Category: Customer Commons (page 1 of 2)

The Rise of Robot Retail

end of personal dealings
From Here Comes the Full Amazonification of Whole Foods, by Cecelia Kang (@CeceliaKang) in The New York Times:

…In less than a minute, I scanned both hands on a kiosk and linked them to my Amazon account. Then I hovered my right palm over the turnstile reader to enter the nation’s most technologically sophisticated grocery store…

Amazon designed my local grocer to be almost completely run by tracking and robotic tools for the first time.

The technology, known as Just Walk Out, consists of hundreds of cameras with a god’s-eye view of customers. Sensors are placed under each apple, carton of oatmeal and boule of multigrain bread. Behind the scenes, deep-learning software analyzes the shopping activity to detect patterns and increase the accuracy of its charges.

The technology is comparable to what’s in driverless cars. It identifies when we lift a product from a shelf, freezer or produce bin; automatically itemizes the goods; and charges us when we leave the store. Anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members, can shop this way and skip a cash register since the bill shows up in our Amazon account.

And this is just Amazon. Soon it will be every major vendor of everything, most likely with Amazon as the alpha sphincter among all the chokepoints controlled by robotic intermediaries between first sources and final customers—with all of them customizing your choices, your prices, and whatever else it takes to engineer demand in the marketplace—algorithmically, robotically, and most of all, personally.

Some of us will like it, because it’ll be smooth, easy and relatively cheap. It will also subordinate us utterly to machines. Or perhaps udderly, because we will be calves raised to suckle on the teats of retail’s robot cows.

This system can’t be fixed from within. Nor can it be fixed by regulation, though some of that might help. It can only be obsolesced by customers who bring more to the market’s table than cash, credit, appetites and acquiescence to systematic training.

What more?

Start with information. What do we actually want (including, crucially, to not be bothered by hype or manipulated by surveillance systems)?

Add intelligence. What do we know about products, markets, needs, and how things actually work than roboticized systems can begin to guess at?

Then add values, such as freedom, choice, agency, care for others, and the ability to collectivize in constructive and helpful ways on our own.

Then add tech. But this has to be our tech: customertech that we bring to market as independent, sovereign and capable human beings. Not just as “users” of others’ systems, or consumers (which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”) of whatever producers want to feed us.

Time for solutions. Here is a list of fourteen market problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side.

And yes, we do need help from the sellers’ side. But not with promises to make their systems more “customer centric.” (We’ve been flagging that as a fail since 2008.) We need CRM that welcomes VRM. B2C that welcomes Me2B.

And money. Our startups and nonprofits have done an amazing job of keeping the VRM and Me2B embers burning. But they could do a lot more with some gas on those things.

Homeless on the Web

Do you have a home on the Web?

I mean a page or a site that is yours. Not one that belongs to some .com, .org or .edu. One that’s truly yours, with a name you gave to it, nobody else has, and you fully inhabit.

Some of us do. I’m one of those, but with nothing to brag about. Go to and you’ll find a placeholder I’ve been updating every couple of years since the mid-’90s.  Behind that façade is a garage full of files I keep stored online but blocked from search engines. That’s so I can find them from anywhere, or so I can point other people to them every once in a while.

Like the rest of us, most of what I’ve done on the Web are on the sites that belong others. The goods in those sites are mine in the sense that I’ve created them. But where they are is not mine. Not in the least.

Nearly all the pages called “home” are those of what in the trade we call enterprises. Mine here is in an enterprise called Harvard University. I thank it for that grace.

Still, in a literal sense, most of us are homeless here. In a literal way maybe all of us are, because we don’t own our domain names. We rent them. will exist only so long as I, or my heirs, continue paying to keep it active.

This isn’t a bad thing. Hell, the benefits of the Web are enormous in the extreme. I’m not knocking those.

I am, however, saying we are homeless. Here.

Yet there is nothing about the Internet that says you can’t have a home there—which is a deeper here, underneath the Web.

