How do you send messages to DNA matches that are more likely to get replies? Why don’t Ancestry users respond to your messages about their trees?
Ancestry don’t mention this in their marketing, but there is an unfortunate truth that is easily learned by reading social media forums. Out of the millions of Ancestry users, many do not respond to messages asking for information or cooperation.
But some people are more successful than others at getting replies to their messages. This article compiles the best tactics and advice across blog posts and social media, combined with my own experience over three years. And you’d like actual examples for inspiration? Read on.
This article is chapter nine of an in-depth guide on getting the most from Ancestry. The series chapters up to now are:
- 1: The Essential Tree
- 2: Entering Dates in your Trees
- 3: Entering Names in your Trees
- 4: Entering Locations in your Trees
- 5: The Ancestry Search Engine
- 6: Ancestry Global Search
- 7: Ancestry Category Search
- 8: Ancestry Card Catalog Search
- 9. Sending Ancestry Messages that Get Replies (this chapter)
- 10. Building a Tree to Identify your DNA Matches
Ancestry Messages That Get Replies
If you’ve hit a streak of no replies to your messages, it may seem that it’s not worth trying. But before you throw in the towel, let’s look at some metrics of the rate of replies.
What are your chances of getting a response?
Here are my stats on messaging over a three-year period:
- Sent 28 messages
- Received 13 replies
11 replies were within one day, 1 within a month, and 1 almost 6 months later. The two replies with significant delays came with an apology, and an explanation that they had taken a break from their family research and hadn’t logged into Ancestry for a while.
So that’s a 46% success rate for me, but am I in any way representative? There’s a thread on the Lost Cousins forum where several Ancestry users give their stats.
- Andrew is 5 replies from 17 messages (30%)
- Ian is 5 from 12 (42%)
- Helen is 27 from 38 (71%)
Helen is crushing it, while Andrew plaintively asks, “have I just been unlucky?” There’s some extra info in Andrew’s post that I think may contribute to his lower rate of responses – and it’s a mistake I’ve also made and regretted. I’ll get to that issue later.
Most of us would be happy with a 1 in 2 reply ratio and would be delighted with 70+%. So how do you increase your own ratio?
Positive Indicators and Red Flags
So you’ve found a tree that may break down your brick wall. Super excited, you whip up a message as fast as you can type. Stop before you send, and work through this checklist to review the likelihood that this Ancestry user will reply.
When did the account join Ancestry, and when did they last log in?
Click the account to open the profile page, and you’ll see the join date and last login date.
You can trust the Join Date as being accurate but remember – this isn’t related to DNA processing. Many people register an account on Ancestry to start a tree and/or research the record collections, long before they purchase a DNA kit.
The “last signed in” date will show categories that include:
- 2-6 days ago
- This month
- 3-11 months ago
- Over a year ago
Ancestry users have noticed over the years that the “last signed in” date may be highly inaccurate when its suggesting recent activity e.g. “Today”. This is because a user may remain logged in from day to day, without taking further interest in looking at their messages or continuing their research.
What you want to check is whether the account is in the “3-11 months ago” or “Over a year ago” category. This suggests a lack of interest, which in turn is less likely to result in a reply.
What do I surmise from the example I’m showing? I’m writing this in June 2020. If K.S. joined Ancestry when she purchased her DNA kit, then she probably received her results in September or October 2019 but stopped signing in after a few months had passed. That kind of profile suggests someone who was interested in learning their ethnicity, as opposed to genealogy research. It’s not a good indicator of someone who replies to messages.
Fools rush in
I mentioned that Andrew’s poor response rate may be due to the same mistakes I made in my first year with Ancestry: messaging too soon. This is the scenario:
You check your Ancestry match page and see a new 3rd cousin has suddenly appeared! With a tree! Admittedly, the tree is on the small side, but you don’t let that deter you. In your excitement, you fire off a message. That message may even be worded in the best way to get a reply (see later).
Back in 2017 I spent a week sending messages to new DNA matches – and actually, I did get two short replies. But I resolved never to repeat this mistake. Have a look at these responses:
Thanks for the info , i have just started with thisreply 2017
I’m still going through the details as I only received the results yesterday. If you give me a few days I will come backreply 2017
You can feel the frazzle, can’t you? These poor Ancestry neophytes were getting that first jaw-dropping experience of looking at pages of DNA matches they didn’t recognize, and wondering what the heck to do with thousands of cousins.
Then I swoop in with questions? Nah, please go away, strange cousin, I’ve got days of scrolling ahead of me.
What I do now is ensure my targets have a join date of at least three to four months, with a login date of at least “this month”.
But that’s not all. Let’s do some further checks.
