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Contacting AncestryDNA Matches: Do It Right

I'm thinking about renaming this post, "Contacting AncestryDNA Matches: Do It Now!"

It is going to take you longer to read this post than it will take to contact SEVERAL matches after you implement my suggestion(s).

So what's stopping you?  Maybe it's because...

Contacting DNA matches can seem intimidating.

It might be because you have so many, or maybe you just don't like contacting people out of the blue. It doesn't matter why, having a plan (and preferably a template) makes it much easier.

In this post, I'm going to help you craft an email template specifically to use at AncestryDNA.

Contacting AncestryDNA Matches

Contacting AncestryDNA Matches: Do It Right



So why an email template specifically for AncestryDNA?

Simple.

Segment data.

Don't run away! If that sounds like too much jargon for you, sit tight!

If you want to use DNA to help find your family tree, you need to understand some jargon. You can actually get away with understanding very little and essentially having an elementary school understanding of those terms (i.e. the jargon can be understood with elementary level words, really!)

Why AncestryDNA is Different

In a nutshell, segment data is how we know we share DNA from a specific ancestor versus knowing we share DNA with someone but not what (or who's) DNA.

The big problem is "shared matches" or "In common with" (ICW) lists show three test takers appear as matches to each other. This is NOT triangulation. It's the same concept but triangulation means three test takers are matches to each other AND share the same segment of DNA. That means they inherited that DNA from the same shared ancestor.

Without segment data, you only have shared matches and they might actually share DNA from three different ancestors but by chance appear on each other's match lists.

It works like this. You might match person 1 and 2 but the DNA for match 1 came from ancestor A and for match 2 it came from ancestor B---but 1 and 2 share ancestor C.

This is extremely common, especially for groups like southerners and people with colonial American roots (and absolutely for endogamous populations like Acadian or Ashkenazi Jewish). These are just a few examples of populations where this happens (as more populations are widely tested, that's when we learn this is common in those populations).

However, this is not uncommon for anyone and that's why segment data is so important.

To get a better understanding, you can read this post specifically about why AncestryDNA is different (i.e. the importance of segment data and the issues of working without it).

Why am I talking about segment data in a post about email templates (or in the case of AncestryDNA "messaging templates")?

The only way to avoid problems due to a lack of segment data is with more information. You will need to contact some key matches at AncestryDNA to get more information.

First, let me talk about the situation where you won't need to contact a key match. You should be noting how specific this situation is...

What is "Enough" Information for Genetic Genealogy

When you discover you need more information from a match at AncestryDNA to help with a specific problem, there are times that information is already available.

First, this would be when the match has a public tree, a good public tree.

That doesn't mean the tree has to be perfectly sourced with the most beautifully formatted source notes you've ever seen.

It's just important that there's enough tree there for you to verify it is correct or further it with your own research. If we waited for perfect citations, none of us would ever get anywhere. It's not even convenient to attach great citations to an Ancestry tree.

For those of you who just stuck your nose in the air over the lack of beautifully formatted citations, this next section is for you.

I have never talked to (or worked with the DNA of) a top-notch professional genealogist that is concerned about providing beautifully formatted citations with the tree attached to their DNA results.

Trees are an inferior way to provide your research.

You heard me.

They are extremely convenient and easy to understand, though.

Providing a tree is a courtesy to your matches (and one most of us want returned). It isn't even possible to correctly cite more complex situations in a tree so usually, I've seen people (including me) choose to provide no citations with their "DNA tree."

Accept that a DNA tree does not have to have citations to be useful (and do a happy dance if the tree isn't private or only contains the name of one or two people without details).

The second item (at AncestryDNA) needed before you decide you don't need to contact a match is their GEDmatch id/kit number. Being able to find their transferred results at FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) or MyHeritageDNA would also work (all three options would allow you to get segment data and FTDNA and GEDmatch will give you an email address so you don't have to use a messaging service if you do need or want to contact a match).

Your results also need to be at the other site for this to be helpful, of course.

I often do find matches who meet both these criteria. More often, I find matches at GEDmatch and can't figure out which Ancestry kit they belong to but emailing someone, instead of using a messaging service, is more likely to work.