This is important because we need to clearly and finally make a sharp distinction between the Web and the Internet. Because they are not the same. The Internet is what the Web sits on. And, big and broad as it is, the Web is not the only thing that can sit on the Internet. This was true for Web as it was in the first place,  for what we called Web 2 in the early ’00s, and for what we call Web 3 today.

The Internet is different.  And there are few limits to what the Internet can support, much as there are few limits to what can be built on land or float on ocean.

But there are limits to what we can build on the Web. One of those is a home for ourselves. A real home. One that does not require renting a domain name. One that lets us zero-base what we can do upon the infinite grace granted us by simply connecting to a worldwide network of networks that exists only to move packets of data from any end to any other end.

So let’s start thinking about that.

Some of us (present company included) are on the case already. We need more.

While we ponder that, here’s a thought: Maybe one reason VRM has been slow to happen is that we’ve been trying to do it on the Web.

The photo above is on Love Ranch Road, in the center of Wyoming. The story of the ranch, and the home now abandoned there, is central to John McPhee’s Rising from the Plains. I was there to shoot the solar eclipse of August 2017, which was at its totality there. The darkness on the horizon is the shadow of the moon, approaching from the west.

Beyond the Web

The Cluetrain Manifesto said this…


…in 1999.

And now, in 2021, it’s still not true—at least not on the Web.

If it was true, California’s CCPA wouldn’t call us mere “consumers” and Europe’s GDPR  wouldn’t call us mere “data subjects,” whose privacy is entirely at the grace of corporate “data processors” and “data controllers.” (While the GDPR does say a “natural person” can be either of those, the prevailing assumption says no. Worse, it assumes that what privacies we enjoy on the Web should be valved by choices we make when confronted with “consent” notices that pop up when we first visit a website, and which are recorded somewhere we don’t know and can’t audit or dispute.)

Simply put, we are not free, and our reach does not exceed their grasp. Again, on the Web.

But (this is key), the Web is not the Internet. It’s a haystack of stuff on the Net. It’s a big one, and hugely good in many ways. And maybe we can be really free there eventually. But why not work outside of it? That’s the question.

And that’s what some of us are answering. You might call what we’re doing a blue ocean strategy:

For example, Joyce and I are now in Bloomington, Indiana, embedded as visiting scholars at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop, where we are rolling out a new project called the Byway, for Customer Commons, ProjectVRM’s nonprofit spin-off. We will also be working with local communities of interest here in Bloomington. Stay tuned for more on that.

To find out more about what we’re up to—or just to discuss whatever seems relevant—please come to our first Beyond the Web salon, by Zoom, on Monday at 3pm Eastern time. The full link:

ProjectVRM at 15

This project started in September 2006, when I became a fellow at what is now the Berkman Klein Center. Our ambitions were not small.:

  1. To encourage development of tools by which individuals can take control of their relationships with organizations — especially in commercial marketplaces.
  2. To encourage and conduct research on VRM-related theories, usage of VRM tools, and effects as adoption of VRM tools takes place.

The photo above is of our first workshop, at Harvard Law School, in 2008. Here is another photo with a collection of topics discussed in breakout sessions:

Zoom in on any of the topics there (more are visible on the next photo in the album), and you will find many of them still on the table, thirteen years later. Had some prophet told us then that this would still be the case, we might have been discouraged. But progress has been made on all those fronts, and the main learning in the meantime is that every highly ambitious grassroots movement takes time to bear fruit.

One example is what we discussed in the “my red dot” breakout at the May 2007 Internet Identity Workshop (the 3rd of what next week will be our 33rd ) is now finally being done with the Byway, which is about to get prototyped by our nonprofit spin-off, Customer Commons, with help from the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University Bloomington, where Joyce and I are currently embedded as visiting scholars.

Our mailing list numbers 567 members, and is active, though it won’t hog your email flow. Check out the action at that link. And, if you like, join in.

