I’ll give you a moment to let the vision sink in. Imagine a group of women hungry for information about the best way to ensure the future health and wellbeing of their unborn children. Now imagine a website packed with sincere, caring mother-types – most of them well-established bloggers with a strong existing fan base – writing about the real day-to-day issues that mothers care about (in the words of one recruit: “momming, aging, and my twenty year quest to lose the same ten pounds”; no doubt there will also be photos of puppies). Now imagine that those same bloggers have all been given a 23andMe genome scan and are writing excitedly about their results and what they mean for their health and their family.
Throw in some fancy web tools (you need to create a demo account to view them) that allow you to track the progress of your pregnancy and compare your experience with that of other mothers – and that, my friends, is pure Web 2.0 gold. Come for the enthralling conversations about cloth vs disposable; stay for the experience of comparing your weight gain in week 15 with hundreds of other expecting women; and hey, while you’re here, why don’t you get yourself a genome scan? Everyone else is talking about their rs662799 genotype this week – wouldn’t it be great if you knew what your genotype was? And while you’re at it, why not order a few extra kits at a discounted rate for the rest of the family?
The message is right there in the tastefully foetus-coloured box on the right of the Pregnancy Community front page: “Explore the genetic legacy your child will inherit from you and your partner.”
Of course this is more than just a simple recruitment exercise. For personal genomics to succeed and flourish it needs to hugely expand its market beyond pale Wired-reading informavores into the general population; personal genomics needs to be something that everyone knows about and thinks is cool and interesting. That process is already well underway (the 23andMe co-founders appearing on Oprah providing a major boost), and the establishment of strong online communities with something to talk about – be it pregnancy or Parkinson’s - who also just happen to have all had genome scans done is yet another important step in that direction.
And this isn’t just about making genome scans cool. There are a whole range of genetic products that have a vast potential market currently untapped due to social taboos against them. Building a community like this, if done well – and I have little doubt that the vast and nimble PR engine of 23andMe will do it well – is an opportunity to slowly push the zeitgeist in a direction that is favourable to the company’s own business interests.
Finally, 23andMe is potentially creating an army of women who will go nuts at any attempt by regulatory agencies to legislate away direct access to personal genomic data. Say you’re a member of congress considering a bill to restrict access to direct-to-consumer genetic testing: on the one hand you have an angry letter containing at least fourteen exclamation marks from Dr Steve Murphy, arguing that doctors need to save people from the horror of seeing their own genomes unprotected; on the other hand you have a grassroots movement of thousands of outraged woman voters yelling that restricting their access to genetic information violates their rights and endangers the health of their future children. Tough choice.
What’s in it for the mommy bloggers? I don’t know if they’re being paid, but I can tell you that many of them were invited on a grand tour of 23andMe and Google HQ back in January, where they were exposed to the full force of Google coolness combined with the poise and charm of 23andMe’s famously pink-toned girl power brigade. Here’s one of those bloggers gushing immediately after the meeting:
The last thing I’ll say about the trip is this–the two co-founders of 23andMe are really amazing, smart, beautiful women. Linda [Avey] and Anne [Wojcicki] are visionaries, and meeting them and seeing them bring their dream to life felt a bit to me like seeing the promises my mother made to me about feminism come true. Maybe that sounds a bit melodramatic, but 23andMe is women-driven and you can tell. It rocked. [my emphasis]
In other words, 23andMe = Feminism 2.0.
OK, so I probably couldn’t read a typical mommy blogger for more than five minutes before either falling asleep or gagging (I’m sorry, I just don’t like to read about placenta) – but then it appears I’m no longer 23andMe’s core demographic. Oprah has spoken, the sisters have moved in, and the market is moving on.