Posts Tagged ‘Genlighten Strategy’

ExpertConnect’s going away. Can Genlighten take its place?

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

At Genlighten, we’ve tried to take the 37Signals approach towards our competitors:

People sometimes ask us how much we look at the competition. The answer: not much. We can’t control what they do. We can control what we do. So we focus on that.

Still, when I first heard about Ancestry’s plans to debut ExpertConnect just a few months before our beta launch in 2009, my stomach experienced one of those roller-coaster drops that tend to characterize startup life.

Now a year and a half later, ExpertConnect is shutting down. When I saw Ancestry’s e-mail in my inbox yesterday, I went through three reactions in rapid succession:

  • Cool, the 800-pound gorilla has left our market… we don’t have to compete with them anymore!
  • Uh-oh. If they can’t make this business work, how can we expect to?
  • Darn… I wish all our marvelous new features were ready to go right now!

Now that we’ve had a little time to process it, here’s our “official” response to Ancestry’s announcement:

To our current clients and providers:

  • Genlighten will continue to serve you in the months and years ahead. We’ve heard your feedback and we’re working hard to implement the improvements and new features you’ve asked for.
  • Our next release is currently targeted for the end of June. We’ll be inviting some of you to test the new version beginning in March or April. You’ll see an upgraded homepage, simplified navigation, a brand-new search capability, internal messaging, and an overall higher level of fit and finish.

To ExpertConnect users considering switching to Genlighten:

  • We’d love to tell you that we’re ready right now to step in and completely fill the void left by ExpertConnect’s departure. We’re not. But we expect to be there soon.
  • When we first launched, we focused Genlighten on offline record lookups rather than hourly research in order to differentiate ourselves somewhat from Ancestry. In response to client and provider requests, we are now revising our strategy. We plan to fully embrace high-end professional research offerings and online searches in addition to document retrieval and record lookups.
  • By joining us now, you’ll have the opportunity to exert a significant influence on the direction we take in response to ExpertConnect’s closure. We’d love to get your help in making Genlighten all you’d like it to be.

Our next release

When our new release is launched this summer, we plan to offer both new and existing users the baseline functionality ExpertConnect had, plus:

  • a flexible and customizable storefront interface optimized for client discovery and frictionless e-commerce.
  • no one-year “lock-in” of clients you acquire through Genlighten
  • active social media marketing of your profile and service listings
  • tools to let you promote your presence on Genlighten via your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Adwords and more
  • analytics to help you understand how to draw more traffic to your offerings.
  • search-optimized research tools for localities and repositories that will attract visitors to the site and spotlight our providers to prospective customers.

How we plan to succeed

Genlighten lacks Ancestry’s global reach, brand awareness, massive staff and financial backing. Still, size and strength apparently weren’t enough to make ExpertConnect “a winner“. [Note the first comment to that linked post on Dick Eastman's blog. It's a particular favorite of mine!]

We think there are some advantages to our small size that will keep us from getting “blown out of the water.” For one thing, we don’t need to make anywhere near as much money as Ancestry required to justify ExpertConnect’s existence. We’re completely bootstrapped, with no institutional investors, so we’re quite content to be a “lifestyle business.” At the same time, Genlighten is our core product, not an add-on to a much larger offering, so you can expect us to be focused on it for the long term. And there’s another upside to our small size: when you call us on the phone or e-mail us, you’re connecting directly with our founding team.

Thanks!

As you can imagine, this is an exciting time for our little startup. We hope you’ll share it with us! If this is your first time here, please explore the site and contact us with your questions and suggestions. If you’ve been with Genlighten for a while, please help us spread the word to your fellow genealogists. Either way, Thank you for your interest and support!

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper? A “Genealogy Long Tail” Example

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

lighthouse_keeperI visited the NARA Great Lakes Regional Archives this last week to fulfill a Naturalization Record lookup for a Genlighten client. As I was waiting for my researcher card paperwork to be processed, I looked through the finding aid brochures to see what other records this facility had. One caught my eye:

Selected Records Relating to Lighthouse Service Employees, 1801-1912

Cool! So if someone had an ancestor who they thought might have been a lighthouse keeper, I could look that person up and perhaps produce a document containing some basic info about them. For example, here’s what NARA says is contained in publication M1373:

Lighthouse Keepers and Assistant Keepers. NARA microfilm publication M1373, Registers of Lighthouse Keepers, 1845-1912 (6 rolls) includes lists of keepers and assistant keepers. The lists typically consist of the names, the district and the name of the light, the date of appointment, the date of resignation or discharge or death, and sometimes the annual salary. Most of the lists do not actually begin until 1849.

