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How To Write a "Blind Inquiry" Letter That Works!

by Paul Havemann

First written February 1990 for the CompuServe ROOTS Forum; revised August 1998

As featured in Beau Sharbrough's article for Ancestry Daily News, Rootsworks: Mail Merging A Blind Inquiry Letter with Word


One of the more interesting leads I've followed in my genealogy research is one called the "phone book search" -- looking for the modern-day descendants of various ancestors in telephone directories. When I first wrote this in 1990, this was best done via (inter)national message bases, like those in the CompuServe ROOTS Forum and on the National Genealogy Echo via the friendly neighborhood BBS. While this avenue is still open, more people will use the World Wide Web to search phone books in the USA and elsewhere.

Often, a letter to such "blind leads" can result in finding (or confirming) connections that may not be available via (or are darn difficult to find in) the conventional records. Nearly every family has had, at one time or another, a knowledgeable soul who stashed some keepsakes and/or records that prove invaluable to today's genealogist. (How often have you heard "Oh, you must talk to Aunt Hilda; she knows all about those things"?) Just as often, these same folks can -- if you approach them in the right way -- yield invaluable records, photos, memories, documents, and recollections impossible to find elsewhere... the kinds of things that help to complete a family tree, and -- perhaps even more important-- to bring a family history alive.

Examples for You to Use

There are three files that comprise this 'package': the first inquiry letter (INQUIRY.LTR), the followup letter (INQUIRY2.LTR), and the questionnaire (QUESTAIR.TXT). These have been, for me at least, very successful.

When you compare INQUIRY.LTR and INQUIRY2.LTR, you'll see that they are two very similar versions of the same letter. One is sent out to non-respondents a few weeks after the first one. You can decide which to use at what point. I've left my own information intact, first, so you can get an idea of the techniques at work, and second, because -- who know? -- you might have some info of interest to me, or vice versa.

These three files are yours to use. I offer them as examples of the type of letter which works well for me, and so that you don't have to start from scratch. You can simply edit them to include your own information, or you can write your own versions. (Go ahead; you won't hurt my feelings.) Whichever you choose, use the techniques explained here; they'll greatly enhance your chances of getting replies. You'll also benefit from keeping track of which version(s) of which letter(s) seem to work better than others.

Learn from the Masters

The techniques explained here (and used in the files) are taken from the time-tested and effective tactics used by direct mail (DM) marketers, a.k.a. "junk" mail. Since these techniques have long been proven to work with selling products, I figured, they should work as well with genealogy. The fact that they do is no surprise -- the entire DM industry spends most of its time trying to get people like us to respond to their enticing offers.

The object, of course, is to get total strangers to respond to your inquiry. To be successful, your "blind inquiry" letter has to overcome a multitude of obstacles. You're mailing it to total strangers, which means it must be 1) opened, 2) read and 3) answered. Thus, your package must 1) be intriguing and/or attractive enough to open, 2) be interesting enough to get them to read it, and 3) give them a reason to answer you.

Make It Interesting

Your letter must be interesting, non-intrusive, informal, and even informational. It must politely request a reply, not demand it; after all, you need their cooperation. For better results, it should promise something in return (a "premium"). And you want to make replying just as easy as possible, so it's well worth your time to enclose a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope).

Many DM mailings also include what's called an "involvement device" -- some action that you are supposed to take when you respond. Examples include peel-and-stick stamps, "YES" tokens, fold-and-mail response pieces, and the like. In our case, it's a short, simple questionnaire.

You also need to be up-front and non-threatening about what you want; a lot of people get suspicious at letters asking for what they may feel is "personal" information. The letter will try to put them at ease by assuring them that your intentions are honorable, and especially that you're not trying to sell them something. People are suspicious of unsolicited mail, so do your best to put them at ease.

Six Seconds

It's an axiom in the DM business that you have about six seconds to grab the reader's attention. You'll do this by relating some interesting information about your research to date; this works best if you can personalize it by relating a couple of tidbits about people with the same surname as your respondent. (A lot of folks find that fascinating, even if they're not really into genealogy.) The idea is to keep them reading -- if you can't hook them with the first few sentences, then odds are they won't finish the letter and may even toss it.