However, realize when I say I often find matches meeting these criteria, I do a lot of DNA work, some of it for clients. I work with dozens of tests. You will find this much less likely if you use DNA less and have fewer tests you work with.

So let's recap.

There is a chance you have enough information from an AncestryDNA match that you don't have to contact them. This is not likely but you probably have lots of matches you're considering contacting. I recommend you prioritize who to contact and people with the minimum require information should have a lower priority vs. a match of equal interest missing all or part of this minimum information.

The minimum information is:

  1. Enough tree information for you to research the match's tree (if it is a large tree you want to "verify" the tree is correct, at least).
  2. Segment data. Preferably you get this in the form of the match's GEDmatch kit #/id but I'd give a lower priority to a match who is also at FTDNA or MyHeritageDNA (remember, that means you have info at whichever of those companies, too).


Let's get back to needing to contact matches at AncestryDNA...

Contacting DNA Matches: Why?

There are two big reasons why people feel they need to email/message a DNA match.

Can you guess what they are (you should be able to)?
  1. They are looking for family tree/pedigree information.
  2. They are asking the person to upload the results to GEDmatch.
Even if someone has a public tree, you may still be emailing them for information related to their family tree which falls under number one.

Other reasons can include verifying they are the same person as a test you found at another site or asking about other test-related details such as how they match a shared match.

Whatever reason you have for contacting a DNA match, there are some best practices to help you get a response, and hacks, to make it easier to do.

So let's talk about best practices for messaging your AncestryDNA matches. Much of this will apply to contacting a match regardless of the source but there are some quirks if you're initiating your contact from AncestryDNA.

How to Contact Your AncestryDNA Matches

First, if you can contact a match another way (for example, you can identify them at GEDmatch and therefore have an email address), do it. Ancestry's messaging service has all of the disadvantages of email and only has advantages if you happen to be messaging someone who visits Ancestry.com frequently.

Why?

The messaging service is tied to your Ancestry.com account. The one advantage is an active user will keep their email address up to date and can see message notifications in the header bar.
When using Ancestry.com, you can see if you have new messages by checking the envelope icon in the header bar (right side next to your username).


Pretty much the messaging service is disadvantages after this. I want to list the "problems" so you make sure you aren't causing them for people trying to message you!

Can YOUR AncestryDNA Matches Contact You?

"Site Preferences" is in the drop-down under your username.

Review your own settings to make sure you aren't missing messages from DNA cousins.


The messaging service is handled under "Community Preferences" which is currently found under "Site Preferences".

Access the drop-down menu under your username/avatar to select "Site Preferences." On all my devices this is (currently) in the top right corner as shown in the image.


To receive messages, you have to have agreed to use the messaging feature. The other option is preventing messages, there's no alternative contact option (and notice you have the option to block certain people should that need arise, you don't have to refuse all messaging because of one person).

You also do NOT need a subscription to send and receive messages with DNA matches. This page from Ancestry.com's Support pages shows what you get if you take a DNA test and have a subscription or not.

(Note that it says a subscription of any length, so if you want to use some of the additional features, you could prep and do a short subscription and do all that work at once---genealogy involves a lot of planning, it's OK to plan your spending, too!)

RELATED LINKHow to Do Genealogy on the Cheap, the Right Way

OK, so do you have your community preferences set? Make sure you have a working email entered (there is a gray box on the right side after you choose "Site Preferences" that includes the link to update your email address).

Now Ancestry.com can forward your "messages" to your email address.

TIP:
I find it easier to just check the messages from the envelope icon on the website since I'm on Ancestry so much.

Sometimes the view in your email gets messed up. Before hitting reply and telling someone what they sent doesn't make sense, view the message online in the Ancestry.com Message Center.

That was a lot of directions to make sure your DNA matches can contact you. You can imagine why the response rate is so low.

Additionally...
Yes, your message could have gotten sent to SPAM.
Yes, the person may no longer use the email they entered in their Ancestry.com account.
No, there isn't another way to contact them (well, you can try and research them but there's not another easy way via Ancestry.com).

