Introducing the DNA Sciences Gene Trust Project
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Introducing the DNA Sciences Gene Trust Project

DNA Sciences was faced with significant challenges in launching the Gene Trust: it is a for-profit company (typical trials are run by not-for-profit medical centers) that was unknown (it changed its name from Kiva Genetics in July); and it was asking part

Paul Holmes

 

In August 2000 Ruder Finn was approached by a new genetics research company, DNA Sciences, Inc., to launch a large-scale, nationwide genetic research initiative with a completely new approach – recruiting participants via the Internet.  The initiative – The DNA Sciences Gene Trust Project – is aimed at discovering the links between genetics and disease so that better and more-effective medical diagnostic tools and treatments can be developed.  DNA Sciences was faced with significant challenges in launching the Gene Trust: it is a for-profit company (typical trials are run by not-for-profit medical centers) that was unknown (it changed its name from Kiva Genetics in July); it was asking participants to provide personal health information online; and it was depending on consumers’ altruistic motives to donate a blood sample without receiving anything in return.

With the company’s entire business model hinging upon the ability to recruit participants, DNA Sciences turned to Ruder Finn to build credibility for the company, publicize the launch of the Gene Trust, and drive consumers to register for the project at www.DNA.com. Ruder Finn accomplished all these goals and more.  Within two months of the launch, DNA.com experienced an overwhelming 50,000 visitors and 4,000 registrants, shattering the client-imposed quota of 2,000. To date, media impressions have soared to more than 448 million, including a front-page, above-the-fold article in The New York Times. The company and its management have been recognized as industry leaders, being quoted/referenced in publications such as USA Today and the Austin Business Journal.  

LARGE GOALS FOR A SMALL COMPANY

RF immediately met with DNA Sciences to outline specific objectives:

  • Introduce DNA Sciences and the Gene Trust to create national name recognition and corporate identity
  • Generate broad awareness of and high-volume visitation to DNA.com to drive registration in the Gene Trust
  • Meet client-imposed 2,000-person registration goal at launch
  • Build credibility for DNA Sciences as a leader in the field of genetics

Undoubtedly, this campaign called for mass consumer (“healthy” consumers, consumers with genetically based diseases and their families/friends) awareness of an unknown company.   These aforementioned objectives remained constant during the entire campaign and gave RF standards to measure success.  

To develop a plan that would meet the objectives, Ruder Finn analyzed proprietary research commissioned by DNA Sciences and conducted primary research, including: 

  • Focus Groups of general consumers and those in disease-specific groups to ascertain their perceptions about genetics and consumer use of the Internet for health-related information.  (Harris Gabel Associates, Inc./Elvis & Bonaparte, February 2000)
  • Physicians and Patient Advocacy/Disease Organizations Audit was conducted to ascertain perceptions and positions on genetic testing, its implications, ethical consequences, and perceived value.  (Ruder Finn, June 2000) 
  • In-Depth Interviews and Focus Groups of policy makers, advocates, and opinion formers to gauge perceptions about the business of genetics, medical privacy and the Internet, and DNA Sciences.  (Greenberg Quinlan Research, Inc., June 2000)
  • Intelligence Profile Reports of organizations relevant to DNA Sciences’ business, such as Consumers Union of the United States, Christian Coalition, National Society of Genetic Counselors, etc.  (The Bivings Group, July 2000)

 This research showed few opportunities but many challenges:

For-profit company recruiting clinical trial participants: Consumers are wary to entrust their genetic information to DNA Sciences – an unknown, for-profit company – especially without a referral from their physician.

Consumer privacy on the Internet: Consumers are increasingly concerned about privacy on the Internet and are hesitant to provide the personal health information required to register for the Gene Trust over the Internet.

No incentive for participation: Consumers are wary to participate in the Gene Trust in the name of altruism.

New entrant in a crowded marketplace: A number of companies have been launched in the area of genetic research, creating a need to differentiate DNA Sciences with the media.