The "Premium" Offer

I mentioned promising a "premium" earlier. If at all possible, you should offer to send them at least some of the results of your research when it's finished (as in INQUIRY.LTR). At the very least, you should promise to let them know whether there's a connection between their ancestors and yours -- in other words, whether you're related to them. This is important because we all like to get a "freebie," so this increases your response rate, and also because it will make them receptive to receiving, and reading, your next letter, which we'll get into shortly.

Note: If you're going to promise them something, then be sure to do it! Your reply need not (and preferably should not) wait until your book comes out; a few paragraphs about your research to date -- or even a kind letter thanking them for their response -- will suffice. And, if you're lucky enough to find a connection, then I shouldn't have to urge you to write to 'em immediately! You'll have made a friend (and perhaps even a genealogist) out of your respondent, with the possibility of more fascinating, hard-to-find info to come.

You'll note that I mention the fact that I'm writing to other people as well as to them. You may not want to mention this, on the grounds that it just might discourage some people from responding. This may happen, but I believe that making a person feel like part of a select group can often encourage his participation. Note that the various "sweepstakes" entries you receive will often list your name, along with two or three others, as some sort of "finalists" in the contest.

The Questionnaire

QUESTAIR.TXT is a simple questionnaire reply form. Don't be tempted to ask for mounds of information; you want to keep your "involvement device" short & sweet. (How many of you throw out those Million Dollar Sweepstakes rather than hunt down and paste all those stupid stamps on the reply form? Asking for too much involvement is a turnoff.

You must keep it simple if you want to get responses, and I would argue two points: 1) that the info on the questionnaire should be enough to give you a clue as to whether a connection exists (and if one does, you can take it from there), and 2) if you suspect a connection but it isn't apparent from the response, then you can write to them (remember, you promised you would!) and reasonably expect to get more in-depth information.

You'll note that the questionnaire has an introduction on it, too, like the letter. This apparent redundancy is deliberate: if it happens to get separated from the letter (and it might), a body could pick up the questionnaire and understand perfectly what it's for, what you want, and especially where to mail it. Otherwise, it's just a cryptic note that's likely to get tossed. Note, too, my attempt to get photos & documents at the bottom (this has been less successful, but it never hurts to ask). And never let the back of the paper go to waste, either -- a few blank lines for Notes & Comments have given me a few "write to my Aunt Hilda, she knows!" responses.

The Impulse Response

I include my phone number in both the letter and the questionnaire, but this is a matter of preference. I began doing this when -- on more than occasion -- a respondent got so excited that they went to the trouble of getting my number and calling me on the spot! This is a fine example of the "impulse" response -- the technique that explains why you always see candy at the checkout counter. You may choose to not put your number in, but if something will increase my response rate, I'll do it. (And, it's another assurance of my honorable intentions.)

Of course, it should go without saying that you should include your email address. And if you have a personal Web page or Web site, by all means include that as well: it allows your targets to "check you out" anonymously, and may help them decide whether to respond to you.

The SASE

It is vital that you enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope! I can't overstate the importance of this inexpensive gesture. Many people (including, I'll bet, yourself) who would otherwise respond will never do it if you put them to the trouble of hunting up an envelope, addressing it, and finding a stamp for it. Even if they're motivated at that moment, their enthusiasm won't last long if you make it a chore to respond. Cultivate that impulse response, or your letter will very quickly be history. That's the one and only reason that every DM offer comes with a postage-paid reply envelope.

For your SASE, use either a #10 (business-size) envelope, which you will need to fold into thirds, or #9 envelopes which fit quite neatly, unfolded, into the #10 envelope which you will use to mail your package. Do not use stationery envelopes which will force them to fold, spindle & mutilate your questionnaire -- or precious photos -- into an envelope too small for the paper!

It should go without saying that your SASE should have a first-class stamp on it. If you choose to use #10 envelopes, the Post Office will sell you some rather attractive prestamped ones.

