Genetic Future

John Hawks riffs on the themes of a recent Economist article on personal genomics (which I’ve also talked about here).
Hawks argues that “nobody’s quite figured out how to sell sequence to people” – that although 23andMe’s marketing strategy is shrewd, it’s still “marketing based on anxiety”, and the provided content initially didn’t seem that appealing:

I used to feel the way Altshuler does. What good could it possibly do to have my genes sequenced? I know the limits on the usefulness of the data. There’s minimal medical value for most people right now. I’m not even sure what I would do with them from a genealogical/historical perspective. If I learn something from them, it’s likely to be either bad (some T2D risk allele) or something I already know (HERC2 genotype). What a buzzkill.

But he notes that “people are really interested and excited to hear stories about genes”, and argues for an alternative approach to genome content presentation:

I think the right model is the premium satellite channel model. What does it take to be the HBO of genomics? It takes compelling content — new, fascinating content that people are willing to subscribe to. There ought to be a lot more video. It ought to connect people to subjects they already know are deep and important, like (if I could be so bold to suggest) our evolutionary history. The content is the hook — it gets people thinking about how interesting the data are, how they connect them to other people, how much they’d like to know more.

Hawks also propose a “Genome magazine” in which people can read articles about genealogy, health and evolution, and then connect those stories with their own genetic information by referring back to their genome browser.
I think Hawks is absolutely right that presenting interesting content matters more than simple interpretation, but I think that 23andMe are already doing this pretty well – not using satellite TV and magazines (which I guess they would regard as “old media”), but through their corporate blog The Spittoon; posts on the Spittoon link customers directly from news in the genomics field to the relevant markers in their own genome data. 
Other personal genomics companies, on the other hand, have been incredibly poor at serving up interesting content – the corporate blogs of both deCODEme and Navigenics fail pretty much entirely at engaging customers with their own genome. Navigenics provides a bland stream of generic health advice with little or no connection to the company’s core service (providing genetic information to customers). The deCODEme blog, on the other hand, is more of an extended advertisement for parent company deCODE Genetics; astonishingly, even when the blog reports on new genetic variants it provides absolutely no guidance to customers on accessing those variants in their own data. 
There’s definitely room for improvement from all of the companies, even 23andMe, and the best communication channels will shift as the market changes. Moving into different (and more traditional) forms of media, as Hawks suggests, might be a wise move as personal genomics companies extend their audience beyond web-savvy infovores into the broader community over the next couple of years. For the moment, though, I suspect that the majority of consumers are tech-minded enough that simply improving web-based content presentation will suffice.


  1. #1 Paul Jones
    April 19, 2009

    Sounds like what they said about cell phones when they were bulky and expensive.

    As costs go down and useful information goes up, sequencing will become standard operating procedure for the upper and upper-middle class; a bit later, envy and the feeling that they are missing out will prompt the lower classes to make the government pay for theirs too.

    In other words, the naysayers are getting their parting shots in while they still can. Soon, that door will be closed.

  2. #2 Blaine Bettinger
    April 19, 2009

    I disagree with John (but can’t leave a comment there!) that “nobody’s quite figured out how to sell sequence to people”; genealogists are foaming at the mouth to buy more sequencing! But he is right that the genealogical aspect of genomic sequencing is one way to appeal to people.

    The Economist article was really focused on GWAS and thus didn’t discuss the genealogical aspect of genomic sequencing/analysis, but this is one area that these companies have successfully advertised to. Although most dismiss genetic genealogy as being a small market, I disagree. After all, Family Tree DNA alone has sold genetic genealogy kits to more than 500,000 people (and the cost of FTDNA and 23andMe testing isn’t very different in many cases!)

    It’s incredible what genetic genealogists are doing with their data from 23andMe and deCODEme (analysis of the X chromsome, finding more Y-SNPs, discovering and identifying autosomal ancestors, etc…). And yet there are already MANY more requests from genetic genealogists for additional features and information. This is an area in which these companies should – and most likely are – continue to develop and market. But then again, I am probably a little biased!

  3. #3 Mary
    April 19, 2009

    I’ve thought that too, about a “stories in the genes show”. We have this show called “Secrets of the Dead” and there was one about the plague-protection variant receptor that seems to also confer HIV resistance ( I thought it was very compelling and pretty well done. And a nice model for this type of show.

    We could pitch it to PBS or the BBC 🙂 I’m in.

  4. #4 John Hawks
    April 19, 2009

    I disagree with John (but can’t leave a comment there!) that “nobody’s quite figured out how to sell sequence to people”; genealogists are foaming at the mouth to buy more sequencing!

    I won’t dispute that. The FamilyTreeDNA-type sales pitch works for a large clientele. It has a well-defined business model going for it, based on access to a set of information beyond the DNA. It has a strong social advantage — you market strongly to one person in a family, maybe the matriarch who does the genealogy, and she gets more and more of the family to sign up.

    Imagine SNP genotyping goes to $16 in bulk. Now you can sell an “anniversary package” to extended families, telling everyone which genes they share from which parts of their genealogy. Each of them has haplotypes in common with some celebrities, too — some number of which are paid for their promotional value. At that price, one person might even send in their DNA several times, as part of several different families, to get the results of the analysis. It’s easier to give another swab at the family dinner than to remember the passcode for the website.

    The personal-oriented companies have to really fear that business model, because they aren’t going to compete effectively in that space. If the space grows to swallow up most of the potential customers, the game’s over.

    I think the web-based marketing has an early saturation point. The 23andMe blog is called the “Spittoon” — it’s cute, and I like the writers, but it’s only compelling to a subset of the potential audience. Consider the AARP model. AARP is a media company — it has a clearly identified community, markets heavily to a wider demographic than the core, and co-brands extensively. They get people in at 55 and have 20 years or more of membership from a large fraction. Or the 1950’s-era Disney model. Build a strong content-focused company based on highly-recognized properties; build around those properties using young talent, cooperate with TV networks to get branded content on the air.

    Why isn’t there a 23andMe entry in the Best Documentary feature in the Oscars every year?

    I guess my point boils down to the idea that selling interpretation is a media enterprise, and at the moment the media element is being treated as an afterthought.

  5. #5 Andro Hsu
    April 19, 2009

    Apologies for throwing in a plug for my company, but 23andMe users can see their CCR5delta32 genotype (HIV/plague resistance) here.

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