The NARA finding aid implies that these records would also include the birth place of the lighthouse keeper.

The Long Tail of Genealogy Records

So I immediately wondered: how many people would be interested in these records (and thus might request my lookup?) I managed to find a Rootsweb message board about lighthouse keepers. Between 2004-2010, there were — get this — 13 messages posted. I looked to see if either Ancestry or Footnote had digitized the NARA microfilm rolls. Nope.

These lighthouse-related collections seem to fit fairly well my definition of “Long Tail Genealogy Records“: to a small number of people they’d probably be quite interesting. But that number’s too small to make it worth Ancestry’s or Footnote’s or FamilySearch’s time and effort to scan them, index them, and make them available online.

Could Genlighten Help? Should It?

I suspect I’ll go ahead and offer a “Register of Lighthouse Keepers” Lookup, just for the heck of it. But if I decide to, I’ll need to ask myself a lot of practical questions first:

  • What happens if I actually get a request?
  • Will the price that the lighthouse keeper’s descendant is willing to pay be enough to make it worth my while to drive out of my way to the NARA facility just for that lookup?
  • Or should I offer a bunch of other lookups from NARA in hopes of aggregating enough requests to justify a weekly trip?
  • What should I call the lookup so it will Google well?
  • What search terms would someone use who was looking for such a record?
  • How should I define the locality for this lookup? By the state or state/county where the lighthouse was located?

Why Our Business Model Matters

A lot of these issues would go away if Genlighten’s business model involved simply quoting an hourly rate and than billing the client for my time. But because we’re all about fixed-fee lookups, it’s trickier. I have to carefully define the scope of the lookup I’ll perform for the fee I decide to charge. And with few requests likely to come in, it will be hard to iteratively adjust my pricing in response to client feedback.

Of course, I could define an “off-the-shelf” lookup for part of the research and then direct the client to use our custom request capability to pursue the remainder. That’s what we encourage our providers to do for probate records and other hard-to-know-the-scope-in-advance lookups. Hmm… lots of possibilities there.

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper?

If so, I’d love to hear from you. Likewise if you need naturalization records for states in the NARA Great Lakes Region, or any other lookup for a record held by NARA Great Lakes that isn’t available online.

Amazon for Lookups vs. Yellow Pages for Researchers

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

As my wife and I use Genlighten day by day, we notice things it does well and things it’s not so good at yet.

On the Plus Side

One of the things Genlighten does well is handle the iterative back-and-forth communications between client and provider that lead to a successful lookup result. Short notes from each party to the research transaction are displayed together in chronological order on a summary tracking page for each lookup request, along with the documents and report that are eventually produced.

lookup_notes_back_and_forthDiscovering Providers, on the Other Hand…

But when we go looking for a specific lookup provider (say, one that specializes in Jewish research or one who can access a certain repository in California) Genlighten doesn’t have a well-designed way to do that yet.

There’s a reason we didn’t build that feature in initially. We view ourselves as an e-commerce site (like Amazon.com) for genealogy lookups — NOT a Yellow Pages-like directory of genealogy researchers-for-hire. The distinction is an important one, and it arises out of our focus on fixed-fee lookups rather than on open-ended hourly research.

Buying a Camera vs. Hiring a Photographer

I’m not sure about you, but when I go to buy a digital camera, I focus on the product first — the features, price point and customer ratings — and pay attention to the brand second. On the other hand, if I wanted to hire a photographer, I’d focus on referrals from friends, professional credentials, portfolio… and only then would I look at specific packages the photographer might offer.

The initial design of Genlighten has a distinctly product-oriented e-commerce mindset, where the “products” are lookups. If our products appeal to you, you can then check out the profile of the providers who offer them, and evaluate their background, experience, and customer ratings before deciding to submit a lookup request. We made the assumption that most potential clients would approach the site in that order, and our information architecture reflects that.

product-oriented-lookup-searchThe Problem with Assumptions…

Four months in, it’s becoming apparent that some of our site visitors don’t use Genlighten like we thought they would. One piece of evidence showed up recently in our Google Analytics logs:

google_site_search_for_ca2

Notice the Google site search for the keyword “California”. It’s hard to tell exactly what the site visitor had in mind, but my guess is they wanted to see if we had any providers that could do lookups either in California (i.e., at California repositories) or for California records. Or they might have read Randy Seaver’s blog post about Genlighten the week before and tried to find out if we’d added any California providers. Either way, they didn’t find our UI sufficiently intuitive and decided to take a shortcut.