Recently publicized impropriety in gene therapy experiments: The recent death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger undergoing genetic therapy at the University of Pennsylvania both renewed the long-standing debate on genetic therapy and heightened consumer’s fears.  

Based on the research, to encourage consumers to participate in such a novel project, our strategy was to:

Position DNA Sciences as a credible leader in the field of genetics

Clearly lay out the tremendous potential in medicine that genetic research offers

Assure consumers that privacy is a paramount issue to DNA Sciences and would be dealt with accordingly

Our plan was to conduct the campaign in three distinct phases: pre-launch, launch and post-launch.  Doing so would serve to build credibility of DNA Sciences before the launch of the Gene Trust, peak interest in genetic research and dispel fears about genetic research at the launch and sustain a flow of media coverage, post launch.

Pre-Launch (April-July): In the 120 days prior to the launch of The Gene Trust, RF generated initial awareness of DNA Sciences through targeted outreach to key media influencers.  Leveraging the coverage of the human genome project, RF announced the addition of two respected geneticists: Dr. James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure and the “father” of the Human Genome Project joined the board of directors, and Dr. Raymond White, an award-winning geneticist who was a pioneer in developing molecular tools for constructing a map of genetic markers for the Human Genome Project, was named the chief scientific officer.   RF also identified and secured Gene Trust participant spokespeople in major disease categories to speak with reporters about the importance of such a research and the simplicity of participating.  All spokespeople were armed with media training and key messages emphasizing the potential of genetic research, DNA Sciences’ conservative stance on privacy, and the ease of registering for the Gene Trust.

RF developed media materials for the company including: an extensive media kit the containing backgrounders on company, management, genetics, and privacy; a press release about the opportunity for the public to participate in genetic research; b-roll highlighting potential of genetic research, featuring Dr. Raymond White and Internet pioneer Jim Clark; radio news release and AP photos of company’s headquarters.

RF coordinated in-depth desk side briefings with key media including The New York Times and Business Week, both of which resulted in placements.   

Launch (August): RF developed a multi-faceted media relations program surrounding the launch of the Gene Trust and DNA.com by simultaneously distributing the press release, AP photo, b-roll and radio news release.  RF also conducted aggressive media outreach in three time zones.

Post-Launch (August-Present): Moving forward, RF’s strategy is to capitalize on DNA Sciences milestones, secure participants for regional campaigns, and to leverage industry trend stories to maintain a steady stream of media placements and Gene Trust registrants.  This included developing a mat article and op-ed piece for distribution; conducting a morning drive radio tour of more than 15 national networks and stations in top markets, including Los Angeles, New York, and Boston; distributing a press release and b-roll announcing that enough patients had enrolled in the Gene Trust to begin trials in asthma and breast and colon cancer; and participating in and publicizing regional advocacy group events, such as the American Diabetes Association/Northern Illinois’ annual walk and the Oasis Institute/Tucson genetics seminar.

RESULTS

50,000 visitors to DNA.com, 448 million media impressions

The success of the program was measured in terms of media coverage and Gene Trust registrants.  Within two months of the launch, RF’s media campaign resulted in:

More than 50,000 visits to DNA.com

More than 4,000 individuals registering for the Gene Trust, far exceeding the client’s goal of 2,000

Enough patients registered to begin trials in asthma, breast and colon cancer months earlier than anticipated

A front-page, above-the-fold article in The New York Times

As a result of media coverage, a major pharmaceutical company expressed interest in partnering with DNA Sciences on genetic research.

Post-launch research conducted by partner WebMD revealed that “the DNA Sciences name was found to be highly credible and brought strong positive associations” and “ the DNA Sciences name, and its scientific and expert connotations, appears to support and even promote the credibility of WebMD.”

Ongoing results include:

More than 448 million media impressions, including Business Week, the Associated Press, CNN, CNNfN, and “ABC World News This Morning” (see full list of placements in “Results” tab)
The company and its management have been recognized as industry leaders, being quoted/referenced in publications such as USA Today and the Austin Business Journal 

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