It's hard to believe, but this Friday FamilyTreeWebinars.com will air webinar number 500. That's 500 ways to find your ancestors taught by the genealogy industry's finest researchers and educators. Since 2010 we've laughed together, we've been inspired together, and we've solved brick walls together. Here's a look back at some of the highlights of our history together.
How it all started
It all began in June 2010. I was attending a "brick and mortar" genealogy conference in Burbank, California. The Southern California Genealogical Jamboree has always been one of the biggest and most successful conferences in the country. This one was no different. But my attendance at this conference would change the future of education in the genealogy industry.
While meandering the hallways in between classes, I noticed a large bucket near the registration table with a raffle sign above it. For $5 I could purchase a raffle ticket. The prize - a one year subscription to GoToWebinar.com's webinar services valued at $6,000. You read that right - a 1,000 seat license for a GoToWebinar membership cost $6,000 a year. I've been involved in producing genealogy education via CDs, books, in-person classes, and as a guest on DearMYRTLE's radio show. Yet for a long time I wanted to bring the classroom experience to an online audience. I was heavily involved in what I believe was the first-ever online genealogy conference with Karen Clifford's company, GRAonline.com in the early 2000s. It was a lot of work, and was very successful, but the technology just wasn't around yet to provide a high quality interactive online experience between teacher and student. So when I peeked into the raffle bucket and saw that only a small handful of tickets had been purchased, I knew I had a chance to win. I bought eight tickets, wrote my name on each one, paid the $40, and waited for the drawing at the end of the day.
For the first time in my life, I heard my name called as the winner of anything. I had won a year of GoToWebinar.com!
On September 1, 2010 we announced that we would hold our first-ever live webinar. The topic would be "Mapping Software for Genealogists." We issued the announcement two weeks early so we could try to get enough people interesting in joining. Two days later the virtual seats were filled to capacity. My plan for the first webinar was to quickly demonstrate how to use different mapping software, and thirty minutes later, we'd be done. After that, if enough people showed up, maybe we'd do another webinar in another month or so.
I remember being more nervous than I thought possible, yet it happened without any problem. Immediately afterwards, I remember going to Wendy's for lunch with Dave (Legacy's co-founder and President), and thinking that everyone was looking at me. I had just spoken to 1,000 people in 28 countries - I was a star! The fame that I felt while eating my burger, I later recognized as feelings of "we're on to something really big here."
Wow did I ever underestimate how the genealogy public would react to this new medium of online education. We began holding webinars twice a month, then once a week, and now we've been known to have up to eight in one week. And they continue to fill to capacity nearly every time.
It was a learning process...
...for everyone. The term "webinar" was new to everyone, myself included. Together, we overcame many obstacles - how to connect to a live episode, how to adjust our audio volume, what to do when a thunderstorm came through and would knock out power, how to adjust our bandwidth settings, and even how to pronounce 'webinar.' While we never had any real technical disasters, a couple of moments do stand out to me.
First, was the famous sneeze. I think it happened during one of Thomas MacEntee's live webinars on New York research. He was moving right along when all of a sudden he heard a loud noise. It startled him and the entire virtual audience. What just happened? To listeners, it sounded like a loud bang. Was it thunder? Was it Geoff yelling at Thomas for something he had just said? Turns out, just as my sneeze was coming, I hit the unmute button on my microphone and sneezed right into everyone's speakers, including Thomas'. Embarrassed and apologetic, it was actually kind of funny. I polled the audience to see if I should leave the sneeze in the recording or edit it out. The vote was unanimous, and you can still listen to the sneeze in the webinar library.
A different kind of exciting moment happened a while later. It was during one of Judy Wight's webinars on Ireland genealogy. She was going along just fine, when all of a sudden, the entire webinar crashed. Never experiencing this before, I got to work trying to figure out what's going on. Three or four minutes later, it just reappeared, and the online audience started to return. Afterwards, we learned that about a minute before everything crashed, the new Pope was announced. Apparently, this viral announcement took down servers around the world, including GoToWebinar's.
Since then, we've had the occasional glitch, but for the most part, the technology has come through for us. Now before you think that the webinars just take care of themselves, I'm here to testify that there is a lot more that has to happen behind the scenes to host a successful webinar. I won't bore you with the details, but I have a three page checklist for every single webinar. If any item is overlooked, something will go wrong, or won't be as perfect as I like.
Favorite moments and successes
Of the nearly 500 webinars in the library, it's difficult to choose my favorites, but a couple have stood out. One was the Genealogy Idol Competition. Presented live at RootsTech in 2012, we had four contestants - 2 online and 2 in-person - who competed for the online audiences' votes. After auditions, four were chosen - Elyse Doerflinger, Elizabeth Clark, Michael Hait, and Marian Pierre-Louis. They each taught about one technology tip, one genealogy methodology tip, and one serendipity moment. In the end, Marian took the top prize. I didn't know it then, but Marian would join our FamilyTreeWebinars team as guest host and producer a couple of years later.