Has the account filled in their family history experience?
The “family history experience” is an optional form available on your account profile page. If the account has taken the time to fill it in, the details will appear beneath the join and login dates.
My previous example, KS, hadn’t filled the form, but BO here has diligently given details.
The “Researches almost every day” description isn’t something he typed in himself. Ancestry offers a few options in a drop-down.
Researches “once a week” or “once a month” are also promising. “Never”, less so.
As an aside – if you’d forgotten that this section was an option in your profile, it’s worth filling it in to encourage others to message you. And don’t assume that its absence is an indicator – I’ll wager most Ancestry users forget it exists.
So far, if I were making a choice between who to message first, BO would be ahead of KS. BO has stated that he’s a great deal more interested in genealogy than the average Ancestry user.
But wait, there’s more to check.
Does the account manage multiple DNA kits?
If the person you want to contact is a DNA match, then double check if they manage their own account. It’s clear from the match list which shows when a match is managed by another account.
When you message these matches, the message is actually sent to the administrator. Be sure to name the match of interest in your message.
You may be thinking that a manager of several kits must have an intense interest in family research and is therefore more likely to respond to your queries. But the opposite may be true. Here’s an honest appraisal by one manager:
I am a manager for 5 accounts  I have entered a basic ancestors only tree for some of the DNA tests which I manage, but  I am not interested in growing their trees further, especially on lines which do not refer to my family.Lost Cousins social media forum
Think about it. If the kit is for a child of the manager, then half the DNA will not be on the manager’s lines. It gets worse, of course, for cousins. And If the manager is pursuing single-surname research, then their focus may be very limited indeed.
This is not to discourage you from messaging a manager. Your interests may align perfectly! It’s just to explain some reasons why you may not get replies.
Does the account have multiple trees?
We don’t see how many kits are managed by an account, but we do get to see the number of trees associated with our DNA matches. Those unlinked trees may be for a spouse or a friend of the tree owner.
Be sure to name the specific tree in your message. If you just cite surnames or individuals, you’re asking the account to go looking through multiple trees to understand your query. That’s far less likely to get an answer.
Does the tree indicate an interest in genealogy?
If the account has a three-person tree, then its unlikely that there is much interest in family research.
Unless that tree-owner has little knowledge of their genetic history due to events such as adoption – they may be acutely interested but lack information.
Okay, you’ve done some background research and you think its worth your time to send a message to a specific account. Can you word it in such a way that you’ll increase your chances of reply? Before we get to specifics, here are some general do’s and don’ts. These are collated from many blog and social media posts that form a consensus on these points.
First Messages: DO
- Make your first message brief and concise
- Specify the name of the tree and/or the match of interest
- Offer some information of your own
- Explicitly ask for help
First Messages: DON’T
- Make an emotional appeal for assistance
- Send a wall of text with details of all your research
- Reveal a bombshell or hidden family secret
- Be over-friendly or release personal information (other than email)
Composing your First Message
Some people refer to making contact as initiating a date, but that’s a bit squicky to me. I see messages as akin to trying to make a sale. You must convince your recipient that they will benefit from responding to you. That benefit may simply be the joy of helping – but it’s in your interest to make it a bit more tangible than that. You’re looking to sell the possibility of an exchange of information in mutual research.
Let’s start at the very beginning. With…
The Subject Line
Specific subject lines are best. Avoid subject lines like these:
- About your tree
- Looking for info
- How are we related?
A vague subject line may give the impression that you’ve done little research and expect the recipient to do a lot of work. These examples are better, particularly if you’re pulling information from the recipient’s tree:
- Exploring the Smith/Ryan line
- Interested in John Dean b 1830 d 1895
Suppose you have a 2nd cousin DNA match and are genuinely baffled as to the common line. You may indeed be adopted, and not at all sure where to start. Again, it’s best to avoid a vague “How are we related?” opener. Instead, state the Ancestry-supplied cousin category in your subject line e.g.
- 2nd cousin DNA match on Ancestry
Avoid citing centimorgans and segments, as the recipient may be unfamiliar or put off with DNA jargon.
The Opening Line
This is the first sentence, which is often the hardest to write! Be specific as to what led you to contact this person. If it’s a specific tree, then name the tree in your opening sentence. If it’s a match, particularly one with a manager, then name the match.
- I was reviewing your tree “smith_family_tree_2017” on Ancestry.
- I have a DNA match with K.W. on Ancestry.
- I’m interested in a document attached to Edward Gorman (1820-1895) in your tree “smith_family_tree_2017” on Ancestry.
Note that I’m also specifying the DNA test company. Which may seem pointless, as the messaging system will be labelled as Ancestry – but the recipient may have DNA kits on several test websites that forward messages to a single email account. Make it easy for your target.