You can also join in at our next gathering, VRM Day 2021b, which happens this coming Monday, 11 October.  We’ll visit our learnings thus far, and present progress and plans on many fronts, including

And we thank the BKC for its patience and faith in our project and its work.

How the Web sucks

This spectrum of emojis is a map of the Web’s main occupants (the middle three) and outliers (the two on the flanks). It provides a way of examining who is involved, where regulation fits, and where money gets invested and made. Yes, it’s overly broad, but I think it’s helpful in understanding where things went wrong and why. So let’s start.

Wizards are tech experts who likely run their own servers and keep private by isolating themselves and communicating with crypto. They enjoy the highest degrees of privacy possible on and around the Web, and their approach to evangelizing their methods is to say “do as I do” (which most of us, being Muggles, don’t). Relatively speaking, not much money gets made by or invested in Wizards, but much money gets made because of Wizards’ inventions. Those inventions include the Internet, the Web, free and open source software, and much more. Without Wizards, little of what we enjoy in the digital world today would be possible. However, it’s hard to migrate their methods into the muggle population.

‍Muggles are the non-Wizards who surf the Web and live much of their digital lives there, using Web-based services on mobile apps and browsers on computers. Most of the money flowing into the webbed economy comes from Muggles. Still, there is little investment in providing Muggles with tools for operating or engaging independently and at scale across the websites and services of the world. Browsers and email clients are about it, and the most popular of those (Chrome, Safari, Edge) are by the grace of corporate giants. Almost everything Muggles do on the Web and mobile devices is on apps and tools that are what the trade calls silos or walled gardens: private spaces run by the websites and services of the world.

Sites. This category also includes clouds and the machinery of e-commerce. These are at the heart of the Web: a client-server (aka calf-cow) top-down, master-slave environment where servers rule and clients obey. It is in this category that most of the money on the Web (and e-commerce in general) gets made, and into which most investment money flows. It is also here that nearly all development n the connected world today happens.

 Ad-tech, aka adtech, is the home of surveillance capitalism, which relies on advertisers and their agents knowing all that can be known about every Muggle. This business also relies on absent Muggle agency, and uses that absence as an excuse for abusing the privilege of committing privacy violations that would be rude or criminal in the natural world. Also involved in this systematic compromise are adtech’s dependents in the websites and Web services of the world, which are typically employed by adtech to inject tracking beacons in Muggles’ browsers and apps. It is to the overlap between adtech and sites that all privacy regulation is addressed. This is why, the GDPR sees Muggles as mere “data subjects,” and assigns responsibility for Muggle’s privacy to websites and services the regulation calls “data controllers” and “data processors.” The regulation barely imagines that Muggles could perform either of those roles, even though personal computing was invented so every person can do both. (By the way, the adtech business and many of its dependents in publishing like to say the Web is free because advertising pays for it. But the Web is as free by nature as are air and sunlight. And most of the money Google makes, for example, comes from plain old search advertising, which can get along fine without tracking. There is also nothing about advertising itself that requires tracking.)

 Crime happens on the Web, but its center of gravity is outside, on the dark web. This is home to botnets, illegal porn, terrorist activity, ransom attacks, cyber espionage, and so on. There is a lot of overlap between crime and adtech, however, given the moral compromises required for adtech to function, plus the countless ways that bots, malware and other types of fraud are endemic to the adtech business. (Of course, to be an expert criminal on the dark web requires a high degree of wizardry. So I one could arrange these categories in a circle, with an overlap between wizards and criminals.)

I offer this set of distinctions for several reasons. One is to invite conversation about how we have failed the Web and the Web has failed us—the Muggles of the world—even though we enjoy apparently infinite goodness from the Web and handy services there. Another is to explain why ProjectVRM has been more aspirational than productive in the fifteen years it has been working toward empowering people on the commercial Net. (Though there has been ample productivity.) But mostly it is to explain why I believe we will be far more productive if we start working outside the Web itself. This is why our spinoff, Customer Commons, is pushing forward with the Byway toward i-commerce. Check it out.

