Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

contact

In the first part of this two part series, Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?, we talked about the different kinds of things you can do when you receive your autosomal DNA test results from either Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe.  There are, in general, 4 types of goals that people have when they test their autosomal DNA – if they have any specific goals:

  1. I want to meet people I’m related to.
  2. I want to confirm my genealogy is correct.
  3. I want to find new ancestors.
  4. I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors.

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what is possible – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

Because of the different ways the various vendors have implemented their DNA matching software, there are different reasons why you might want to contact your matches.

23andMe

At 23andMe, you cannot send messages to your matches or share your matching DNA segments unless you obtain permission from each match to first communicate with them and then to share matching DNA segments, which can be one or two separate permissions.  23andMe has an internal messaging system that facilitates you sending a permission request to your matches.  Personalized messages work best.  If permission is granted, you can then begin a dialogue about common ancestors and how you might match that person.

Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, you are provided with the e-mail address of everyone that you match within each person’s privacy selections.  Participants can upload their GEDCOM files, create family trees and enter a list of ancestral surnames.  You can search by current or ancestral surname.  The most common reason to contact someone you match at Family Tree DNA is if you are a match to them and they have not uploaded or created a family tree.

Ancestry

Ancestry also uses an internal messaging system.  The most common reason to contact a DNA match at Ancestry is if you match someone, and especially if you share a shakey leaf hint with them, meaning you have a common ancestor in your trees – but your match’s tree is private and you can’t see who that common ancestor might be.

GedMatch

If you upload your results to www.gedmatch.com, a free (donation based) site, you can then match your results to people who tested at all 3 companies – if they also have uploaded their results.  People provide their e-mails when uploading and configuring their accounts at GedMatch.  People who use GedMatch are often the most excited and “into” autosomal DNA matching and therefore, the most likely to contact matches.

Regardless of where you are matching, it’s important to make that first communication attempt count.  At 23andMe, if your match declines contact, you can’t communicate with them.  If they don’t reply, you can delete that first contact attempt and try again, but your attempts are limited – so you really do have to make them count.

Here are some helpful hints and approaches that do and don’t work well.  Your goal is to obtain a helpful response, so you want to position yourself in the best possible light to get that response.

A faux pas may kill your chances, so let’s start out with what not to do, and why, then we’ll look at how to make your communications a winner!

Don’t!

  • Don’t send group e-mails to everyone you match saying, “Hi, we all match. Can you tell me how?” Guess what? You won’t get many or any replies and you’ll have irritated all of your matches in one fell swoop. This is considered DNA spamming. Think about what you are writing before you press that send button.
  • Don’t say things like this to people: “Hi, I’m guessing (or hoping) that you’ve mapped your (or your cousin’s) chromosomes and you can just tell me how we are related.” When I told this person I have not mapped my cousin’s chromosomes – they had the bad judgment to ask me when I might get around to it.
  • Don’t provide just a few surnames and ask if they are related. Most of your matches will be more than 2 or 3 generations back in the tree, so the answer is likely going to be “no,” or no answer at all.
  • Don’t offer to send them an ancestry invite. That means they have to sort through your entire tree to find a match, AND Ancestry will attach your tree to their list forever. Give the e-mail recipient something to work with in the e-mail itself. Don’t make your problem their problem or they won’t reply. The more work they have to do to reply, the less chance they will.
  • Don’t send multiple e-mails with dribs and drabs of information in each one. If you have something to share, put it together logically and concisely in an e-mail and send one.
  • Don’t assume that someone of a different ethnicity isn’t related to you.
  • Don’t assume a particular surname is indicative of a person’s entire genealogical background.
  • Don’t convey an entitlement attitude. Remember, you are asking them to take a few minutes of their time to help you.
  • Don’t assume that all of your matches are from the US, or that English is their primary language – so use full state names and locations. The good news is that more and more people are testing from around the world.
  • Don’t send messages in all caps.
  • Don’t send messages with misspellings, incorrect grammar or abbreviated texting language. Translated, this means your phone or i-pad with autocorrect is probably not a good idea.
  • Don’t send the entire request in the title of the message. Yes, people do this.
  • Don’t send a message with a title like “hi there.”  It’s likely to go to the spam folder or be over looked or ignored.  Instead, title each message with the name of the test, the testing company and whose DNA you are writing about.  In other words, something like this: “Autosomal DNA Match at Family Tree DNA to John Doe”
  • Don’t just send the “canned” request message at 23andMe. Send a personal note. If you have an online tree, include that link. If you notice you have ancestors from the same part of the world, or country, tell them. If you match their DNA, tell them. Some people send match requests because they notice a common surname. In other words, try to find some common ground to start a conversation.
  • Don’t dash off a hurried, half-baked, partially complete message.  It shows and will be reflected in the responses you do, and don’t, receive.
  • Don’t expect others to do your work for you.  Recently, I received a match contact and when I asked the sender for the name of the person they matched, they told me they couldn’t remember, they had sent out a “mass mailing,” and asked me to check my kits and see if there were matches to them.  Seriously?  They also didn’t tell me the testing company name, nor the test type.  Three e-mails later, I still don’t know the name of the person they matched.  Guess what.  Delete!  Make it easy for your matches to help you and don’t waste their time by only providing partial information.

