Who do you think you are? – A Marketing Stroke of Genius

Who do you think you are?, now in its third season on NBC, represents one of my favorite marketing moves in a long time.  Ancestry.com is the dominant player in the personal genealogy space, but as any strong company knows, reaching the top doesn’t mean you will stay there, and growth must always be high on the company’s agenda.  While Ancestry.com has a number of things going for it that help it maintain its place at the top of the genealogy service food chain, not the least of which is immense amount of data they control, the company still needs to innovate and find ways to reach new consumers.  Ancestry.com accomplished that with the advent of the show, which focuses on celebrities investigating their own family histories.  In a documentary format, each featured celebrity inevitably makes some unexpected and emotional realizations, which are inspiring and heartwarming to watch.  The show seems to be growing in popularity, as well, with a recent episode drawing 7.5 million viewers, and causing Wall Street analysts to take notice.

Emotion is the key here.  Emotion sells products and services.  Anytime a marketer can truly inspire positive emotion in consumers, they have a very good chance of creating real brand loyalty.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a viewer that was inspired to begin my own genealogy research as a direct result of watching Who do you think you are?  It was the human emotion in the stories I saw that pushed me over the line from vague interest to devoted researcher.  The only thing I’d like to see changed about the show is the people whose histories are investigated.  I love seeing celebrity stories, and I think the show offers a new perspective – we see celebrities as real people in a way we often don’t – but, I think they should include everyday people in the mix, too.  Ancestry.com does offer a sweepstakes now and then, with a cash prize big enough for someone to travel to pursue research, but if they moved to a 75/25 split (celebrity/average joe) in who gets profiled on the show, they’d be showing their target audience having success, and not just wealthy celebrities who could afford to do all that research alone if they so chose.

Whether it was realistic or not that I might unlock similar fascinating stories in my own family’s past, the success of the celebrities on the show created a desire in me to try, and it has been rewarding enough that I’ve stuck with it.  For instance, there’s something truly captivating about seeing an image of a draft registration card for someone in your family that you’ve only heard a few odd stories about and learning what his occupation was, especially when you take a historical view and realize that occupation may not even exist anymore.  This was the case for me when I learned my great-grandfather cut leather by hand for shoe soles and lost his first son in an accident involving a horse-drawn wagon.

As big a fan as I am of both the show and Ancestry.com, three years and untold hours of research later, I have learned first hand that genealogy research is both difficult and incredibly time-consuming work. Those of us that do the work on our own and don’t have genealogy experts waiting for us at every turn with unlimited resources to travel the world in search of obscure records know that the amazing finds come only very rarely, and dead ends are reached exponentially more often than are those inspiring nuggets of information that spur us to keep digging.  Nonetheless, the sleuthing nature of the work tends to leave me thinking that I could discover something new and enlightening any minute.

The difficulty and effort required to perform genealogy research may be a reason that the company experiences the most “churn” among its newest subscribers.  Ancestry.com relies on a subscription-based business model that comes with a 14-day free trial, and its subscription fees aren’t cheap, especially for the light hobbyist.  Their regular growth throughout the biggest recession in decades, though, can’t be ignored.  The company ended 2011 with 1.7 million subscribers, decreased monthly churn rates over previous quarters, and continues to see solid financial earnings.

Resources consulted in the writing of this article:

Seeking Alpha – Ancestry.com Finally Looks Like a Buy

Ancestry.com Ends 2011 with 1.7 million subscribers

Seeking Alpha – Analysts take on Ancestry.com presentation at Bank of America Merrill Lynch technology conference, June 2011

PC World – Ancestry.com Reports Growth Despite Economic Slump, Ian Lamont

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