“Hidden” Lookup Providers

A second indication that users aren’t behaving as we expected showed up when I went to do a census of every registered user so I could count the number that were offering lookups. To my surprise (and dismay!) I discovered sixty-some users who had filled out a provider-oriented profile (listing their qualifications, repositories they could access, etc.) but who weren’t yet offering any lookups. Because of the design assumptions I mentioned above, these providers are effectively hidden from our users. They won’t show up in any lookup search results, and we don’t yet offer a purely provider-oriented search capability. That’s starting to look like a problem.

Now perhaps the hidden providers don’t want to bother with basic lookups, but instead are just interested in quoting on custom requests that clients post. We do offer that capability in addition to off-the-shelf lookups, and it’s seen a fair amount of use.

But our thinking on custom requests was that providers would first establish a reputation for reliable, high-quality service with their off-the-shelf lookup offerings, and then be more likely to have their custom lookup quotes accepted based on high ratings they’d received. I still think this is a sound approach, but it’s become clear that we’ve done a poor job of communicating the idea.

Unfortunately, I suspect that some of these hidden providers don’t know they’re hidden. They assumed we’d make it easy for users to find them, like the yellow pages does, even if they didn’t offer any products in our online marketplace. And we haven’t.

So What to Do?

As a result of the thought process I’ve described, we now plan to:

  • Reach out to our hidden providers and explain the advantages of offering off-the-shelf lookups so they can gain credibility and exposure to potential clients
  • Invite our users to participate in usability testing so we can get feedback on typical flows through the site
  • Develop search tools that let users discover providers based on the contents of their profiles, not just on the lookups they offer.

Glass Half Full

I’ve decided to take a positive view of these discoveries about our users. If I’d followed Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany when we were first building Genlighten, I might have uncovered these design issues during the Customer Development process. But now that I’m belatedly trying to adhere to Lean Startup principles, customer-centric iteration is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. Now if we can just work on making those iterations “ferocious” and “rapid”!

Want to Help?

Are you interested in helping us make Genlighten easier to use? We’d love to have some 15-20 minute chats with clients and providers willing to talk with us over the phone while navigating the site and pursuing basic tasks. E-mail us at support@genlighten.com if this sounds like your idea of fun!

When You Google Your Family Tree, Do You Click on the Sponsored Links?

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

For the last several weeks a team of Kellogg MBA students has been experimenting with Google AdWords ads on behalf of Genlighten. It’s been an interesting exercise — by which I mean educational, rather than dramatically successful.

As evidenced by the popularity of books like Dan Lynch’s Google Your Family Tree, a lot of genealogists are using the world’s favorite search engine as a research tool. Here’s what I’m wondering, though: do any of them ever click on the “Sponsored Links” next to their search results?

Try this experiment (in another browser window!) Type the single word “genealogy” [no quotes needed] into Google’s search box. If your experience is like mine, you’ll see one sponsored link (with a shaded background) above your search results, and a list of nine more in a column on the right-hand side of your browser window. Two questions for you: 1) who’s buying these ads; and 2) are you at all tempted to click on any of them?

On my results page for a search on “genealogy”, I see Ancestry’s ad in the number one position (at the top of the page) and ads for EllisIsland.org, OneGreatFamily.com and GenealogyBank.com, among others, along the right-hand edge. Since I’m already familiar with these sites and their costs/benefits, I’m not at all inclined to click on any of their ads.

The ads for sites I’ve never heard of, however, do pique my curiosity some. “Free Genealogy Records” reads one. “Free Genealogy Search” is the headline for the one right below it. I’m not sure why, but my internal “bait and switch” alarm goes off when I see these. What comes up when I click on the ad?

The “landing page” I see after clicking starts off innocuously enough, with a search box that allows me to enter the name of the individual I’m looking for. But the word “free” is noticeably absent. They’ve already dropped that claim. (Turns out I won’t see any results without paying $29.94 first.)