Do!

  • Read your matches profiles if they have provided one. It shows you took the time to read what they provided, and may give you some common ground out the door. “I see we both have ancestors from the Netherlands,” is a good icebreaker, for example.
  • Address the e-mail to the person using their name if it’s available. In other words, begin, “Hi Joe” not just “Hi.” Do not assume a gender. Names can be deceiving. My name is not deceiving, Roberta, but I can’t tell you how many e-mails I receive to Robert or “Mr. Estes.” This tells me they didn’t pay attention.
  • Do use capital letters and punctuation.  Otherwise, you’re telling the person on the receiving end they aren’t important enough to bother with – and they will likely treat your request in kind.
  • Enter information about yourself in your profile at the vendors, including your country of origin.
  • Upload a photo of yourself into your profile at the vendor so that people can see you. This makes you seem more like a real person and they may look at you for family resemblance. Probably shouldn’t upload a photo that might be controversial or off-putting if your goal is to maximize response.
  • Link your tree to your DNA results (Ancestry) or upload a Gedcom file (Family Tree DNA.) 23andMe is more challenging since their collaboration with My Heritage which is a subscription service. Most people simply put a link to their public tree someplace in their profile information at 23andMe.
  • Provide your name and kit number or other identifying information in all correspondence – including the first e-mail.
  • Include kit numbers (GedMatch) and/or names (Family Tree DNA) that you’re matching. Many people manage multiple kits for family members and if they have to go and look for you in their kits’ matches, they won’t.  Don’t make the recipient have to guess at any part of the equation.  Say something like this, “Hi, I match John Smith’s autosomal DNA test at Family Tree DNA and you are his e-mail contact…”
  • Tell them where you tested and where you are matching them. “Hi, I tested at Ancestry and downloaded by kit to GedMatch where I’m kit number A100007. I’m matching kit F9141, Jane Doe, where you are listed as the contact.”  Be sure to get the name of the testing company right.  Today, someone told me the test was through “Family Search,” who, of course, does not do DNA testing.
  • If you are matching on a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, tell them at what level you’re matching.  Otherwise, they have to search through each level to find you.  On mitochondrial DNA, if you and they both tested to the full sequence level, but you’re only matching on the HVR1 level, it’s not nearly as compelling or interesting as if you match at the full sequence level with no mutations difference.  So, tell them, “I’m a match to John Doe at Family Tree DNA at the full mitochondrial level, with no mutations difference.  Maybe we can find our common ancestor.  My direct mitochondrial line is….”
  • If you are matching at GedMatch and you lowered the match threshold from the default, tell them. Better yet, don’t lower the threshold, at least not for initial comparisons.
  • Make replying to your query as easy as possible. You stand a much better chance of getting a reply. The more work you make them do, the less chance you’ll get a reply.
  • Include your full name and e-mail address if you are using Ancestry’s or 23andMe’s message systems.
  • Get your facts straight. I recently received an e-mail from someone who told me that we matched on 21% of our DNA and one segment. I knew that was impossible because 21% is in the half sibling range and if you’re a half sibling – you will match on a whole lot more than one segment. If you don’t pay attention and get your facts straight, it’s less likely that the person you are contacting will take you seriously.
  • Accept contact requests if you tested at 23andMe and receive a contact or sharing request, and be sure to share genomes so that you can see how you match and use their comparison tools like their Family Inheritance: Advanced.
  • Include a very brief, maybe two sentence summary about yourself in contact requests. Something like. “It appears we may match on my father’s side which is primarily from Appalachia, which means they were Scotch-Irish and British before that” or “My maternal heritage is from Scandinavia, so the names may not look familiar to you. My mother’s family is from the area near Stockholm.” Do not tell them your life story or ramble. You’ll lose them.
  • Send a pedigree chart (preferably with an index) in pdf format if you’re using e-mail or a link to a tree. I have a pedigree chart for my mother’s side and my father’s side. I can tell which side they match because my mother has tested as well. One of the best tools I have ever received with a query is shown below. It was sent as a spreadsheet, which made it incredibly easy for me to sort, but wouldn’t work for everyone. It could be sent as a pdf file as well, and is very easy to scan for surnames and locations. I immediately liked this person and absolutely knew they were serious and we stood a chance of making a genealogy connection.  (Click on the image to make larger in a separate window.)

