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
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.