Every once in a while, during a live webinar, a viewer will write in saying that they just solved their 30-year brick wall. They tried out a new site or a new strategy that the speaker just mentioned, and solved their problem on the air. Those are some of my favorite moments!
The most rewarding aspect of hosting the webinar series is when I receive the email from the home-bound widow or the from patient in the hospital or from the person on a fixed income who tell me that there is no other way for them to get to a genealogy conference or society meeting, and if it weren't for our webinar series, they'd still be stuck with their brick wall. I hear from viewers who tell me that Webinar Wednesday is the highlight of their week. They cancel all activities and even reschedule doctor appointments so they can be with us each Wednesday.
The most humbling comment I've ever received was in response to my Genealogy Serendipity - Listening For Our Ancestors webinar. After the most difficult, emotionally draining sixty minutes I've ever been a part of, one viewer wrote, "What an incredibly moving hour. I will never be the same." It was during that webinar that I not only connected to my ancestors, but I connected to our audience in such a way that I will always consider our audience part of my family.
The popularity of the webinar series has grown so much that now one of the most difficult challenges is how to narrow down the hundreds and hundreds of speaking proposals into a schedule that will fit into one year. We've begun to overcome this by offering pre-recorded bonus webinars for subscribers. In fact, in addition to the recordings of each year's live webinars, we now have more than 130 such classes including an entire series on DNA and a new one on Ireland.
Probably the most difficult personal experience I've had with the series came after we announced the 2015 live series. It was brought to my attention that there was little diversity of the ethnicities of the speakers and topics I selected for that year. Lots of public discussion took place where it was suggested that I was guilty of racism. Obviously this hurt me very personally. Yet it helped me grow. In this very difficult time as I considered how to address this, I turned to my religious beliefs and sought the help from my Maker. After much prayer and pondering, I felt like I was led to a solution, where, with Angela Walton-Raji's help, we introduced the Freedom Series, where we were reminded that 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and thus freedom for all persons. I feel that its effects were felt worldwide, and that the experience helped to bring together a divided community. How thankful I was, and still am, to have been a part of this experience.
Another part of my growing family, and the biggest key to the success we've had with our webinar series, is the caliber of the 141 different speakers that have participated with us. Speakers, who grew up with transparencies and overheads, who are finally comfortable with PowerPoints and projectors, were now being asked to speak with a headset into a monitor with virtually no instant feedback from a live audience. They have all done so well to adjust to the new technologies. And honestly, there's not a single one that I would not gladly recommend to anyone. We all have our favorites, but a couple of my favorite voices to listen to are those of Mary Hill and Angela Walton-Raji. In spite of the technology, distance, bandwidth, and anything else involved with a live webinar, listening to their voices, you can actually "hear" them smiling. The audio that comes out of their mouths comes out smiling. It's really quite incredible.
One of the best decisions we've made was to partner with an organization whose speakers have each met a level of proven research proficiency - the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Last year we agreed to work together where FamilyTreeWebinars.com would host their monthly live webinars and in return, BCG would let us host their recordings. It continues to be a very positive relationship for both of us and for the viewing audience.
At the end of every webinar, our viewers are provided with a survey where we ask them to rate the webinar on a scale of one to five, and we ask them for any comments. There are always a few "best webinar ever!" comments, and every once in a while, there are dozens of them. But only one has been watched more than any other. It's a great topic for everyone - Sources and Citations Made Simple, Standard, and Powerful. Here's the top five.
Speaking of number 1, our webinar series was awarded the Best Genealogy Education or Learning Experience as part of About.com's 2013 Genealogy Reader's Choice Awards.
Free weekend on us
In addition to the big celebration during Friday's live webinar, we're unlocking the membership key of the Webinar Library for the first time ever. Beginning Friday and continuing through Sunday evening, the entire library - all 500 classes - will be open and free to the public. Just visit www.FamilyTreeWebinars.com and browse or search for any topic or presenter and enjoy! Then, tell us about what you learned. And if you LOVE what you are learning, consider joining us for a month or for a year to enjoy the memberships even longer.
There's another reason I can't wait for episode #500. Well, I can't wait for it to be over because immediately following the live webinar is the After-Webinar Party, where, finally, after all of these years, I will get to use Legacy's Merge tool to combine my Nathan Brown with the Nathan Brown I have been researching and, with Marian Pierre-Louis' help and my recent DNA test, have proven them to be one and the same. Join me then for one of the most thrilling moments of my personal genealogy research ever!
Well, here's to the first 500 webinars and here's to the next 500. While I doubt anyone needs every single class in the library, my continued goal is to have quality genealogy education wherever and whenever you are, and hopefully we can bring you something that will help you climb your tree even higher.
Remember - life is short, do genealogy first!