ancestor spreadsheet

  • Take the time to learn about autosomal DNA, matching and what it means. Aside from the many articles on this blog which you can find by using the key search word “autosomal,” here are four additional resources for you:

Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond by Emily Aulicino
NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection by David Dowell
DNA Adoption’s classes
Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy by Kelly Wheaton

  • If you’re adopted or searching for an unknown parents or grandparent, visit www.dnaadoption.com.
  • If you have a blog or genealogy webpage, include that information, maybe below your signature.
  • If you’re serious about maximizing your opportunities for success with genetic genealogy, you’ll want to test at all 3 companies, Family Tree DNA (Y, mtDNA and autosomal), Ancestry and 23andMe. Family Tree DNA facilitates reduced cost file transfers from Ancestry and from 23andMe if you tested before Dec. 2013 (when 23andMe changed their chip.) They all have their strong and weak points – but the bottom line is that you’ll want to fish in all three ponds. You’ll also want to download your results from one of those companies, preferably Family Tree DNA or Ancestry, to www.gedmatch.com, a site that facilitates comparison of data from the various companies and provides some great tools. GedMatch is a contribution site, so don’t forget to donate. Some of their Tier 1 tools require a minimal subscription of $10 a month, which is well worth it if you are serious. Ask your matches if they have downloaded their data to GedMatch and provide your kit number there.
  • Be courteous and gracious. Say please and thank you. You’d be amazed how many people say neither.
  • Share this article with eager newbies who need a little direction. Most newbies aren’t going to find this article before shooting off that e-mail in their initial excitement to an entire group of matches. By helping them to better focus their efforts, you’ll be helping yourself too. Most newbies have no idea what they’ve just gotten themselves into!

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to contributors in the ISOGG Facebook group for helping to flesh out these tips for success.

28 thoughts on “Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

  1. Great, great points! At Ancestry, I CAN delete the trees to which I have been invited from my account. As well, I have a private tree. When I send out an invite, I usually wait 3 days, then I withdraw my invite, and then they no longer have access to my tree. My tree is a work in progress and not for public consumption at this point (it is a matter of my personal integrity), but anyone who asks is invited.

  2. Brilliant … THANK YOU! I’m still in the “newbie” phase .. but looking forward to Aug 28 DNA Adoption 4 week class. Learning curve resembles Pike’s Peak in Yogo …. but I’m forever hopeful. BRAVO Roberta …. keep these precious “Cards and Letters” coming in.

  3. Brilliant … THANK YOU! I’m still in the “newbie” phase .. but looking forward to Aug 28 DNA Adoption 4 week class. Learning curve resembles Pike’s Peak in Yugo …. but I’m forever hopeful. BRAVO Roberta …. keep these precious “Cards and Letters” coming in.