*sigh*

DNA is useless without matches and information from those matches. All of us have to deal with this so accept it and do your best.

Now that we've talked about problems, let's talk about solutions.

Contacting your AncestryDNA Matches Correctly

First, I recommend contacting matches using the button across from their name on their DNA match information page.
Send Message button in AncestryDNA results

If you don't have a subscription, this is probably the only way to contact them but here's why I think it's best, regardless.

View the match link in an AncestryDNA message.
When you do this, you will automatically have a link created at the bottom of your message that goes to you or more specifically, to the test you were using when you clicked the "Send Message" button.

You won't' see this in your message, it's added when it sends but you can see it in the sent copy and in your message history (handy for you).

This is extremely helpful if you aren't as clear as you should be and the person manages more than one DNA test.

Even if they can figure it out without the link, it makes life easier for them.

People are busy. They are more likely to respond when you make everything easier for them!
I try and always respond to people because I want people to respond to me but if things are really crazy and someone is really vague, you bet that's the message I don't respond to. I really, really, really, try to be polite and respond so you know if I skip responding sometimes, the average person will skip responding whenever it's "too hard."

You are already fighting against the inconvenience of the Ancestry.com messaging service, do everything you can to make it easy for your match.

So that was step one. What to actually click to open a message to your match.

Time for the actual template (Gee whiz, how far into this post am I and we're just getting to the template? That's why I've written this post just about AncestryDNA, so many issues!).

AncestryDNA Messaging Template

Subject

Make it easy to get started. Nearly every message I send has the subject "DNA match."

I don't get specific with an initial message because you want them to open your message. If you are specific and that detail is outside their interest, they won't open it. If you're too vague, they may not open it (or it could go to SPAM because of your subject line).

Pretty much, you're not getting anything from a match that isn't interested in their DNA matches so if they don't open a message "DNA match" because they aren't interested, you weren't getting their help, anyway.

I have on occasion included a surname or something similar if I perceived an interest in that topic. It has to be pretty clear because a LOT of matches really are only interested in certain lines so I don't want to mention one they are NOT interested in.

A more specific subject is better as long as you don't turn your contact off with the specificity.

Greeting

I'd like to skip this piece but I know some people still want it.

I start with "Hi" but you should start with whatever greeting you are comfortable with.

As a note, I only use a name if the test is listed as an actual name with no "managed by." It's kinda odd when people message me and say "Hello A.B." or whatever username. Yes, that makes it clear which test I'm looking at (assuming I don't have multiples with the same initials which could happen) but then I wonder if the person knows what the "managed by" part even means.

Now we're back to that part about making this easy for your match. Making me wonder about your attention to detail (even if it's in an effort to be polite) doesn't move you to the top of the "respond now" pile.

I feel I will have to write extra words to deal with you addressing me by the wrong name. It doesn't matter if this is true or not, it matters that I think responding will be harder because you addressed me by the wrong name.

We'll address the clarity of which test in a moment.

I know I'm giving you a template to use but every message should sound like it was written from one human being to another. You can't bulk message on AncestryDNA so no exceptions.

(And yes, I do send the same email to multiple matches, but I read each to make sure it sounds like it's from one human to another one human. And yes, I do sometimes make a mistake and leave something in from one to another. If you try and be careful through all of these points, one or even two mistakes won't make you sound like a SPAM bot.)

Length

Now that I've freaked you out about mistakes and having to send individual messages, here's how to deal with that.

Keep your message short.

Less to edit, less for your match to read (assume he or she is busy).

Most of my messages are so short that two mistakes would be a lot (when I write longer messages, I do make more mistakes or spend hours, literally, editing, not worth it usually).

Keep your message short.

Content

I will give you examples in a moment but I can actually give you a list of the points you want to make sure and include. You can include these in different orders but often it makes the most sense to include them in the order I'm listing them.

Remember, this should sound like a human wrote it, not a robot, relax and make sense.

Include the following information.

