On the transformation from Footnote to Fold3

On 18 August 2011, the popular subscription genealogy database Footnote.com announced two major changes.

For nearly five years, Footnote was the strongest competitor to the market-dominating Ancestry.com. The site made available improved images of several federal census enumerations, as well as improved image viewing and tagging capabilities. Over time, Ancestry and Footnote became complementary competitors, as separate agreements with both the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration and the Family History Library/FamilySearch provided different record groups to the two sites. Throughout this time, I have consistently recommended Footnote to audiences in my lectures on the U. S. Civil War, specifically because of the site’s strength in records of this era.

Almost a year ago, on 23 September 2010, Ancestry.com announced the acquisition of iArchives, the parent company of Footnote. Until the 18 August announcements, there were no noticeable changes to the site.

Two major changes have now occurred, according to the announcement:

  • The site will now focus entirely and exclusively on military records.
  • Footnote has been renamed Fold3.

In my opinion, the first of these two changes is a wise move. Especially now that Footnote is a subsidiary of Ancestry, it simply does not make sense to have two separate teams (e.g. the Ancestry team and Footnote team) both working to increase record holdings without focus. There are already several duplicate databases between the two sites. It would be inappropriate to increase this number. What Fold3 has done is recognized its strengths and chosen a focused path.

As a professional genealogist (or aspiring professional) we must do the same. I wrote before about being “Primary Care Genealogists,” that is, strong in the basic universal research skills that can be applied to any problem in any location. This does not mean that we should not define ourselves more specifically. In fact, most professionals eventually become known for a specialty–geographic, ethnic group, record group, time period, methodological, etc. This specialty can be either a conscious decision or a natural development of personal interests. But once a professional becomes a recognized expert on some subject, the amount of business relating to this content will increase (and consequently the amount of business not relating to this specialty will decrease).

So from this perspective, Footnote did what every professional must eventually do: they have created a focus by which they can become known.

The flip side of this coin is that Footnote.com was already known, and had many loyal subscribers. Yesterday’s announcement has upset quite a few of these subscribers. Just take some time to read the comments left on the Fold3 blog. There were quite a few subscribers, including institutions with small budgets, who were attracted to Footnote due to its lower subscription price, as an alternative to the rather pricey Ancestry subscription. Prior to its acquisition by Ancestry.com, Footnote was marketed as a competitor and an alternative, with the promise to someday rival Ancestry. The more specific–and more limited–focus puts an end to the site’s existence as a cheaper alternative.

The name change has also received mostly negative reviews. The most frequent objection is that no one knows what it means. According to the announcement,

We wanted a name that would show respect for the records we are working on and for the people who have served in the armed forces.  The name Fold3 comes from a traditional flag-folding ceremony in which the third fold is made in honor and remembrance of veterans for their sacrifice in defending their country and promoting peace in the world.

This makes complete sense to me as a man whose brother is currently in Afghanistan after having already served in Iraq in the past three years. As a business owner, I feel that, with the new focus on military records, a new name reflecting this focus also seems warranted.

The down side of changing the name to reflect the new focus is that, where Footnote had become a recognizable brand, Fold3 is not yet recognizable. The name change erases years of marketing by Footnote. This is usually bad, but in creating a new name and a new focus, the company has ultimately created an entirely new entity. For some genealogists, this entity will not have any interest. Other genealogists–as well as new markets possibly uninterested in genealogy, such as military historians and reenactors–will continue to find Fold3 useful.

Changes are difficult to accept. But sometimes they are for the best of everyone involved.

The official announcement appears in the following blog post:

“Footnote is now Fold3 (updated),” Fold3 HQ blog, posted on 18 August 2011 (http://blog.fold3.com/ : accessed 18 Aug 2011).

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I wish them luck with their rebranding. It is a tough thing to do and do right. They are losing a lot of brand awareness and value.

    At least they have Ancestry.com’s deep pockets to advertise the heck out of the new name.

    Reply

    • I agree completely. It is extremely difficult to rebrand yourself. But in this case, I think it was a wise choice: “Footnote” was branded as an Ancestry competitor. “Fold3″ is not.

      Reply

  2. Posted by L. H. "Larry" Head, Jr. on August 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I’m not ignorant of the military but the new brand was absolutely inscrutable until I saw the logo. In that context, it makes perfect sense. But otherwise I think it remains inscrutable.

    And if I may digress, Michael, let me say how much I admire your writing skill.

    Reply

  3. [...] — giving it a new name, and putting its emphasis exclusively on military records. More from Michael Hait and Dick Eastman (interesting comments here, too). Megan Smolyenak considers the Footnote changes [...]

    Reply

  4. Posted by Donna Torres on February 24, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    I am a member of Ancestry.com Membership is costly. Why do I have to join a separate search engine owned by the same company to actually view a document? Why are these documents NOT visible on ancestry? On ancestry all you get are certificate numbers.

    Reply

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