Month: November 2009

VRM Impact

kynetx_vrm_kml-ribbit

The shot above was made at the Kynetx Impact conference, which is the first one I’ve been to where VRM was a serious topic on its own — an acronym thrown around by participants, in ways that made clear that they knew what it was. No explanation required.

In other words, this wasn’t a VRM conference, but one where VRM was a central issue. The fact that the 140 people who packed the room included lots of developers, some of whom working right there on all kinds of stuff, including VRM.

I’ll have much more to say about the conference later. Right now I’m waiting for a flight at the airport and wanted to make a post while I had a shot at it, on the one browser that survived a really bad crash a couple days ago that seems to have affected some system libraries.

Still, a great conference. Thanks to the folks, and to everybody who contributed. Well done.

Advertising in Reverse

Here in the VRM development community we’ve been talking (and in some cases working) for several years on the Personal RFP. Technically an RFP is a “buyer-initiated procurement protocol” for businesses doing business with businesses: B2B as they say. With VRM the buyer is an individual. Hence, Personal RFP. Not a great label, but one that businesses understand.

Now comes Scott Adams (Dilbert’s cartoonist), with Hunter Becomes the Prey. His compressed case:

Shopping is broken… Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don’t involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can’t hope to close the can’t-find-what-I-want gap. The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch…

You can imagine this service as a web site. The consumer goes to the section that best fits his needs (furniture, cars, computers, etc.) and describes what he wants, in his own words. Vendors could set key word alerts via e-mail or text for any products in their general category.

Once they read the customer’s needs online, they have the option of posting their solution, publicly, which gives other vendors and consumers an opportunity to offer counterpoints.

I assume this service already exists in some weaker form. www.answers.yahoo.com is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t broadcast your needs to vendors.

My prediction is that Broadcast Shopping (as I just decided to name it) will become the normal way to shop.

I love “broadcast shopping.”

Where I veer from Scott’s approach is with the assumption that this requires “a site.” That’s because sites become silos, and silos are a big part of the problem we also have with loyalty cards. All are different. All say We have ways of making you shop. Tll trap and control you in their own ways. We need something that serves as a customer’s own tool, and works as simply as a keyring, a car key, an emailing, or a text message. “Here’s what I want: _________.” That’s it.

In business, RFPs use an open protocol (essentially, formalized paperwork and bidding processes). Anybody can use it. We need the same for broadcast shopping. Any of us should be able to broadcast, in a secure and selective way that protects our privacies, specified goods we’re shopping for.

I use the plural of privacy because what we reveal selectively will depend on who we already relate to. For example, say I have a trusted relationship with Nordstrom, Sears and a variety of smaller clothing retailers. I could broadcast only to those stores my need for a tan cotton dress shirt of a particular brand, with a 17″ neck and 31″ sleeves (my actual dimensions, there — I have a linebacker’s neck and arms like a penguin’s flippers). Or I could broadcast the same need to the general marketplace through a fourth party that intermediates on my behalf, not revealing any information about me beside my actual need.

One scenario Scott describes in his post…

For example, let’s say you’re looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, “I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I’m on a budget.”

Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

… outlines a broad class of needs where the customer’s mind is not yet made up. Those are within the scope of VRM, but I think we should start with cases where the actual requirements are known by the buyer, and the buyer can set the terms of engagement. For example, “I want my receipt emailed to me in (this specified) data format, and I don’t want to receive any promotional material.”

All this is not only do-able, but inevitable.

I’ll conclude with a pitch of my own for funding research and development on this work.

Google should be interested because Advertising in Reverse, or Broadcast Shopping (a term I love, by the way), will either undermine or replace the company’s standing business model (which pays for all those freebies we enjoy).

Microsoft should be interested because this could give them something Google doesn’t have yet.

Yahoo should be interested because they need something new that’s a winning idea. Amazon and eBay should be interested because they’re already in that business, though in a silo’d way.

Oracle should be interested because it will sell more databases and Sun gear.

Apple should be interested because it’s one more area where they can push for new standards on which the range of innovation goes through the roof.

Every retailer and intermediary should be interested because the promise of the Net for buyers is not an infinite variety of closed silos, but a truly open marketplace where any buyer can do business with any seller — and on the buyer’s terms and not just the seller’s.

Like everything else we will come to depend on utterly while remaining absent in the present, VRM is thoroughly disruptive idea. It’s always smart to get ahead of the curve by getting behind what will bend it.

Intention Economy Traction

My thinking out loud about what came to be called VRM began with The Intention Economy at Linux Journal, which I posted from a seat amidst the audience at the 2006 eTech in San Diego. The money ‘graphs:

The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them.

The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don’t need marketing to make Intention Markets.

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don’t have to fly from silo to silo, like a bees from flower to flower, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. In The Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase. Simple as that.

The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions. Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just “branded” by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.

The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or “capturing”) buyers.

In The Intention Economy, a car rental customer should be able to say to the car rental market, “I’ll be skiing in Park City from March 20-25. I want to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV. I belong to Avis Wizard, Budget FastBreak and Hertz 1 Club. I don’t want to pay up front for gas or get any insurance. What can any of you companies do for me?” — and have the sellers compete for the buyer’s business…

I also believe we need to start viewing economies, and markets, from the inside out: from the single buyer toward the surrounding world of sellers. And to start constructing technical solutions to the buyer’s problem of getting what he or she wants from markets, rather than the seller’s problem of getting buyers’ attention.