    • You know, I was just mentioning to my husband this past week that I had the “luxury” or learning as things arrived on the scene over the past 15 years. I can only imagine how overwhelming this looks today for a new person.

  4. oops yesterday i sent a group email to my grandpa’s matches who i thought were askenazi jewish that i found he triangulated with several of them at the same vincinity on chromosomes 9 and 11. you can find out more about why i was looking into this by looking at the gedmatch forums under eurogenes on the thread titiled “another question related to sephardic heritage”.

    to make a long story short, i sent a group email to these people since i suspect these 7-10cm triangulation segments indicate a distant ancestor who was most likely sephardic jewish from somewhere between 500-1000 years ago.

    what should i do better next time when emailing people about discoveries like this

  5. I don’t agree with the “Don’t” about sending one email to several people. There was a thread recently on one of the discussion groups about this and opinions were expressed on both side of this – so I wouldn’t present it as a hard and fast rule unless it only applies to the case where a newbie sends one email to every one of their matches at once.

    I usually compose a single email and address it to all the names/emails who are part of a triangulated group drawing their attention to what they may have in common (“Based on what I see in your surnames/trees I think we may all be descended from the Brown family of Wilkes Co., NC”). I also encourage them to reply-all so we can all participate in the conversation to find the MRCA. And I provide my surnames, a link to my mother’s and father’s pedigrees on my public web site, a short description of my four grandparents’ locales and major surnames, and a saved ADSA report that shows the triangulated group. I also sign the email with my and my wife’s names and the fact that we live in Oxnard, California. I guess I’m trying to demonstrate a willingness to provide a little personal information and it makes me human. I’ve generally had good success with this strategy. Of course, I can’t really tell if some people have not responded because they were put off because they didn’t get an individual email from me – but I think the encouragement to work together and providing them with the contact information for others with the same ancestry more than offsets that. Just my humble(?) opinion!

    Don & Carley Worth
    Oxnard, California

    • Hi Don, Actually, I think this is a good strategy. The bulk mailings I refer to are nothing like that. The e-mail you’re referring to is targeted and useful. I’ve received two today. Both were general, “hi, we all match, can you tell me how” types of e-mails. First, “we” don’t all match each other. All of the recipients matched whoever the sender way – which is not the same thing. But all in all, triangulation groupings are a very good way to engage participants in conversation. It gives them something in common and encourages engagement. So it’s really not the same thing as a generalized, bulk e-mail.

  6. I’m still a newbie at this. I started out on Ancestry, then to Gedmatch, then to FTDNA. I get fairly frustrated at times, especially over how some match to one chromosome versus others matching two or three and still have the same MRCA. I have become interested in my non-European relatives and contacted a couple. What frustrates me also is that FTDNA has me 100% European and Ancestry has me 99% European when many Gedmatch tests has me closer to 80%, maybe a little more depending on the test (my grandfather was Polish, which could account for the west Asian) Which really makes me question my family tree and some of my ethnic origins. My non-Polish family isn’t from the same area as the Melungeons, but I suspect perhaps another triracial isolate group(s).

  7. Love the humor you insert into your articles! Fortunately, I have had fairly good responses by using many of the same suggestions for approaching matches. Thank you for verifying techniques for communicating with matches!

  8. If your adopted it may not be a great idea to say it in the first message. Too many people seem to use it as a reason not to answer or continue the conversation. You can’t help them so they don’t bother. Sad but quite a few adoptees I know have noticed this.

  9. Ninety percent of the time, I’m contacting about a surname they connect on. They take my information and don’t share any information. Just take my information and run. Same thing on wikitree. Want me to add or open it up to get my paper trail but won’t add their line. I’m to the point I don’t want to share anymore.

    • I can identify with that. What I’ve started doing is sharing a bit at a time. I share a little bit of information, and then if they thank me and are willing to share whatever they have, I share more. The reality is that on some lines, I may have very little and not be able to help someone much who has alot on that line. On other lines, the situation may be reversed. I’m ok with either situation, as long as the people I communicate with express their appreciation for the time I spend and see it as a give and take. After all, we all started with nothing once upon a time. If I send you information and don’t get any response, then I probably won’t share any more. There are enough people who appreciate a give-and-take to not waste time on those who don’t.