  1. The test you are writing about (even if it doesn't say "managed by" mention it just in case, I've had people that share an email address so the respondent might get confused if you don't explicitly state which test---remember, make it easy to respond).
  2. The test they match (your test, or the test you manage, etc.). Mention the link you hope will appear at the bottom if you want.
  3. Your "plea" (optional, more on this in a moment)
  4. What you want. Seriously, don't forget this. This is the number one reason I don't respond, because I don't know why the person messaged me (I have public trees for everyone and attached GEDmatch ids, I really need to be told what they want since I've provided what I can. I won't guess). Make it easy for them to reply!
  5. Details, if needed
  6. "Please email me back and let me know you received this message" (include email now or in signature or both, see last item in this list)
  7. Your name, a name so they can respond to a human. I hate when people strangers don't sign messages because I don't want to call you the wrong name (plus, with DNA, it can get confusing with multiple people involved and you need to know the exact relationship so assume your match wants to know your name, for clarity if nothing else).
  8. Your email address. A great idea is to create an email address just for your DNA matches but only do this if it's easy for you to deal with.

Let's look at an example.

Sample Template 1: Seeking Clarification/Specific Project


I'm going to change all of this to fake information so you can see the full message. There will be a few explanatory items in [] so you know what piece of information I included since you can't actually see this match. This is an actual message I sent and got a response to.

Hi,
Your test for "Jo Blowe" matches the test for Jane Smith ([Jane's username]). I'm helping Jane with a project for her dad. I have two questions.

First, could you please share some information about your family tree so I could see if I can find a shared branch with Jane or some of the other matches the two of you share? I see you have a public tree that is not attached to your DNA test. Is the home person (appears to be a daughter of Joe Blowe and Mary Dough) the same as Jo Blowe? If not can you give me some information about her family tree?

Second, I'm wondering if you have or if you'd be willing to upload your results to GEDmatch (it's free). They offer a lot more tools and I could then compare your results directly to those for Jane's dad, uncle, and aunt as well as others who did not test at AncestryDNA.

We'd really appreciate if you could help us further this project.

Please email me back and let me know if you received this message. The Ancestry messaging service sometimes doesn't deliver messages for months (or at all!) so an email is preferred.

Thanks,
Jennifer
[email created just for this project]


As a general rule, I ask for family tree information and ask about GEDmatch in the same message regardless if I'm to the point of using GEDmatch for the problem I'm working on. Better introduce the idea and they don't respond but upload when they feel confident. The alternative is to not mention it, you never get a response, and they never know GEDmatch exists.

I don't go into a lot of detail about GEDmatch other than saying it's free because remember, keep it short.

You'll also notice in the example above I didn't go into a lot of detail about this project. This is one of my "long" first messages. I only went into so much detail to humanize the message since I was mentioning the mother and father listed in the unattached tree.

Trying not to sound like a creepy Internet stalker is important.

Some matches are genealogists and totally get it. Some matches just took a test, played with Ancestry.com one day and totally forgot what they made publicly visible on the Internet. You will scare the pants off them if you sound at all creepy.

Let's quickly go over the numbered "include this" items so you can equate the actual text to some of my less clear items.

1. "Your test for Jo Blowe..."
I start a lot of messages "Your test for..." Not the most conversational but keeps them short and makes sure I don't forget to include it. You can create your own version of this opening to use in your own template.

2. "...matches the test for [person's actual name] ([person's username])."
Often this will be "matches the test for A.B. managed by CDEgenealogist" instead of including all the names but I wanted to refer to "Jane" by name in the text instead of using her username. That's up to you and any agreements about confidentiality for the tests you manage.

3. "I'm helping Jane with a project for her dad."
I've called this item a "plea" because it should be a QUICK reason you are writing. This is not a long drawn out explanation. It is a humanizing reason you are asking for help. I skip this when I don't have a "project" or the project doesn't sound compelling.

4. This example specifies clarification about the unattached tree and asks about GEDmatch.

5. For brevity, this message didn't give a lot of details but did mention there were other close family members with results at GEDmatch, including the father who was mentioned in the "plea."

6. "Please email me back..."

