A lot went down at conferences these last two weeks. The main three were IIW, Berkman@10 and iCitizen. Many of the below items were from the iCitizen, where my keynote met with much face-to-face approval and enthusiasm, but the blogging and twittering veered toward the skeptical side (not negative, but more wait-and-see). That’s what you’ll see below.

We also have a ‘con coming up at Harvard for VRM folks on July 9-10.  I’ll have more details about that shortly. Meanwhile, read the items below and follow the links. My own reactions follow those.

In a long and important post titled From misapprehensions to alternatives, Adriana Lukas begins, ” I’d like to put the record straight about where ‘Feeds Based VRM’ comes from and what the Mine! is and what it isn’t.” I can’t find any section short enough to quote further, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

From Is VRM a phenomenon? by Alan Mitchell:

VRM is not just a ‘phenomenon’ generated by placing cool tools in the hands of users. Yes, of course, we need cool tools (it may not happen without them). But we also need new types of service, and new types of business models to make these new types of service possible. It’s about all three, together.

The danger with the ‘VRM is a phenomenon’ argument is that it encourages us to focus on just one of these pillars and to ignore the other two. If we do, we will never create a stable, scalable platform – and VRM risks being still born.

From Data portability, privacy and personal data stores, by Nick Brisbourne:

The personal data store might be an existing service like Facebook (or even LastFM) or a new service created specifically to form this function. And different people might choose to use different applications as their hub.This model of a personal data store where the user allows different service to access the data on a fine grained persmissioned basis has a lot in common with the VRM vision of how advertising might evolve.

Tom O’Brien reporting from iCitizen:

Doc Searls – sure, he’s one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto – the book directly responsible for me having the idea for MotiveQuest – and a true visionary – but did you know he has at least 7 electronic devices running at all times? I was sitting behind him watching and that guy can multitask! Great presentation (we tipped sacred cows in Ohio) and I especially appreciated the part about project VRM – which will change how we consumer stuff – and move us from a marketing based economy to a relationship/intention based economy. Thanks to his simple visual – the Relbutton – I finally understand the concept behind Project VRM!

From iCitizen – OpenSource Communications Channels?, by Andrea Hill:

Doc Searls (co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto) is speaking at iCitizen about Open Source and Vendor Relationship Management. This is one of only a few sessions I’ve actually been able to attend, and it ended up being quite tech-heavy. Great for me! The idea is about how we can change our perspective on how to manage relationships. Doc (do we call him “The” Doc?) focussed on the role of technology in this matter. We extolled the virtues of open source technology to meet user needs.

He spoke of the VRM (vendor relationship management) work he has been doing at Harvard. The icon or symbol is the relbutton, which looks like two magnets attracted towards each other. The two negotiate a contract based on some as-yet-undefined terms. He mentioned Open Social a few times, and the idea that the user should be in charge of his own data. A good example: when we go to a doctor’s office, we are responsible to manually input our history. Each time we have to regurgitate information, we risk inaccuracies. He gave a statistic of how many people died of “misinformation” every year. So what if this was data we could carry with us?

I was interested in the language we would use to define these relationships – it made me think of established interfaces. There are two parties, how do we negotiate the languge we use to communicate? APIs are getting quite popular, but this is obviously on a much larger scale. He spoke frequently of Open Social, which I will admit I don’t know much about. My thoughts were moreso focused on microformats, the idea of describing our relationships with parties.

After the session I was talking to David Griner, and his thoughts on the matter seemed to be more related to the notion of privacy than openness. Indeed, this entire notion is called “Vendor management”, are we forgetting about the needs and expectations of the consumer? Doc mentioned that the individual was in charge of this data (the whole data portability notion that is de rigueur right now), and then there was also mention of the need for a 3rd party.

Doc is approaching this challenge from a tech standpoint, and I fear that this was a bit of a barrier to many of the folks in the room. It was a good presentation with regards to a potential challenge, but I think the need therefore isn’t entirely established as of yet. I think it’s also an interesting topic in the light of all the social networks data portability announcements that have occured in the past week. Who owns our data, do we really have the power to take it with us, and perhaps most importantly, what is that data? Some of us are experiencing social media fatigue, and I think there was some question from the user perspective if this required an additional level of “data management”. Do I need to define a profile to carry with me to specific sites, or do I establish an online persona that comes with me as I negotiate the web generically? How do we protect that information? Certain services like kaboodle offer us a place to aggregate products related to a certain user task (shopping). Perhaps this needs to be not about data, but about tasks.

From Advergirl‘s (Leigh Householder‘s) iCitizen Wrapup:

Jump back 5 years. If around that time, someone had started talking about carrying all your music, pictures, and movies on a device that both fit in your pocket and worked as a cell phone, limited-use computer and general personal planner…. well, that person would probably have received a similar response to what Doc Searls got at iCitizen today: sounds intriguing, but what, what?

Doc talked about “vendor relationship manangement.” It’s what’s needed when the “attention economy” makes a decision to act or buy and – thus – becomes the “intention economy.” And, has something to do with using your data & personal and logical preferences to define rather than accommodate how you’ll buy / share your information / relate to the companies you do business with. Everything from owning your own healthcare data to setting your own privacy expectations to pre-defining how much you’ll pay for the exact thing that you really want.

I mentioned the response to a theoretical iPhone 5 years ago because what hangs in the balance for Doc’s theory is what “thing” will make his idea concrete and easy vs. wildly theoretical and seeming like a massive-new-responsibility-and-time-investment-this-convenience-girl- wants-nothing-in-the-world-to-do-with.

Check out Andrea’s coverage for more background.


