If you have delved into the interesting world of DNA testing for genealogy, you have probably seen pages of DNA matches. These are people who share segments of your own DNA, and who, therefore, likely share one or more ancestors with you, as well. These ancestors may be recent, or so far back it will take both you and your match a bit of research (or, a lot of it) to figure out who the common ancestor was. Of course, you can only research together if your matches will communicate with you.
That is one of the more frustrating aspects of DNA testing websites… it’s truly hit or miss with getting matches to talk to you. If you send out 50 introductory emails, you may get 1/3 to 1/2 of them responding to you, if you’re lucky. Some do not write back because they are not interested in meeting matches… they have gotten their DNA tested for different reasons other than meeting unknown relatives. Others simply do not understand enough about how DNA matching works to feel like they have anything useful to say to you. The good news is you can increase your chances of getting DNA match responses. Here are the tips you need to open up that much-desired communication.
First of all, know your contact settings on the DNA service you used. There are four major commercial DNA testing companies used by genealogists—23andme, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and My Heritage. Of these, only Family Tree DNA gives you access to the email addresses of your DNA matches, allowing you to contact them directly, outside of the platform.
The other DNA testing companies keep that information private, forcing you to contact your matches through the company’s messaging feature. The company will then send an email to the match you contacted, letting them know they have a message. The match must then log into the site to get the message. For some people, that’s too much of a bother to do, especially if they aren’t really interested in genealogy.
Make sure your own contact settings are adjusted to allow email notification if you receive a new match, a message from a match, and anything else you want to know about. If your match has turned off their own email notification setting on the site (or changed their email, so they didn’t get the notification in the first place), you will have to rely on them logging into the site to find your message. Part of contacting your matches is patience, because you may wait a while before someone remembers they have a DNA account and logs into the site after receiving their initial results. I’ve waited a year or more for some matches to log in, see my message, and write back to me. Patience is key in the DNA contact game.
Even with these issues, you can still assume at least a majority percentage of the messages you send out to DNA matches will arrive in their email inbox in some form. You want these messages to be powerful and interesting, as well as encouraging. Make the contact want to get in touch with you, and feel safe in doing so. This is where knowing how to craft an excellent introductory message comes into play.
You want to make a good first impression, and only get one chance to do so. So, be sure to get the name right. This may seem like an easy thing, but it isn’t always; this is because some people manage DNA accounts for more than one person. You need to use the username of the person you are addressing in the title of your email (i.e.—the username of the DNA match), or the recipient might not know which account your message pertains to.
Somewhere near the top of the body of the email, be sure to mention your OWN username on the DNA site. We usually want to open with our own name, and we definitely want our match to know our name. But, if your username on the DNA site is different than your actual name, you need to mention it in the email, or your match won’t know who you are in their list of DNA matches. If they can’t find you on their list, they might think you’re trying to scam them, and not write back to you.
Your subject line should be something that gets the match’s attention. If they are skimming through emails, make yours stand out as something they want to read. Things like “Hello, Cousin,” “We are cousins,” or “We are family” are all good openers that encourage people to read the email. If they don’t follow up after a few weeks (or months, if you’re really patient), try sending them a follow-up email with a subject line like, “Just checking to make sure you’re out there,” or “Please just write back to me.”
These are unusual headers, and are much more likely to get a DNA match’s attention (and get them to read the message) than a generic, “Hello,” or “Re: Smith Family.”
When you get to the actual body of the email, keep the first message brief. Remember, this person doesn’t know you. Don’t bore them. Give them a reason to write back to you.
The best thing to do is simply state the facts. Let them know what relationship the DNA company estimates you to have, state the family you’re searching for, the area in which you are searching for them, and ask your match if they have any family by that last name in that area. Also, make them feel easier with you by letting them know you would like a response even if they know nothing about this family or DNA. Just like a real date, asking questions about the match, and keeping the focus on them and not you, makes you more interesting, and them more likely to respond to you.
Remember, many people who test on these sites do so not as genealogists, but as people with a general interest in family history; they do not know much if anything about DNA. So, avoid talking about how much DNA you share and on what chromosomes you share it. This could put them off talking to you because they do not want to feel uninformed in the conversation.
Use these tips, and you should get a far better response rate from your DNA matches. And remember, even the best emails sometimes won’t elicit responses; that’s just the name of the game. You also have to be patient. You never know how long it will take someone to notice you’ve contacted them. Keep your introductory message short, simple, and with an interesting subject line, and you will have a greater chance of getting those genealogical answers you seek from your DNA matches on any DNA website.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)