Finally, I owe the idea for this visualization to Iain Henderson, who has been with ProjectVRM since before it started. (His other current involvements are with JLINC and Customer Commons.) Hope it proves useful.

What makes a good customer?

For awhile the subhead at Customer Commons (our nonprofit spin-off) was this:

How good customers work with good companies

It’s still a timely thing to say, since searches on Google for “good customer” are at an all-time high:


The year 2004, when Google began keeping track of search trends, was also the year “good customer” hit at an all-time high in percentage of appearances in books Google scanned*:

So now might be the time to ask, What exactly is a “good customer?

The answer depends on the size of the business, and how well people and systems in the business know a customer. Put simply, it’s this:

  1. For a small business, a good customer is a person known by face and name to people who work there, and who has earned a welcome.
  2. For a large business, it’s a customer known to spend more than other customers.

In both cases, the perspective is the company’s, not the customer’s.

Ever since industry won the industrial revolution, the assumption has been that business is about businesses, not about customers. It doesn’t matter how much business schools, business analysts, consultants and sellers of CRM systems say it’s about customers and their “experience.” It’s not.

To  see how much it’s not, do a Bing or a Google search for “good customer.” Most of the results will be for good customer + service. If you put quotes around “good customer” on either search engine and also The Markup’s Simple Search (which brings to the top “traditional” results not influenced by those engines’ promotional imperatives), your top result will be Paul Jun’s How to be a good customer post on Help Scout. That one offers “tips on how to be a customer that companies love.” Likewise with Are You a Good Customer? Or Not.: Are you Tippin’ or Trippin’? by Janet Vaughan, one of the top results in a search for “good customer” at Amazon. That one is as much a complaint about bad customers as it is advice for customers who aspire to be good. Again, the perspective is a corporate one: either “be nice” or “here’s how to be nice.”

But what if customers can be good in ways that don’t involve paying a lot, showing up frequently and being nice?

For example, what if customers were good sources of intelligence about how companies and their products work—outside current systems meant to minimize exposure to customer input and to restrict that input to the smallest number of variables? (The worst of which is the typical survey that wants to know only how the customer was treated by the agent, rather than by the system behind the agent.)

Consider the fact that a customer’s experience with a product or service is far more rich, persistent and informative than is the company’s experience selling those things, or learning about their use only through customer service calls (or even through pre-installed surveillance systems such as those which for years now have been coming in new cars).

The curb weight of customer intelligence (knowledge, knowhow, experience) with a company’s products and services far outweighs whatever the company can know or guess at.

So, what if that intelligence were to be made available by the customer, independently, and in standard ways that worked at scale across many or all of the companies the customer deals with?

At ProjectVRM, this has been a consideration from the start. Turning the customer journey into a virtuous cycle explores how much more the customer knows on the “own” side of what marketers call the “customer life journey”†:

Given who much more time a customer spends owning something than buying it, the right side of that graphic is actually huge.

I wrote that piece in July 2013, alongside another that asked, Which CRM companies are ready to dance with VRM? In the comments below, Ray Wang, the Founder, Chairman and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, provided a simple answer: “They aren’t ready. They live in a world of transactions.”