The Message Body
The general advice for first messages is to keep them short and dispassionate. The message body will be three to four sentences with any helpful information that may point the recipient in the right direction.
Family research can evoke deep emotions but be sure to keep emotion out of the message! The information you seek may be the most important thing in the world to you right now, but you don’t want to frighten the horses – like this guy:
I tend to get way too enthusiastic and before I know it I’ve written an excited paragraph …You definitely get better responses with the short, polite and to the point messages rather than crazy, lengthy excitable onesknowledgeseeker123, LostCousins forum thread
Your subject line and opening sentence stated the specific aspect that has led you to making contact. Some people just stop there – no, really, they do. But that’s not giving the recipient any reason to reply. You do need to ask someone to do something for you. And make it seem to be worth their while. But keep it brief!
When you do have a clue
The easier messages are where you’ve spotted the connection or common ancestor and are looking for additional information. Suppose you could never source the maiden name of a GGG-Aunt, but the recipient’s tree has it without a source.
Remember – people can be sensitive to any notion that you are challenging their facts. Or, in the case of verbal history, that you’re challenging their granny! So something like this should avoid hackles (this one worked for me):
I see that we have Edward & Anne [X] of [Y] as our common ancestors. I was really pleased to see that you have Anne’s maiden name, as I didn’t know it. Did your family tell you the name, or have you found records outside of Ancestry? I’d be interested in researching the details if you have more information.
When you don’t have a clue
Sometimes you’ll get a 2nd-3rd cousin match with a decent tree, and you can’t spot a single familiar name or place.
I used to list my ancestral surnames and hope that one stands out. That hasn’t been particularly successful, although I do get replies saying – nope, don’t recognize any of them. Now, I’d rarely message a match where I can’t point them in a particular direction.
But what if you have a compelling reason to message a DNA match with no idea as to the connection? This is most likely to be the case where adoption is involved. The last section of this article addresses some of the challenges.
Closing the Message
Remember I said you were trying to make a sale? Here is where you close the deal. You make an offer, and you must also invite the recipient to reply.
What’s the offer? If your tree is public, then there’s no harm to mention it as a generous asset. Something like:
My tree is public with lots of added documents, and you’re very welcome to browse it for anything useful. Please let me know if you’re interested in exchanging insights.
See? The offer, and the call to action.
If your tree is private, then I strongly suggest you offer to send an invite if the recipient would like one (unless you have good reason to keep your privacy). Be aware that a private tree may deter people from replying. Here’s one commentator, waxing lyrical on the subject:
I’ve also noticed a lot of people who message me have private trees, which kinda irks me. If you’re bumming off of my tree, I should be able to bum off of yours.Artsyyuppie on a subreddit
Your messages are sent with your Ancestry user name, which may of course be K.W.1962. So you should sign off with at least your first name, to increase a sense of connection.
There’s a consensus recommendation to add your email to the end of the message, as an alternative method of contact outside of Ancestry. I do this because I like exchanging documents as attachments.
I was somewhat surprised by the account of one Ancestry user who says he gets asked for a phone number! He clarified that it appeared to be older matches who prefer phone to new-fangled media. Just be sensible, folks.
Adoption and Making Contact
The strong consensus for adoptees is to avoid mention of adoption in your first message. The reasons are sadly societal: your recipients may feel discomfort at possible revelations within their family history.
I advised earlier to be as specific as you can – so what do you do when you don’t know any surnames in your own genetic history?
My advice is to do as much research as you can before starting to send messages. Review your 2nd and 3rd cousin matches and see if you can separate them into potential paternal and maternal lines. The best outcome is that you can narrow down one side to a small number of potential surnames.
If you do have a surname of interest, then throw it into your message – but be clear that you’re uncertain. People don’t like a vacuum but are often happy to correct misconceptions. Something like this could go into the message body:
I think our connection may be through the [surname] line or through [surname 2], but I’m not certain.
Any knowledge that you have can be used to steer your message. Adoption agencies used to give snippets of geographical information to adopted adults pertaining to their biological mothers. This can be dropped into the message body in lieu of a surname:
I’m researching my line from [geographic area], and I think that may be our connection.
Need more info on research for adoptees?
If you’re starting out on your Ancestry research, there’s a wealth of material out there to help steer your course. This website is a good start. There’s also a number of Facebook groups with people who will give advice and tips. Search and lurk for a bit, and try not to get overwhelmed.
The next chapter is on building an Ancestry tree to identify your DNA matches. It’s full of tactics and tips that I’ve gathered over the years, along with advice on avoiding inaccuracies that can derail your research.