and drive to the libraries and other repositories.”

The thought I had was this: If we are truly non-profit or non-profit-spirited service organizations, shouldn’t we be working diligently to get as many of our local records available and online for free searching for those who can’t come to our physical collections because of distance, cost, or other inability to travel?

If such a spirit were to become common among local societies, then we would all be busy serving each other. Except for those genealogy businesses who have to turn a profit to stay in business, this is not out of reach. Charging for information and thus keeping it harder to come by is also so Twentieth Century.

Note: The above is a personal opinion of the editor of the Wood County Genealogical Society Bulletin.

Connections: We’re All About Connections

What is it that stokes our interest in our ancestors, that compels some of us to so eagerly pursue knowledge of our parental heritage?
Diane L. Richard of the UpFront With NGS blog brought this to our attention from a LiveScience article by Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer.
The conclusion is, simply put, connections.
Think about it. As we gather data about our parents, grandparents, etc. we strengthen the sense of being related. As we build our family trees, we not only extend generations into the past, we find (and seek) connections laterally of aunts and uncles and cousins. Indeed, we even find non-blood family connections with our in-law families.
The practice of genealogy is not done in isolation, either. we have connections with places our ancestors lived, with fellow family researchers within societies local and long distance, with researchers long since gone through their research documents and books.
Genealogists depended earlier on travel connections to ancestral lands, on letters of query and response, on electronic devices such as telephones, and now the electronic devices including the computer, tablets, and smart phones.
As earliest mankind began to build families and then communities of connections, we began to build the levels of society in which we live today. It has always been about connection.
That is the nature and strength of genealogy societies and our local, national, and international genealogy interest groups. When we seek to build more connections to our pasts and to those around us at present and to the future, we are true to our calling.
We are today in a period of transition in our genealogy networks, but we will endure. It’s likely we cannot yet envision what we will look like locally or electronically, but family history searching and sharing will emerge stronger and more effective than ever before.

101 Best Genealogy and Family History Websites for 2012

The following post links to Family Tree Magazine’s list of best websites. Thanks to Upfront from NGS for permission to share this here.

Sent to you by Deason via Google Reader:

101 Best Genealogy and Family History Websites for 2012

via noreply (Diane L Richard) on 9/6/12

Capture.JPG

Every year, Family Tree Magazine publishes a list of 101 Best Genealogy Websites and I always take a look! With a steady plethora of new websites, websites disappearing, etc, it’s nice to have such an annual list to allow one to quickly see if some “juicy” new sites are now available to help us with our genealogy and family history research.

Do recognize that there are specific categories (which are not necessarily the same each year) and so all the “great” websites you use may not be listed and, you may meet a “new” best friend!

Now that you’ve checked out the list – who is your new “best friend?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
copyright © National Genealogical Society, 3108 Columbia Pike, Suite 300, Arlington, Virginia 22204-4370. http://www.ngsgenealogy.org.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
NGS does not imply endorsement of any outside advertiser or other vendors appearing in this blog.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Republication of UpFront articles is permitted and encouraged for non-commercial purposes without express permission from NGS. Please drop us a note telling us where and when you are using the article. Express written permission is required if you wish to republish UpFront articles for commercial purposes. You may send a request for express written permission to UpFront. All republished articles may not be edited or reworded and must contain the copyright statement found at the bottom of each UpFront article.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Follow NGS via Facebook, YouTube, Google+, Twitter
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Think your friends, colleagues, or fellow genealogy researchers would find this blog post interesting? If so, please let them know that anyone can read past UpFront with NGS posts or subscribe!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Suggestions for topics for future UpFront with NGS posts are always welcome. Please send any suggested topics to UpfrontNGS

di
di

CXxilNo25o4

Things you can do from here:

A Place to Ask Questions

Google moderator offers a new way for WCGSTX members to communicate. On our “Ask a Family History Question” site at http://www.google.com/moderator/#16/e=1fffd0, members can ask questions and submit answers to any other questions there. This will provide a place to have dicussions, etc. between meeting times. I have primed the pump with three types of questions, but others related to genealogy or Wood County genealogy are welcomed. We are not moderated at this time. If we get discovered by people who want to add bad questions or comments (non-genealogy and rude or crude) we will probably have to go to moderated. But that is the only type of content that would be affected.
#From the Editor, #Resources

Please take a look and participate.

“What Do You Love” is awesomely awesome

Yet another little-known Google feature lets you explore a passion or interest in detail. It’s called "What Do You Love?" You type in something you love like ‘Genealogy’ and it automatically gives you a map of nearby Genealogy, lists of books about Genealogy, blogs about Genealogy, 3D models of Genealogy, recent Genealogy videos, discussions about Genealogy…everything. It’s like a ‘wonderful things dashboard’ http://goo.gl/p105P.
#From the Editor, #Resources

Deason Hunt
Newsletter Editor

Keeping Up-to-date Keeps Us From Falling Behind

Keeping up with the world of online genealogy sometimes pays off with gems of common sense such as this by Genealogy and technology blogger James Tanner:

What I am saying is that genealogy, as it is today, is a technologically sophisticated pursuit that requires some pretty technological tools. If you are going to survive in the genealogy world today, you need a set of computer skills and part of that set of skills is the ability to keep your tools (computers and software) up-to-date.

Writing on his blog, Genealogy’s Star, Tanner was talking in general about when to upgrade and buy new computer hardware, but his observation on the skills and tools has certainly become more and more true. You can read his entire blog article at this link: http://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2012/05/anticipating-market-when-do-i-buy-new.html.

Indeed, as he suggests, we have to be prudent in spending on this hobby (avocation, addiction?), but it costs little or nothing to bring our computer skills up to date.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 166 other followers