Yet signals between computing systems are also transactional. The surveillance system in your new car is already transacting intelligence about your driving with the company that made the car, plus its third parties (e.g. insurance companies). Now, what if you could, when you wish, share notes or questions about your experience as a driver? For example—

  • How there is a risk that something pointed and set in the trunk can easily puncture the rear bass speaker screwed into the trunk’s roof and is otherwise unprotected
  • How some of the dashboard readouts could be improved
  • How coins or pens dropped next to the console between the front seats risk disappearing to who-knows-where
  • How you really like the way your headlights angle to look down bends in the road

(Those are all things I’d like to tell Toyota about my wife’s very nice (but improvable) new 2020 Camry XLE Hybrid. )

We also visited what could be done in How a real customer relationship ought to work in 2014 and in Market intelligence that flows both ways in 2016. In that one we use the example of my experience with a pair of Lamo moccasins that gradually lost their soles, but not their souls (I still have and love them):

By giving these things a pico (a digital twin of itself, or what we might call internet-of-thing-ness without onboard smarts), it is not hard to conceive a conduit through which reports of experience might flow from customer to company, while words of advice, reassurance or whatever might flow back in the other direction:

That’s transactional, but it also makes for a far better relationship that what today’s CRM systems alone can imagine.

It also enlarges what “good customer” means. It’s just one way how, as it says at the top, good customers can work with good companies.

Something we’ve noticed in Pandemic Time is that both customers and companies are looking for better ways to get along, and throwing out old norms right and left. (Such as, on the corporate side, needing to work in an office when the work can also be done at home.)

We’ll be vetting some of those ways at VRM/CuCo Day, Monday 19 April. That’s the day before the Internet Identity Workshop, where many of us will be talking and working on bringing ideas like these to market. The first is free, and the second is cheap considering it’s three days long and the most leveraged conference of any kind I have ever known. See you there.

*Google continued scanning books after that time, but the methods differed, and some results are often odd. (For example, if your search goes to 2019, the last year they cover, the  results start dropping in 2009, hit zero in 2012 and stay at zero after that—which is clearly wrong as well as odd.)

†This graphic, and the whole concept, are inventions of Estaban Kolsky, one of the world’s great marketing minds. By the way, Estaban introduced the concept here in 2010, calling it “the experience continuum.” The graphic above comes from a since-vanished page at Oracle.

Let’s zero-base zero-party data

Forrester Research has gifted marketing with a hot buzzphrase: zero-party data, which they define as “data that a customer intentionally and proactively shares with a brand, which can include preference center data, purchase intentions, personal context, and how the individual wants the brand to recognize her.”

Salesforce, the CRM giant (that’s now famously buying Slack), is ambitious about the topic, and how it can “fuel your personalized marketing efforts.” The second person you is Salesforce’s corporate customer.

It’s important to unpack what Salesforce says about that fuel, because Salesforce is a tech giant that fully matters. So here’s text from that last link. I’ll respond to it in chunks. (Note that zero, first and third party data is about you, no matter who it’s from.)

What is zero-party data?

Before we define zero-party data, let’s back up a little and look at some of the other types of data that drive personalized experiences.

First-party data: In the context of personalization, we’re often talking about first-party behavioral data, which encompasses an individual’s site-wide, app-wide, and on-page behaviors. This also includes the person’s clicks and in-depth behavior (such as hovering, scrolling, and active time spent), session context, and how that person engages with personalized experiences. With first-party data, you glean valuable indicators into an individual’s interests and intent. Transactional data, such as purchases and downloads, is considered first-party data, too.

Third-party data: Obtained or purchased from sites and sources that aren’t your own, third-party data used in personalization typically includes demographic information, firmographic data, buying signals (e.g., in the market for a new home or new software), and additional information from CRM, POS, and call center systems.

Zero-party data, a term coined by Forrester Research, is also referred to as explicit data.

They then go on to quote Forrester’s definition, substituting “[them]” for “her.”

The first party in that definition the site harvesting “behavioral” data about the individual. (It doesn’t square with the legal profession’s understanding of the term, so if you know that one, try not to be confused.)

It continues,


Forrester’s Fatemeh Khatibloo, VP principal analyst, notes in a video interview with Wayin (now Cheetah Digital) that zero-party data “is gold. … When a customer trusts a brand enough to provide this really meaningful data, it means that the brand doesn’t have to go off and infer what the customer wants or what [their] intentions are.”