  10. Jeepers! If I have to wait until I understand everything you said I may as well quit contacting anyone right now! I’m just beginning. I stumble around a lot. I have to check the dictionary all the time. I read and reread the DNA blogs and I still don’t understand half of it. Learning what all is available at each of the sites and knowing how to use it is a full time job. I’ll probably die first.

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  12. Great tips! I only ever get answers from members at Family Tree and only 50% at that. I don’t ever contact anyone beyond the 3rd cousin range because it’s just too far back for the amount of information I have right now. I’m trying to get past a brick wall in the early 1800s caused by an NPE. I’ve found that people who are serious about DNA and genealogy are on Family Tree. 23andMe is just too hard and Ancestry is well…Ancestry.

  13. Roberta,

    I really like your work and nearly all of your opinions and ideas. Thank you for all the wonderful information.

    I’ll suggest that some of the folks testing at 23&me have an entirely different goal. I know because my initial goal was purely for health data. I have since been hooked by genetic genealogy after contact with 4th and 5th cousins that provided me with tree information on our shared ancestors. In less than a year I’ve been able to find over 400 direct ancestors but am still hunting for 5 missing couples 5 generations back and my biggest hurdle is that I’m missing my paternal (Y Line) 2nd Great Grandfather. My Great Grandfather was born to a single woman in 1846, she died in 1852. I’m considering the big Y at FTDNA.

    Regardless, I’ve had better than 50% success with 23&me contacts by using methods that align with your tips. I got on GedMatch early and may have missed with first contacts there as I was such a newbie and didn’t understand enough ask the right questions backed by all of the pertinent data.

    Your blog is high on my reading list, thanks again.

    Dale Wallace, Olympia Washington

  14. Thank you Roberta for putting out this guide to autosomal DNA testing and how to contact potential relatives. I have never seen an etiquette guide like this before for genetic genealogy and it is sorely needed. Excellent work.  – Laura Sztabnik 

  15. Great information! I totally agree with the “Don’t!” list.

    While I am no English professor and certainly would never claim to be a grammar expert I do at least make an effort to use proper punctuation and capitalization. Everyone makes mistakes and I admit to sometimes struggling with the proper placement of commas and when to start a new paragraph.

    With that said, a couple of big pet peeves of mine are when people email me in all lowercase or with a bunch of run-on sentences that make the message hard to decipher. Also, I see a lot of instances on Ancestry where people don’t even bother to capitalize the name of their tree, much less the people in it.

    People need to think about what message this conveys about them. Whether right or wrong, my first impression in the above examples is that either the person is very uneducated or lazy. In either case, I will have no interest in your research because I don’t feel I can trust it and I’ll be less likely to want to help you.

    My main tree on Ancestry, the one attached to my DNA test, is public. I got an email from a DNA match with a private tree that said, “The surnames that we have in common are Arnold, Callaway and Belk. How do we link?” Really?! My tree is public, yours is private. You figure it out!

    Keep up the great advice!
    Carmen

    • I realized my post above made me sound like an ignorant jerk so I wanted to clarify a couple of things.

      When I said, “I will have no interest in your research because I don’t feel I can trust it…” I would never take anyone else’s research at face value. I just meant I wouldn’t want to look through what they have, much less, take the time to try and verify it.

      Also, I always respond to messages from people politely. Even if I’m secretly rolling my eyes and sighing. 🙂

      Carmen

  16. I have re-discovered your blog and this post is inspiring me to try to take the time to reach out to my matches. Yes, I dislike the emails that state “I’m adopted, do you know where we match?” (and we’re at the 4th-6th cousin range). I have a stock answer that I send back, basically saying that they need to provide more information for me to help at all.

    Another pet peeve is when people send an email stating that we match, but I have to take the time to figure out which of the six FTDNA accounts they’re referring to!

    And the general bulk email, the DNA spamming, as you call it, drives me nuts. I’m usually polite and provide some basics, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it.

    I will say that having a family history blog is helpful because I can send people to it and tell them to take a look at my surname page and see if any of the surnames or locations look familiar.

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