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During my research, I have identified some people currently living who I believe are distant relatives. They are a brother and sister, who are my wife's third cousins. Neither has a family tree on Ancestry.com, so the obvious approach isn't possible. I have tried the following courses of action:

  1. Sent the brother a direct email to a plausible email address I found online. No answer.
  2. Sent the brother an invitation through LinkedIn because he was a 3rd-degree connection in my network. The message did not appear to get forwarded by an intervening connection.

Now I can do one of these things 3. Contact the sister through Facebook (although I am not keen on creating a Facebook account) 4. Sending a regular letter to: either one of the 3rd cousins, or to their parents who are still alive.

Are there other reasonable things to try? What's a good way to word the letter to the parents? I had attached a copy of a family group portrait that includes a common ancestor to the email I sent (step 1). I can also include a printed copy in a regular letter.

The broader question here is what are good strategies for contacting people who are potential relatives? The goal is establish a connection, rather than to freak people out or to cause them to think I want something from them.

UPDATE 5 JAN 2013

Following some of the advice below, I sent a letter including a family photo and a hand-written note, and received a phone call the day after they received it. We had a great conversation with more to come.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 23 down vote accepted

When I contact people for the first time, email if possible, post mail if necessary, I NEVER ask them for anything.

To break the ice I always send them something that I believe they will be very interested in and that may pique their interest in family history. Examples are birth or marriage certificates of their ancestors, photographs of their ancestors, census records of their grandparents, ship arrival records of their ancestors, and so on.

I make sure it is THEIR family that is highlighted in what I send.

I will allude to how we are related to one another as part of the explanation of why I am sending them the information, but that's as far as I go. I couch(express) the letters in terms of things that I have found during my research that I feel they would be interested in, and that I want to share with them.

And I am not disengenuous when I do this, as this is how I truly feel. I love to share information in this way, even if I get nothing back in return.

I have had remarkable success with this approach, and I now regularly correspond with a number of people I have first approached in this way.

I have had tears in my eyes many times when reading the thanks I have received from the persons I have shared information with.

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That's really good, Tom. +1 –  lkessler Oct 12 '12 at 3:06
    
I like your positive and generous approach Tom. I don't have any significantly different views that might constitute an independent answer, but I would like to mention that many sites help with finding distant relatives and with the initial introductions (e.g. genesreunited.co.uk). In this case, the tree that you have online is usually the material used to get them interested. Unfortunately, if there are significant differences to their own then some people may never respond. It's a sad fact that some people can't cope with with verifiable differences and feel safer with the majority. –  ACProctor Jan 7 '13 at 11:42

I do this A LOT. A significant portion of my genealogy work is tracing the descendants of my ancestors. In my case, I usually haven't located any closer relatives to use as intermediaries. I've tried using, at various times, cold calls, postal mail, e-mail (rarely) and Facebook (even more rarely).

Of these, phone calls and postal mail have gotten the best results, with caveats. I've found that with phone calls, people are sometimes suspicious that I'm trying to sell them something (especially people of my parents' generation). I've had better luck with postal mail, where I can include copies of the family tree, scans of photos or other family memorabilia (e.g. Bible pages, taufscheins, etc.). I always include as much contact information as I can (postal mail, e-mail and phone). I've found that it's more useful to contact someone who's likely to use e-mail, even if it's their parent I really want to connect with.

I had pretty good luck with responses early on. But, as the family tree has grown, my response rate to postal mail has dropped to about 2 out of 3. E-mail response has actually been worse than that, even when told that a close relative has supplied the e-mail address. I think I've gotten a grand total of 2 responses from Facebook contacts. Responses have been pretty evenly divided among postal mail, e-mail and phone calls.

I usually include in my letter a sentence like "if there's someone in your family who's particularly interested in family history, please forward my contact information to them". I sometimes get responses from the child or niece/nephew of the recipient (sometimes months later).

As has been mentioned in other contexts here, to maximize the likelihood of a response, it's important that the message focus on THEIR family, rather than MY family.

I've found that some people simply aren't interested in connecting with their more distant relatives. On the other hand, I've also found others with an interest in research (in one case, the recipient of the letter had been searching for MY family, unsuccessfully; in another, the family tree outline I mailed later turned up in the recipient's daughter's Geni project). That said, I haven't found a way to guarantee a response from a particular individual.

One trick I've learned is that if you have a choice of a number of siblings to contact, choose a "middle child", rather than the oldest or youngest. I don't know why that works (it's been suggested to me that it has something to do with middle children being more trusting), but my response rate from "middle children" has been demonstrably higher than from oldest or youngest.

I would welcome any other tips from anyone as to how to encourage responses. It's not something I've seen addressed much in these forums.

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Thanks! Lots of good suggestions here! Just two days ago I finally sent a letter to the cousins I had found. I included a family portrait and a portion of the relevant family tree. I hope it works! –  Gene Golovchinsky Jan 5 '13 at 3:11

Blog.

In my experience the single most cousin-friendly and valuable step you can take is to blog about your ancestors and share a link or two with them in an e-mail; tell them you hope to correspond.

Even if they don't take the bait, there is a good chance some other cousin will discover the blog and want to correspond.

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Ouch. Cold-calling in marketing is usually unsuccessful. Cold-calling in genealogy, unfortunately, is often the same.

If you got a letter or an email from someone you've never heard of claiming to be your relative, how would you react?

Well, think about that, and try to formulate something that you would accept. It's a tough challenge. (Caveat: If you could do something like in Tom's answer, then you'll have a chance. But if you can't do that, then keep reading this for a second choice)

Instead of contacting them directly, you can do this:

  1. Find among the cousins you are in contact with, one who may know them. These might be cousins who are closer relatives to them than you, or who are physically closer to them (i.e. same city).