Sure. But what if the customer has her own way to be a precious commodity to a brand—one she can use at scale with all the brands she deals with? I’ll unpack that question shortly.

There’s the privacy factor to keep in mind too, another reason why zero-party data – in enabling and encouraging individuals to willingly provide information and validate their intent – is becoming a more important part of the personalization data mix.

Two things here.

First, again, individuals need their own ways to protect their privacy and project their intentions about it.

Second, having as many ways for brands to “enable and encourage” disclosure of private information as there are brands to provide them is hugely inefficient and annoying. But that is what Salesforce is selling here.

As industry regulations such as GDPR and the CCPA put a heightened focus on safeguarding consumer privacy, and as more browsers move to phase out third-party cookies and allow users to easily opt out of being tracked, marketers are placing a greater premium and reliance on data that their audiences knowingly and voluntarily give them.

Not if the way they “knowingly and voluntarily” agree to be tracked is by clicking “AGREE” on website home page popovers. Those only give those sites ways to adhere to the letter of the GDPR and the CCPA while also violating those laws’ spirit.

Experts also agree that zero-party data is more definitive and trustworthy than other forms of data since it’s coming straight from the source. And while that’s not to say all people self-report accurately (web forms often show a large number of visitors are accountants, by profession, which is the first field in the drop-down menu), zero-party data is still considered a very timely and reliable basis for personalization.

Self-reporting will be a lot more accurate if people have real relationships with brands, rather (again) than ones that are “enabled and encouraged” in each brand’s own separate way.

Here is a framework by which that can be done. Phil Windley provides some cool detail for operationalizing the whole thing here, here, here and here.

Even if the countless separate ways are provided by one company (e.g. Salesforce),  every brand will use those ways differently, giving each brand scale across many customers, but giving those customers no scale across many companies. If we want that kind of scale, dig into the links in the paragraph above.

With great data comes great responsibility.

You’re not getting something for nothing with zero-party data. When customers and prospects give and entrust you with their data, you need to provide value right away in return. This could take the form of: “We’d love you to take this quick survey, so we can serve you with the right products and offers.”

But don’t let the data fall into the void. If you don’t listen and respond, it can be detrimental to your cause. It’s important to honor the implied promise to follow up. As a basic example, if you ask a site visitor: “Which color do you prefer – red or blue?” and they choose red, you don’t want to then say, “Ok, here’s a blue website.” Today, two weeks from now, and until they tell or show you differently, the website’s color scheme should be red for that person.

While this example is simplistic, the concept can be applied to personalizing content, product recommendations, and other aspects of digital experiences to map to individuals’ stated preferences.

This, and what follows in that Salesforce post, is a pitch for brands to play nice and use surveys and stuff like that to coax private information out of customers. It’s nice as far as it can go, but it gives no agency to customers—you and me—beyond what we can do inside each company’s CRM silo.

So here are some questions that might be helpful:

  • What if the customer shows up as somebody who already likes red and is ready to say so to trusted brands? Or, better yet, if the customer arrives with a verifiable claim that she is already a customer, or that she has good credit, or that she is ready to buy something?
  • What if she has her own way of expressing loyalty, and that way is far more genuine, interesting and valuable to the brand than the company’s current loyalty system, which is full of gimmicks, forms of coercion, and operational overhead?
  • What if the customer carries her own privacy policy and terms of engagement (ones that actually protect the privacy of both the customer and the brand, if the brand agrees to them)?

All those scenarios yield highly valuable zero-party data. Better yet, they yield real relationships with values far above zero.

Those questions suggest just a few of the places we can go if we zero-base customer relationships outside standing CRM systems: out in the open market where customers want to be free, independent, and able to deal with many brands with tools and services of their own, through their own CRM-friendly VRM—Vendor Relationship Management—tools.

VRM reaching out to CRM implies (and will create)  a much larger middle market space than the closed and private markets isolated inside every brand’s separate CRM system.

