Persuading People to be Healthy: Thoughts from a Healthspottr Innovation Salon on Microtargeting

Jan 24, 2014, 8:00 AM, Posted by

Lori Melichar, director Lori Melichar, director

If we're going to create a Culture of Health in this country, then we need to re-examine our influence strategies. In other words: We need to get better at delivering the exact right message or intervention that is most likely to get someone to take action that improves their health, their family or friends' health or the healthiness of their community. And that means we need to get better at microtargeting—applying the vast amounts of data available about people's habits and preferences to identify who is most persuadable.

I recently co-hosted an RWJF-funded Healthspottr Innovation Salon focused on the subject of microtargeting, where I met Ricky Gonzales of Enroll America and Erek Dyskant of BlueLabs, both of whom were on the Obama campaign's data analytics team. They talked about how they used microtargeting during the campaign and how those innovations may apply to health, something you can read more about in articles from The New York Times, Mother Jones, and the Wall Street Journal, among other sources. When I observed that several approaches they described might have applications for health and health care, Dyskant said, "Influencing people to make healthy decisions is much harder than getting someone to vote in a single election."

He was being modest. But it's true that very few health behaviors depend on one action. For example, while one trip to the voting booth is enough to influence an election, one trip to the gym (while certainly a positive step) is not enough to substantially change your health status. Still, Erek encouraged us to pursue microtargeting, saying, "the timeline for impact may be longer, but the potential gains are immense for the individual and our society."

As an article in The Nation observed last year, microtargeting raises important questions about privacy. But we can't let that deter us from figuring out ethical and responsible ways to apply this highly effective tool to improving people's health. If Madison Avenue can use microtargeting to influence purchasing behavior, and politicians can use it to influence election results, certainly we in health and health care can use it to help save people's lives while preserving the privacy of those we serve.

What are some examples of using microtargeting for social good? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.