  2. Contact the cousin you know that knows them, and ask if they'd contact them on your behalf and tell them that they have a distant cousin who is doing the family tree. They should give them your name and email address and say that you, the family historian, has information and stories about their ancestors and relatives. They could either contact you or you them.

That is what will start it off. They'll trust someone they know. And if that someone they know introduces them to you, then you have your contact.

If after that, the distant relative wants nothing to do with you, then don't bother them at all. Do a little more research and find their siblings and cousins. Do the same procedure (find a common person) with them, and eventually you will find someone on that side of the family who will be interested and will talk to you.

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I have documented the extended family well enough to know that there aren't any other cousins who are closer to this family. (I have been in contact with other cousins.) My reason for being reluctant to wait is not to let time pass and have the earlier generation pass away, as they are the best link to the family history from Germany. –  Gene Golovchinsky Oct 12 '12 at 2:51
    
@Gene - Do you know anyone connected to the area in Germany that they live in? The idea is to get someone they know to contact them on your behalf. Unfortunately it isn't 50 years ago any more, when letters from unknown relatives were trusted. –  lkessler Oct 12 '12 at 3:02
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@Gene - And another idea: Has any of your relatives, especially aunts or uncles ever visited Germany? Why? What did they see. Who did they visit? Did they visit or know someone who might know these new relatives? –  lkessler Oct 12 '12 at 3:15
    
There is no more family in Germany; this branch was the last to emigrate, in 1937. They are, in fact, the most likely to have interesting family lore and documents from the family's life in Germany in the 19th century. –  Gene Golovchinsky Oct 12 '12 at 3:48
    
@Gene - Oh. So they emigrated. Where do they live now? Who do you know in the city they live now who might happen to know them? –  lkessler Oct 12 '12 at 3:56

I have found a bit more than a handful of new relations since I started researching my family. For reasons that would be too tedious to type out I felt the need to contact them and get to know more. I managed to find a way to contact them all and not a single one blew me off. After making contact, if it happened to be by 3rd party we exchanged contact info of one sort or another. There are only a couple that never contact me or hardly reply if I contact them and that's pretty good odds to me. I think what helps me the most with a favorable contact is I believe my genealogy findings are for sharing not for hoarding and I let them know who I am and what I have to offer whether they want to stay in contact or not. I want to touch on your mention of Facebook. It is possible to create a "locked down" account by changing the settings. That way the only people that should be able to contact you are those you contact 1st (but please don't hold me to that 100%). Check this out: http://amberskyline.com/fgs/ Good luck, Kelly

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I have just SUCCESSFULLY used Facebook to track distant relatives. I just told them who I was, who I was looking for, what I would like to do (trade pics & stories) and BAM!!! They are as excited as me & we have set a meet time. I keep my genealogy pics "public" on facebook so that all the people I contact/collaborate with can see/download at any time. I have contacted MANY people and I have not been turned down but some correspondence has been short because our connection is very distant. Still I am having a BLAST! I do add a photo if I think it will help but almost every approach I have used has worked. I would like to say I have a 100% response rate (it feels that way) but maybe only 90%. I have used email, findagrave and lots of other "websites" now to be completely honest in the beginning most of the people where also "searchers/genealogist" but now I will just contact anyone. I once meet the real estate broker who sold my husband's grandparents farm, asked him if he remembered the people who bought it. Got an introduction, just so we could walk around the farm. Ok, as you can see I no longer have any qualms about asking for an introduction or just introducing myself, because all they can really say is no thanks. HAPPY HUNTING!!!!

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Thanks! As it turns out, after a linked-in request and an email request, a hand-written letter did the trick. Had a good time talking to my wife's cousins once we met. –  Gene Golovchinsky Jul 11 '13 at 0:56

I can tell you what not to do. I have a pretty bad record when contacting distant relatives. I am good at getting a response, but then I think I throw too much information at them, and they get turned off.

Right now I have two second cousins (not really that distant) who are sitting on amazing photographs and family tree information that I would dearly love to have. But they have no real motivation to share, and they don't. Very frustrating. Neither live in the same country I do, so I can't just stop by.

I am being very patient so that I don't completely turn them off. But not much is happening. I guess I do have a good record of getting an initial response, so I would offer this advice.

  1. Tell them enough so that they know you are probably related, but not too much. I had one relative tell me: "You know more about my family than I do." In my return e-mail I tried to gently explain that it was my family too. But it was too late.

  2. I usually give a link to a FB page or LinkedIn page... so they can check me out first... before answering.

  3. I emphasize that I have no reason for contacting them except to offer a friendly hello.

  4. I offer to share notes if they have any interest.

  5. I tell them I have some photos they (or their mom or dad) might find interesting

In my experience, 90% of people don't have that much interest in old family members. Understandable, I didn't myself until I got interested in my family tree.

Family trees are confusing to many people, because it is hard to keep track of without the chart in front of you. So I keep my first email short and sweet.

I have about 12 distant cousins as FB friends now, and I really enjoy it. I comment on the odd picture, and make occasional small talk. It works out great. Very unobtrusive, but small bonds are forming.

One thing I have found interesting is that of the 20 odd relatives I have contacted, absolutely none of them had any interest in my family. None asked about my brothers and sisters. They had zero interest. Not that shocking that most wouldn't. But surprised that NONE do.

All in all... I enjoy it still... and you never know when you will find a relative that you connect with.

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