  • Doc calls Web “the Net.” Love the anachronisms when digital adopters talk ‘what’s coming’
  • Doc talks about approach – “we list all the things we think are true that no one’s talking about” So us.
  • Key driver of open source, not just anyone can create and use, but anyone can IMPROVE IT.
  • Attention economy has evolved to intention economy on the live Web … what you get when a customers mind is made up.
  • Attention economy until point of decision then intention economy. Using car rental as example of industry without intention.
  • What could car rental do if it knew customer intention. If it stopped “trap and hold” tactics like “car you want or similar”
  • Want to express logical and personal preferences, like no ads when calling tech support or will pay for faster service
  • Doc’s point seems to be: smartest people about the right experience are your customers, not your employees or competitiros.
  • Doc pokes at a big box retailer for saying they want to “own the customer.” Another term for owning humans? Slavery. Why do we talk that way? Because we’re too busy talking to ourselves and not our customers.
  • Doc must be part of RenGen. So far referenced Rousseau, Whitman, Marx … waiting for the test at this point
  • Doc unfinished biz of Cluetrain is Vendor Relationship Mgt – control by customers who are in free markets & engaging with vendors
  • VRM is not necessarily social because social makes assumption we have power in numbers. We have power as individuals, not from vendors who want to leverage our mass.
  • In identity world, cards /prices/ rels not issued to you. You issue your own card / intention / “RFP” http://snurl.com/29×75
  • Doc’s VRM sounds way hard. I don’t want to manage my relationship with Target or write a RFP for a blender. I don’t have an acquisition dept.
  • In simplest form, Doc’s ideas seem like convenience of Canada’s Airmiles. www.airmiles.ca – all data in one place for one purpose / reward
  • Bigger than that Doc’s approach seems so high engagement and limited in audience … but says something will come along to make it simple
  • Kind of scares me that I can’t get on board with this. Newest ideas coming from oldest guy in room. 30-somethings snarking.

Echovar on Small Bits of the Distributed Future in Cleveland:

At a Cleveland American Advertising Federation luncheon today, Larry Weber talked to a room full of traditional PR and marketing types about “marketing” and social networks. While the talk was mostly a new coat of paint on the Cluetrain Manifesto, it was interesting that this group of people showed up in good numbers to listen. As the talk went on I could feel that the room, even at this late date, was skeptical of his premise that markets are conversations with communities.

Weber suggests that big brands should be hosting honest conversations containing both positive and negative messages about their products. He recommended building communities from scratch around a brand, and implied that the brand should want to keep the users inside their own walled garden. In fact, he suggested that the network’s future will be filled with social network-based walled gardens existing as a form of client loyalty program. No mentions of VRM or the role OpenID will play in the future of the commecial web. And not even a hint of the way that Google’s Friend Connect might bring existing social networks to a brand’s site, rather than building a new community from the ground up.

Digidave on a video interview I did last year with Amanda Congdon:

“Advertising as we know it today is terminal. Part of this vendor relationship management thing that I want to do is blow-up advertising as we know it. I want to change the game to one where the intentions of the customer are what drive the marketplace rather than effort to get the attention of the customer has been doing for the last 100 years or so.”

Doc is crazy smart. His idea for VRM is WAY out there. Almost too far out. I like to think that Spot.Us is a small step towards what he envisions in his head.

Craig Overend vs. Online Identity: ” Until decentralized data persistence, redundancy, namespace, and relationship management tools are here, it’s all bunk.” He says much more. Read the comments too.

Sean Coon on Marketing, Bill Hicks And A System That’s Bound To Implode:

Doc Searls is a demand-side advocate, and I completely agree with his position on the false construct of our system that attempts to connect markets to product via the boisterous shouting of offers into the wind. Maybe his VRM work will begin to flip the script on that paradigm, maybe not.”

Mads Kristensen on Trying to get to grips with VRM:

 I’m desperately trying to get my grips around the concept of VRM or Vendor Relationship Management. I think its very important for the way society is heading with the Customer becoming King.

The concept as such is simple enough. Where CRM – Customer Relationship Management – is about staying updated and on track with you customers and clients, VRM is the opposite. It’s about you staying on top of the companies that you have some sort of relationship with.

From here it gets pretty technical. A lot of ideas are floating around, but thankfully there are good people, who try to help one sorting everything out. So I’m still an optimist as to one day finally getting it.

Bart on My Request to Give:

“Would it not be an idea to develop some sort of RelButton and build some sort of VRM standard based on a “Request To Give” (RTG)?”

It could look something like this:

“… I have 2 laptops and 100 USD which I would like to give to a school in Africa …”
Now this is communicated to the smaller NGO’s which now will have “to compete” for these goods.

By doing so, they (the NGO) start to create a new (and hopefully) a more sustainable relationship with the donor.

What do you think, would this idea fly, or is the NGO community to closed, or not ready yet?
And do you know some NGO’s I could contact to discuss the nuts and bolts of such a platform?

Let me know. I want to see such a platform work.

My own bottom line here is that our enthusiasm and our advocacy is outrunning our clarity and our code. We need a lot more of both. I’m more responsible than anybody else for the former, so I have my work cut out there.

Clearly the relbutton helps, a lot. This last week was the first time I’ve surfaced it in public, and it goes a long way toward clarifying what VRM is, and how it will work. But the words of a VC still ring in my ears here: we need some first-rate UI work done here.

VRM has to be simple and non-geeky. It needs to be less work for customers, not more. Same goes for vendors. The trade-off has to be clear and so choice-free that You Just Have To Do This.

We’re not there yet. And we need to move there, quickly.

On Adriana and Alec’s distinction between “feeds-based VRM” and “identity-based VRM”, I see her points and appreciate the distinction.

— Doc