Sunday, January 11, 2009

Day 3 in SLC - the TGN Dinner and FTM 2009

This is the fourth post in the series about my visit, with seven other genealogy communicators, to The Generations Network. See the earlier posts here, here and here.

The highlight for me on Saturday was the dinner at the Little America Hotel sponsored by The Generations Network. There were about 50 in attendance, with about 15 TGN employees, the eight folks who took the tour on Friday, two FTM volunteers, several FamilySearch people, and the balance were professional genealogists gathered in SLC for the FGS Board meeting and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. This was a very warm and friendly group - I'm still a bit star-struck meeting genealogists whose books and articles I've read. Several people walked up and said they recognized me and read my blog - and we are usually "friends" on Facebook already.

After the reception, we sat down to dinner. I was at a table with four others, Jan, Kim and two fellows whose names I didn't write down (sorry!) and in my old age can't remember the next morning. Before dinner was over, Andrew Wait of TGN introduced the two FTM volunteers - Lawrence Douett and Russ Worthington - who have helped TGN bring Family Tree Maker 2008/9 to fruition by critical and supportive testing and comments.

Andrew then introduced Elizabeth Shown Mills, who gave a wonderful sermon, er, presentation, about "What should the next generation of Genealogy Software Do?" (my title may be a little off - hopefully, someone will correct me). Her main point was that genealogy database providers like Ancestry, through technology and search engines, have co-opted the "name gathering" function of genealogists; this quickly drives genealogists to the "analysis and proof" function that professional genealogists excel at. Her three main points were that:

* genealogy software is terrible at writing automated reports - they read like a 5th graders class report. Some grammar and punctuation errors are present in most report writers. There needs to be better transition capability between facts and paragraphs. The user should be able to rearrange facts in the narrative.

* genealogy software should permit standardized source citations on standard ancestor charts. Elizabeth noted in Comments that her exact words were "It's an accepted fact today that good genealogists document every name, place, date, or whatever they assert; and family group sheets in almost every program now do this." The need she then pointed to came in the form of a question: "Why in the bejibbers are we still forced to circulate **ancestor charts** with no documentation at all?"

* genealogy software should permit more flexibility and user control in writing general notes, research notes and proof arguments. The software should permit source citations in the notes and analysis fields.

Next on the agenda was Duff Wilson, who works in Family Tree Maker development. He said that FTM 2009 will soon have the Source citation templates in place, and thanked Lawrence Douett for his extensive work in helping to create 172 "Quick Check" models based on those in Evidence Explained. He also discussed book building in FTM 2009 - users will be able to create books from reports, charts, and text documents, and import books from previous FTM versions. I asked Duff after the meeting when these changes would appear in FTM 2009, and he said "soon" and probably before March.

The final speaker was TGN CEO, Tim Sullivan, who reviewed the 2008 results for TGN and looked ahead to 2009. He said that he is proud of the company's people - they are creative, passionate, motivated, fun, and dedicated to advancing genealogy. The company is dedicated to working with integrity, is committed to open communication within the company and with customers, and is trying hard to listen to their subscribers and users.

Tim said that in 2008, TGN had more than 1 million subscribers, engaged over 8 million users each month, who spent over 54 million hours on the sites each month. 2008 saw the highest revenue and profitability in the company's history. This financial success permits TGN to invest in content, technology and marketing.

TGN will invest more in Content in 2009 than any other year - both new content and improving existing content. They will engage in more partnerships - he mentioned FGS/World Archives Project, FamilySearch, NARA, Library and Archives Canada, and the UK National Archives as examples. He said that "Content is King" and that they are listening to users and subscribers.

Tim said that investing in Technology is very important - "Technology is Queen." It results in higher quality images, indexes, server hardware, and better software. The combination of this technology and the Internet offers more people the opportunity to find family records and be able to connect with other family members.

He mentioned that TGN is a global enterprise - with nine Ancestry international sites, and more on the way. TGN is trying to build a collaboration network that connects people to advance their research. The family trees are not a social network - they deliver real value to users.

The third major investment is in Marketing. The only way that TGN can continue to grow is by attracting new subscribers that start and/or continue their genealogy research. Without consumer marketing efforts, the business will stagnate, resulting in reduced new content and technology. This includes the advertising in the print and television media and the branding of TGN properties and the omnipresence of the Ancestry "green leaves."

Underlying the two days of meetings was the emphasis on being a successful business, attracting and educating new genealogy researchers and keeping the current customers, and opening communication channels with the genealogy community (societies, publishers, authors, editors, researchers, even bloggers!) and listening to and collaborating with the customer base.

As I said in my post yesterday, I recognize that this visit is part of a Public Relations campaign by TGN to influence the genealogy community and customer base by providing information to people who will publish it in paper and online media. We saw the best view possible of the company and the products. However, the candidness about past and present problems, the enthusiasm and work ethic of the employees and management, and the willingness of TGN to allow this information to be shared must be considered when evaluating these presentations and the meetings. In the end, the proof is in the results:

* will FTM 2009 be improved to be the best genealogy software that meets the standards that Elizabeth Shown Mills (and by extension, the genealogy community) desires?
* will the Search function be markedly improved over time?
* will new Content continually increase to keep existing customers subscribed?
* will the partnerships with content providers serve all interests?
* will the marketing effort draw new customers?
* will the education effort on DNA, database searching, family tree population, genealogy research methodology and collaboration be successful?

I really appreciate the opportunity to meet the TGN staff, visit the facilities, hear about their accomplishments and challenges, and be able to meet with many notable members of the genealogy community.

In these reports, I have tried to write objectively. I do have a generally positive appreciation for TGN, Ancestry, FTM, and the other web sites. I try to understand companies from a business perspective and also the user experience.

I know that I have not captured every major point on the seemingly endless PowerPoint charts (and many of the early ones went by real fast due to schedule restrictions!). However, with the different reports from other genealogy communicators (like DearMYRTLE, the Genealogy Insider, the Ancestry Insider and others) the genealogy community should be able to get a fair review of these meetings.

I will have several more posts about some of these topics when I get back to my home base and can observe ongoing efforts and do more testing of the TGN web sites.

UPDATE 1/12: Elizabeth Mills commented on my summary of her presentation, er, sermon, and I have added her quotes to the post above. The problem for me is writing things down when I should be listening, but I have to write things down in order to remember it. My thanks to Elizabeth for the comment, and I have modified my initial line of that paragraph to match what she said and not what I thought she was going to say.


Sheri Fenley said...

Seaver - all those stars and no photos? How can I live vicariously through you without photos???? LOL

Anonymous said...


You've done a great job of summarizing the events Ancestry sponsored last weekend. May I quibble, though, over one point drawn from my sermon (er, presentation :), "Software's Next Generation"?

In recounting three of the six needs I discussed, you wrote, "Genealogy software should permit standardized source citations using templates such as those provided in the book Evidence Explained."

Given the adage "We tend to hear what we are already thinking" (smile, please), I thank you for that plug. However, it's not one I would have made myself. To the contrary, my prelude to Need No. 1 was: "It's an accepted fact today that good genealogists document every name, place, date, or whatever they assert; and family group sheets in almost every program now do this."

The need I then pointed to came in the form of a question: "Why in the bejibbers are we still forced to circulate **ancestor charts** with no documentation at all?"

The latest versions of several software programs are doing a superb job of "standardizing" citations, so that our identification of sources will transfer smoothly between the programs. But we have not yet ousted the old (and irrational) assumption that pedigree charts need no supporting evidence at all.