What Can Marketers Learn From Genealogists?

Researching our family roots and tracing our ancestry back centuries has become big business in the United States.

• Genealogy is second only to gardening for American hobbies. (Times, 5.29.14)
• Ancestry.com has over 4 million customers in its DNA database. (Ancestry.com, 4.27.17)
• The average genealogist spends $1,000 to $18,000 uncovering links to their past. (Fast Company, 7.15.15)
• The British show “Who Do You Think You Are?” has traced the ancestry stories of 90 celebrities, airing 100 episodes over a 10-year period.

What lives behind this insatiable curiosity to understand our family’s heritage is not the numbers, but the rich and interesting stories we uncover. The promise of those stories fuel a genealogist’s willingness to trudge through muddy cemeteries, painstakingly scan and catalog hundreds of old photos and burn the midnight oil well past the bewitching hour, night after night, always with a promise, punctuated with a yawn, I won’t do that again … until the next time, that is.

The six-million-dollar question is why?

Of course, there is the practical side of tracing your roots. Understanding where you came from can help you validate the folklore you grew up with, preserve family traditions, reconnect with relatives and understand medical history, in addition to many other fascinating things.

But, for many, the deep-dive into their family’s lineage is about the stories … the personal heartfelt memories they uncover that make a person from their past take a giant step into their present-day world.

Which of these accounts of my great grandfather Philipp Mohr do you prefer to read?

A. My great grandfather Philippus Mohr was born on June 5, 1837 in Hesse, Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1843, moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, married Dorathea Gross on December 15, 1861 and went on to have nine children.

B. My father, Donald Wiedmann, called his Grandpa Mohr “Grandpa Whiskers” because he had a big, white fluffy beard that begged to be touched. He immigrated to Wisconsin with his family in 1843, where they became one of three families to settle Whitefish Bay. They were pioneers, trading food with Indians, keeping their eyes open for bears that roamed the land and taking their oxen-drawn cart to the big city of Milwaukee to sell the vegetables they grew on their land.

Too many marketers rely on Version A, letting the numbers tell their story. How many units did I sell? Will this marketing program achieve my ROI? Do consumers like this product or this product?

But, truth be told, the power is not in the numbers, but in the words, the stories, the emotions behind the brand you sell.

Despite all the negative backwash that qualitative research has been accosted with in recent years, true storytelling only emerges when you are face-to-face with another human being, when you give them the opportunity to explain how and what they feel. There is absolutely no substitute for people-powered insights.

A face-to-face discussion provides a richness to our understanding that cannot be easily replaced … whether it’s interviewing a family member about their favorite childhood memories or having a spice lover share her cooking insights while creating her version of a culinary masterpiece.

So, perhaps as marketers, we need to look to genealogists for answers on how to better connect with the people that buy our products for it is their stories that will add clarity to the conversation we should be having.

Sue Northey is the Owner / Chief Strategy Officer of Branding Breakthroughs, whose mission is to connect brands and people. She has moderated over 750 focus groups, interviews and brainstorm sessions. Sue is also a passionate genealogist.