We’re working toward that. See here.


Toward real market conversations

A friend pointed me to this video of a slide presentation by Bixy, because it looked to him kinda like VRM.  I thought so too…. at first. Here’s an image from the deck:

bixy slide

Here is what I wrote back, updated and improved a bit:

These are my notes on slides within the deck/video.

1) It looks to me like a CRM refresh rather than VRM. There have been many of these. And, while Bixy looks better than any others I can remember (partly because I can’t remember any… it’s all a blur), it’s still pitching into the CRM market. Nothing wrong with that: it’s a huge market, with side categories all around it. It’s just not VRM, which is the customer hand CRM shakes. (And no, a CRM system giving the customer a hand to shake the CRM’s with isn’t VRM. It’s just gravy on a loyalty card.)

2) The notion that customers  (I dislike the word “consumers”) want relationships with brands is a sell-side fantasy. Mostly customers are looking to buy something they’ve already searched for, or to keep what they already own working, or to replace one thing with another that won’t fail—and to get decent service when something does fail. (For more on this subject, I suggest reading the great Bob Hoffman, for example here.)

3) While it’s true that customers don’t want to be tracked, annoyed and manipulated, and that those practices have led to dislike of businesses and icky legislation (bulls eye on all of those), and that “relationships are based on trust, value, attention, respect and communication,” none of those five things mean much to the customer if all of them are locked into a company’s one-to-many system, which is what we have with 100% of all CRM, CX and XX (pick your initialism) systems—all of them different, which means  a customer needs to have as many different ways to trust, value, attend to, respect and communicate as there are company systems for providing the means.

4) Bixy’s idea here (and what the graphic above suggests, is that the customer can express likes and dislikes to many Brands’ Salesforce CRM systems. They call this “sharing for value in return.” But there is far appetite for this than than marketing thinks.  Customers share as little as they can when they are fully required to do so, and would rather share zero when they go about their ordinary surfing online or shopping anywhere. Worse, marketing in general (follow the news)—and adtech/martech in particular—continue to believe that customers “share” data gathered about them by surveillance, and that this is “exchanged” for free services, discounts and other goodies. This is one of the worst rationalizations in the history of business.

5) “B2C conversations” that are “transparent, personalized and informative” is more a marketing fantasy than a customer desire. What customers would desire, if they were available, are tools that enhance them with superpowers.  For example, the power to change their last name, email address or credit card for every company they deal with, in one move. This is real scale: customer scale.  We call these superpowers customertech:

CRM is vendortech.

6) Some percentage of Adidas customers (the example in that video) may be willing to fill out a “conversational” form to arrive at a shoe purchase, but I suspect a far larger percentage would regard the whole exercise as a privacy-risking journey down a sales funnel that they’d rather not be in. So long as the world lacks standard ways for people to prevent surveillance of their private spaces and harvesting of personal data, to make non-coercive two-way agreements with others, and ways to monitor person data use and agreement compliance, there is no way trustworthy “conversations” of the kind Bixy proposes can happen.

7) Incumbent “loyalty” programs are, on the whole, expensive and absurd.

Take Peet’s Coffee, a brand I actually do love. I’ve been a customer of Peet’s for, let’s see… 35 years. I have a high-end (like in a coffee shop) espresso machine at my house, with a high-end grinder to match. All I want from Peet’s here at home are two kinds of Peet’s beans: Garuda and Major Dickason Decaf. That’s it. I’ve sampled countless single-origin beans and blends from many sources, and those are my faves. I used to buy one-pound bags of those at Peet’s stores; but in COVID time I subscribe to have those delivered. Which isn’t easy, because Peet’s has made buying coffee online remarkably hard. Rather than just showing me all the coffees they have, they want to drag me every time through a “conversational” discovery process—and that’s after the customary (for every company) popover pitch to sign up as a member, which I already am, and to detour through a login-fail password-recovery ditch (with CAPTCHAs, over and over, clicking on busses and traffic lights and crosswalks) that show up every. damn. time. On arrival at the membership home page, “My Dashboard” all but covers the home screen, and tells me I’m 8 points away from my next reward (always a free coffee, which is not worth the trouble, and not why I’m loyal). Under the Shop menu (the only one I might care about) there are no lists of coffee types. Instead there’s “Find Your Match,” which features two kinds of coffee I don’t want and a “take your quiz” game. Below that are “signature blends” that list nothing of ingredients but require one to “Find My Coffee” through a “flavor wheel” that gives one a choice of five flavors (“herbal/earthy,” “bright/citrus”…). I have to go waaay the hell down a well of unwanted and distracting choices to get to the damn actual coffee I know I like.