7. My name, remember the match was to Jane and this person shouldn't write "Hi Jane!" so be clear.

8. This project has it's own email address which is really helpful.
You can create a free Gmail account (or several free Gmail accounts) to get an additional DNA-only email. If you own a URL, you might be able to create aliases which aren't separate email addresses and therefore can be checked in a single account. This requires a whole separate blog post for directions so I'll leave you to research how this is done if it applies to you.

Sample Template 2: They don't get any shorter

Hi,
The test you administer "A.B." is one of the closer matches to my great-aunt's test (C.D. administered by jpgenealogy). Could you please share some information about his family tree so I can determine how they are related?
Thanks,
Jennifer

This is an older message before I started including my request for email contact. Below (template 3) is how I'd write this today but first, I wanted to point out the "plea" in this message. I've mentioned this is a closer match to my great-aunt's test.

You may find a third cousin is a "close" match with what you're used to working with while your match may consider a second cousin as far as they want to venture.

Mentioning you are contacting someone because you consider they are a "close" match is important. In this case "close" is how YOU define it and realize that is likely different than how your match defines it. It is certainly different than what AncestryDNA calls "close."

Sample Template 3: The basic template

Hi,
The test you administer "A.B." is one of the closer matches to my great-aunt's test (C.D. administered by jpgenealogy). Could you please share some information about A.B.'s family tree so I can determine how they are related?

I'm also wondering if you've uploaded your results to GEDmatch or would be willing to upload them. GEDmatch is a free service.

Please email me back and let me know if you received this message. The Ancestry messaging service doesn't always deliver messages or they can be delayed by months. I'd really appreciate an email so I know my message got through (and so you know I received your reply!)

Thanks,
Jennifer
dnamatches@jpgenealogy.com

One other item I sometimes include is an offer to help them upload to GEDmatch. Do NOT make this offer if you can't help, including if you are unlikely to be able to help due to time constraints when they reply. I only make this offer to "high value" tests (as defined by me) so I can sort of drop everything to help them whenever they respond.

They might respond months later. Yes, I've had that happen many times. Remember, assume your matches are busy.

I often offer to help them with GEDmatch once they respond. Rarely are you answering lots of responses at once so you're not going to be taken up on a lot of offers of help all at once this way.

It's nice to be nice and try and help your matches with what you can. Lots of people that take a test are nice but not as into genealogy as you or me. They are willing to help you but are often at a loss what to do. They can use some help helping you (their match).

This is a great way to get some genealogy karma going or just follow the golden rule.

Ready to Start Contacting Matches?

While preparing this post I listened to a recorded lecture about contacting matches presented by Kerry Scott of ClueWagon (and author of How to Use Evernote for Genealogy) It included some great advice about contacting matches but also some variations of what I recommend.

In that lecture, Kerry suggests a longer first email than I've suggested. I personally don't like receiving messages that are as effusive but her reasoning is correct. She recommended trying to connect with the match as a person.

I suggest a brief first message to respect the time of the recipient but also because you don't know what kind of personality they have. They might be very chatty or very business-like.

Although I don't like a lot of personal detail in a first message, I often get into that kind of email correspondence fairly quickly with DNA matches, if that's what they want.

It's not a matter of right or wrong, that's just my personality. I don't want so much personal information up front (I'm also not a hugger which is essentially the in-person equivalent).

Always remember, the purpose is to get a response. You might have to handle a first message a little differently to get that initial response. If you're finding first contact hard, just remember your goal is to get a response. Use the guidelines I've suggested.

Create your own messaging template that fits your personality. Make sure you cover the basics in every message including identifying the name of the match you are asking about, the name of your test or the test you're managing, and why you are contacting them. You can then include more detail if needed or if you want, just respect their time.

Finally, I know I haven't mentioned dealing with situations other than plain old genealogy.

That is a whole other kettle of fish. WatershedDNA has some suggestions and some draft language you can use for more sensitive situations.

Even if you don't have a sensitive situation, you might be contacting someone that does. I want to remind you about my 3 Ps of Genetic Genealogy. You'll need all of them when messaging AncestryDNA matches.

If you need some ideas about how to actually create and save a "template" see this post specifically about (how easy it is to create and use) email templates.


Contacting DNA Matches | The Occasional Genealogist

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