The Outside Envelope

The envelope you send your letter, questionnaire, and SASE in (a #10, as noted) is the most important part of your mailing -- after all, if they don't open it, they can't read your plea. If your penmanship is good, you can hand-address each envelope -- this reveals it to be a personal letter, and goes a long way toward ensuring that it will get opened.

It's certainly okay to type each address, either manually (if you actually have a typewriter) or by running them through your laser or inkjet printer.

When I first wrote this in 1990, I recommended against computer-generated labels, on the grounds that they were a sure-fire tip-off to a junk letter. Today, of course, DMers use laser printers just like the rest of us (sometimes even with a handwriting font), so paradoxically, you may actually get a better response with computer-printed, peel-and-stick address labels. Test it out -- and keep track of the results.

Don't forget to stamp both the outside envelope and the SASE. Avoid the use of a postage meter; it will make your package look more like "junk" mail. Use a stamp for that personal look, or purchase the Post Office's good-looking prestamped envelopes.

Use the Return Address to Stimulate Interest

Here's a tip that works well: use an interesting return address. If your target has your surname, you have a pretty good shot at at least getting your letter opened. If not, though, you can use a "teaser" in the return address -- something like:


Paul Havemann
Great-Grandson of Louis Hartung
Street Address
City, State/Province, Zip

Bet you that will raise an eyebrow.

Overall Appearance

Appearance of your package is everything! A poorly-printed letter is too much trouble to read, thus is rarely read. Be sure your printer is turning out crisp, fine-looking letters. You can send a simple black-and-white laser-printed letter, or a colorful inkjet letter; again, this is an area where you can test -- and keep track of which approaches work best.

If you're mailing a lot of letters, copies are OK -- but make good, crisp, legible copies. Never use copies of copies.

The Followup Letter

I've developed two inquiry letters because, human nature being what it is, most of the people you write to the first time won't respond. When that happens, wait a few weeks and try again!

No one knows why people don't respond to a perfectly innocent letter; this is an art, not a science. But you can't simply 't assume that they read it and rejected it -- we've all sent snail-mail to friends which never arrived, or which they set aside, or even accidentally lost.

Even if you assume they read it and didn't reply, you can't assume they didn't want to, or wouldn't if given another chance. Maybe they lost it, and are broken-hearted that they can't contact you. Or perhaps they had a bad day and trashed all the mail. It happens to the best of us. Mail it again!

It's entirely up to you which letter you use first. When you re-mail, you can use the same letter, or the other one, or one modified to your liking, or even a completely different letter; test it, if you like, and track the results. The two letters here fall into the "slightly modified" category. If you wish, you can include the questionnaire and the SASE again, or you might want to experiment with a smaller package -- perhaps just a letter which invites them to call (collect, if you want).

Tracking the Results

I've noted this along the way -- that it just makes sense to keep track, even informally, of which letters pull better. Professional DMers are forever tinkering with their packages in the hopes of improving their response by a fraction of a percent. If you find a technique, a phrase, or a gimmick that brings in a couple more responses, keep on using it.

Final Thoughts

Sending letters to total strangers in hopes of furthering genealogical research is, for many folks, a real chore. I've simply tried to make it a little easier by introducing some of the time-tested techniques of getting people to open & read unsolicited mail (and by giving you two examples to steal shamelessly). If you can get them to do that, your odds are good that you'll hear back from them.

These techniques should work just as well whether you choose to use these examples, or write your own. If you like, go right ahead and use mine. If not, then you might want to write and/or review your own letters in light of these techniques. But again, do try to keep track of which letters or packages worked best; they'll guide you in future attempts.

It's highly unlikely that you'll get a 100% response -- and if you do, you can get a good job in the DM industry, where a response rate of 1% (1 out of 100) is considered very good. So far, my response rate has averaged better than 5%, so I'm pretty satisfied. I hope you will be, too, and I would be interested in your experiences -- please email me.

And if you develop a letter which works -- or if you stumble on the magic technique which boosts your response -- please consider sharing it with other researchers. I'll be happy to post responses on this site. By helping out, you'll help make everyone's genealogy research go just a bit more smoothly.

-- (Paul Havemann)

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