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Interventional Innovation

Concern for loved ones can be a powerful innovation tool.
September 1, 2004

Politely but very insistently, the television ad asks if you or someone you know experiences nervousness and discomfort in social situations. Of course, you personally neither palpitate nor sweat in public places. But do you have a close and troubled friend who fits that description? Perhaps he or she should consider taking a special pill. Or consider your aging parents. Their energy isn’t what it once was, and keeping in touch across time zones is increasingly awkward. Having them on e-mail would be great. Alas, they’re stubborn technophobes. You’re not confident you can reliably get them online. What should you do?

While these simple scenarios involve provocative personal decisions, they also capture an essential innovation dilemma. When are innovators wiser to target their prospective users’ perceived communities of care than the prospective users themselves? Getting people to do something innovative for themselves is one kind of challenge; persuading them to persuade other people to invest in novelty is quite another.

No, this isn’t about marketing or encouraging word of mouth. This is about determining which “innovation vectors” make the most sense while making the most money. Children’s advertising offers the paradigmatic example: kids see ads for innovations like new toys, breakfast cereals, and fast foods and relentlessly pester their parents to adopt them. Does the kiddie vector work? Of course it does. That’s why governments in Europe and private advocacy groups in America want TV ads for tots radically restricted or abolished.

But the innovation imperatives separating kiddies from caregivers are profound. Children are unalloyed creatures of instant gratification; caregivers promote innovation as a medium for commitment and concern. Taken to its logical extreme, the community-of-care vector is about “innovation intervention”: that is, an explicit effort to convince friends or relatives to adopt a particular innovation for their own good.

That’s why so many adult children of aging parents would like senior-friendly Internet setup packages offering, for example, one-touch access to e-mail and large-type screen displays. Would they pay a premium for such a service setup? Given longer life spans and the demographic tilt toward the elderly, that’s a multibillion-dollar question.

No doubt the greatest opportunities in innovation intervention will be driven by biomedical breakthroughs. Social taboos that once made it impolite to tell friends or family members that they drank or smoked or ate too much seem to have collapsed. It’s not difficult to imagine gift certificates for elective surgery such as liposuctions or post-pregnancy tummy tucks for moms who feel depressed that they’ve “let themselves go” after the births of their children.

Similarly, the expanding array of antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and other cognitive enhancers guarantees a fundamental rethinking of how innovative therapies are marketed. Alzheimer’s medications are already targeted to caregivers. Indeed, how can people who increasingly suffer from short-term memory loss be expected to remember to take their medicine? But nowadays it’s also common for schoolteachers to recommend that parents consider medication for their hyperactive or potentially ADD-afflicted children – for their own good, of course.

While debates about the ethics and efficacy of medicalizing an increasing number of once normal behaviors will no doubt intensify, the undeniable reality is that individuals – whether children, adults, or seniors – live in contexts that involve people who ostensibly care about them. These communities of caregivers are also marketplaces. And these marketplaces need their own support, education, and training infrastructures.

Innovators who invest as if these caregivers were simply salespeople for their innovative products and services are both fools and lousy businesspeople. Segmenting the innovation-intervention marketplace may prove even more economically important than segmenting the users of those innovations. If you’re GlaxoSmithKline and you’re touting a drug like Paxil as a remedy for anxiety among overextended professionals, for example, you’ll probably want to tailor one message to employees’ spouses and a very different one to a company’s human-resources executives.

Yes, there’s a core of presumptuousness in this pushy, do-goodery persuasion. But that’s part of its charm and effectiveness. The innovations need to be robust and reliable enough to justify and support the intervention. They must be designed, packaged, and promoted with interventions in mind. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but if it’s your mom who needs the invention, you’ll be grateful for some innovative help in intervening.

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