Now jump forward to David Gillespie‘s 263-slide narrative titled Digital Strangelove (or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Internet). It doesn’t mention VRM, but it unpacks what’s really happening with The Internet vs. Media (the former subsumes the latter and undermines all silos, among other good things), and it brings up The Intention Economy, by name, on slide 119. Since this is also the title of the book I’m writing, I find this encouraging.

[Later... David responded with this extraordinarily generous post, in which he makes connections to what we've both been saying about The Intention Economy.]

Along those same lines we have Chris Messina’s Don’t Make Me a Target, which brings up VRM this way:

Doc Searls calls this consumer-driven leverage VRM or “vendor relationship management”. I’ve been a fan of the idea, but I think it falls down on the last word: management. Big companies are willing to devote thousands and millions of dollars “managing” their customers; individuals are not. But services like Brightkite and Facebook are beginning to change that by enabling us to leverage our real-time, real-world behavior as a gating apparatus, removing the “management” requirement of VRM, and allowing us to “flow with the go”. As we invite these attention brokers into our list of recipients to whom we release increasingly contextualized and precise information about ourselves, we stand to benefit a great deal. And privacy, then, becomes a rational, economic instrument that determines whether a company gets to serve us well (based on knowing us better) or clumsily (as they make presumptions about us through circumstance rather than intentional disclosure).

Well, again we see how VRM is an imperfect name for what the development movement is actually about, which is making customers customers both independent of vendors, and better able to engage with them. I can’t blame Chris for taking VRM’s third name too literally. But I would encourage him, and everybody else, to take a broader view of what we’re trying to do here.

We’ve been saying for some time that much of the money and effort vendors spend “managing” customers is worse than wasted: it’s disliked or outright hated by customers. VRM is about giving customers ways to manage relations (even if those are just simple interactions) with vendors. This doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. You manage your keys with a ring, and don’t spend millions doing it. VRM won’t work unless it’s key-ring simple. It also won’t work if the only rings you keep in your pocket are ones that vendors give you. The best of these, such as the ones Chris Messina talks about, are steps in the right direction. But at a certain point those steps stop. That point is customer independence, freedom and autonomy. Those are things customers need to have for themselves. Vendors can’t give it to them. That’s why VRM starts with the customer, not the vendor. With his Laws of VRM post, Chris Carfi helps scaffold the concept of VRM with the customer (or, in non-commercial settings, the individual) at the center — as the point of integration, an observation first made by Joe Andrieu.

As David Gillespie points out in his presentation (see slides 37, 38, 50, 55, 66, 73-74…) it’s still early. The Internet is brand new. As I said in Beyond Social Media and Toward Post-Journalism Journalism, the big brands of the Web today (Facebook, Twitter, even Google) are its trilobites and bryzoans. We are in the Net’s paleozoic, not its mesozoic or cenozoic — much less its pleistocene or holocene. The Net feels holocenic to us because now is when we are living and grooving on all the cool new stuff we can do. Still, trust me: it’s early. I’m as impatient as the next geek to get on with it, but it’ll take time. (It pisses me that I’m writing this at age 62, but maybe I wouldn’t be writing it if I were younger.)

So David is right. Intention is the key.

A brief story. Last night on the way home we stopped to pick up some provisions at a big Shaw’s grocery store. We went there because their food selection is enormous, and because  have one of their loyalty fobs on my key ring. In fact it’s one of just two on there (the other is Border’s). So we got our cart, gathered a bunch of groceries and went through one of the store’s self-checkout lanes. I hate those things, because something often goes wrong. But my kid loves them. He digs pressing the buttons, scanning the barcodes and bagging the groceries.

Well, something did go wrong. The machine didn’t ask for our Shaw’s card, or if it did we missed the request. After completing the purchase I realized that we got none of the “discounts,” and went to the customer service counter, where we waited about 20 minutes while the helpful people there tried to unscramble what went wrong. During that time I mentioned to one of the service people that I hated the whole loyalty card thing. She said she hated it too, as did other people at the store. Turns out they hated the self-check-out system too. The loyalty system is a big kluge, with double-pricing for nearly everything,  slow-downs at check-out, constant de-bugging and other problems. And self-check-out is a constant mess. “We’d be better off getting rid of those things and just adding more express lanes,” she said. I agreed.

In the end they couldn’t figure out what I was due back and instead gave me a gift card with a generous sum on it. Humanity overrode The System.

My point: loyalty programs are screwed up, and so are the constant efforts by sellers to automate the crap out of everything (including relationship as well as transaction), in too many cases offloading customer support to customers themselves. There is a distance beyond which this crap can’t work any more, and we’ve reached it. Beyond that point the market requires self-empowered customers, who will gain the ability to manage relating to multiple sellers in simple and uncomplicated ways that are independent of any seller’s silo, yet able to engage with those sellers in better ways than the sellers can provide with their own systems.

Right now vendors resemble the old AOL vs. Compuserve vs. Prodigy days. Its stil 1989. They’re rolling everything for themselves. What they need is to have the Net brought to them. That’s the customer’s job. Also the mission of VRM.

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