The remainder of the text on the page has an odd ring to it, almost as if it were created by a computer algorithm that was well-trained to compose English text, but didn’t quite pass the Turing Test. For instance, the word “Ancestry” shows up repeatedly, in odd contexts. And then there are those long, repetitive lists of terms such as “<name of state> Genealogy Searches” and “<name of state> Ancestry Search”. What’s going on here?

The answer lies in the arcane field of Search Engine Optimization / Search Engine Marketing (SEO/SEM). The company that purchased the “Free Genealogy Search” ad — for a genealogy search that isn’t free — is simply utilizing techniques that have been demonstrated to produce good results on Google. They’ve included words and phrases in the text on the page that have been shown to be popular with Google users.

The word “Ancestry”, for example, is a very popular search term. Why? If I want to visit Ancestry.com, wouldn’t I just type that into my browser’s navigation window? Sounds reasonable, but the data show that many people instead type Ancestry into Google’s search box instead, and since Ancestry’s site pops up as the first search result, they click on that link to be taken to the site.

So the company behind the “Free Genealogy Search” ad simply sprinkles the word Ancestry in seemingly random places on their site, hoping to gain some of the “Google Juice” that Ancestry has invested heavily to obtain. Google is currently being sued by companies seeking to prevent similar attempts to piggyback on their brands’ popularity. [To be fair, I'm not accusing the "Free Genealogy Search" people of any such thing.]

Where am I going with all this? As the founder of a fledgling genealogy-focused web startup that will soon need to attract users, I’m extremely interested in the potential cost of “customer acquisition”. Google ads are appealing to advertisers precisely because they make it easy to determine that cost. Google can tell the advertiser exactly how much they need to pay every time a potential user clicks on one of their ads. Combine that number with the “conversion rate” — the fraction of those who click on the ads who actually sign up for the advertiser’s product — and the customer acquisition cost can be specified with surprising accuracy.

But there’s a big unknown that Google can’t easily eliminate for me as a potential advertiser. Who will click on the ads I might choose to pay for? Will they be the kinds of potential customers who will really grasp what Genlighten is all about? And what if I try to use Google ads to recruit potential lookup providers? Will I risk sacrificing quality for quantity in such cases?

I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Do you click on “sponsored links” — Google AdWords Ads — when you use Google for genealogy research? If so, what has your experience been with those ads? I’d love to hear from you.

Will new Pro Accounts help Geni become profitable?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Geni logo

It doesn’t appear to be mentioned on the Geni blog yet, but I received a Twitter update this morning from Geni announcing the introduction of “Geni Pro Accounts”.  For $4.95 per month, Geni Pro users can get a higher level of functionality and support options from the site than is available to non-paying users.  At their forum, you can read the following:

“Today we released the initial Geni Pro Account offering which includes these features:

  • Forest GEDCOM Exports – Export your family tree and all connected trees into a single GEDCOM file (up to 100,000 total individual and family records) with one click.
  • Priority Support – Geni Pro users receive faster response from a dedicated Priority Support queue.
  • Geni Pro Badge – Identify yourself as a Geni Pro to family members and genealogists.

You can sign up for a Pro Account for $4.95 a month. There are a number of features which we plan to add to Pro Accounts in the following months. As a subscriber, you will receive instant access to additional Pro Accounts features as soon as we add them.”

I’m excited about this for several reasons:

  • This move signals Geni’s transition to a “Freemium” business model, which may allow them to sustain their service for the long-term (if enough users sign up).  37Signals, a highly-respected software development firm, is perhaps the most frequently-cited successful practioner of this model.
  • To justify the “Pro” label, Geni is likely to roll out features such as support for source documentation, which would make the site much more attractive to me as “the place” for my genealogical data.
  • The Geni customers who sign up for Pro Accounts stand a good chance of being interested in obtaining genealogical source documents, which would make them potential Genlighten customers (yay!)

Of course the big questions here are:

  • What proportion of the users who’ve been attracted to Geni by its zero-cost offering will be willing to pay for the ‘Pro’ features?”
  • Will that fraction be large enough and loyal enough to help make Geni profitable over the long term?

I certainly hope that this new strategy proves successful for Geni.

What features would Geni need to add to get you to pay them $4.95/month?  Please let me know in the comments.  I’m currently preparing a presentation for the South Davis Family History Fair (to be held next March in Bountiful, Utah) in which I’ll compare the various web-based family tree sites like Geni, so your input would be greatly appreciated.