My point: here is a company that is truly loved (or hell, at least liked) by its customers, mostly because it’s better than Starbucks. They’re in a seller’s market. They don’t need a loyalty program, or the high operational and cognitive overhead involved (e.g. “checking in” at stores with a QR code on a phone app). They could make shopping online a lot simpler with a nice list of products and prices. But instead they decided, typically (for marketing), that they needed all this bullshit to suck customers down sales funnels. When they don’t. If Peet’s dumped its app and made their website and subscription system simpler, they wouldn’t lose one customer and they’d save piles of money.

Now, back to the Adidas example. I am sure anybody who plays sports or runs, or does anything in athletic shoes, would rather just freaking shop for shoes than be led by a robot through a conversational maze that more than likely will lead to a product the company is eager to sell instead of one the customer would rather buy.

7) I think most customers would be creeped to reveal how much they like to run and other stuff like that, when they have no idea how that data will be used—which is also still the typical “experience” online. Please: just show them the shoes, say what they’re made of, what they’re good for, and (if it matters) what celeb jocks like them or have co-branded them.

8) The “value exchange” that fully matters is money for goods. “Relationship” beyond that is largely a matter of reputation and appreciation, which is earned by the products and services themselves, and by human engagement. Not by marketing BS.

8) Bixy’s pitch about “90% of conversation” occurring “outside the app as digital widgets via publisher and marketer SDKs” and “omnichannel personalization” through “buy rewards, affiliate marketing, marketer insights, CRM & CDP, email, ads, loyalty, eCommerce personalization, brand & retailer apps and direct mail” is just more of the half-roboticized marketing world we have, only worse. (It also appears to require the kind of tracking the video says up front that customers don’t want.)

9) The thought of “licensing my personal information to brands for additional royalties and personalization” also creeps me out.

10) I don’t think this is “building relationships from the consumer point of view.” I think it’s a projection of marketing fantasy on a kind of customer that mostly doesn’t exist. I also don’t think “reducing the sales cycle” is any customer’s fantasy.

To sum up, I don’t mean to be harsh. In fact I’m glad to talk with Bixy if they’re interested in helping with what we’re trying to do here at ProjectVRM—or at Customer Commons, the Me2B Alliance and MyData.

I also don’t think Cluetrain‘s first thesis (“Markets are conversations“) can be proven by tools offered only by sellers and made mostly to work for sellers. If we want real market conversations, we need to look at solving market problems from the customers’ side. Look here and here for ways to do that.


A few years ago I got a Withings bathroom scale: one that knows it’s me, records my weight, body mass index and fat percentage on a graph informed over wi-fi. The graph was in a Withings cloud.

I got it because I liked the product (still do, even though it now just tells me my weight and BMI), and because I trusted Withings, a French company subject to French privacy law, meaning it would store my data in a safe place accessible only to me, and not look inside. Or so I thought.

Here’s the privacy policy, and here are the terms of use, both retrieved from (Same goes for the link in the last paragraph and the image above.)

Then, in 2016, the company was acquired by Nokia and morphed into Nokia Health. Sometime after that, I started to get these:

This told me Nokia Health was watching my weight, which I didn’t like or appreciate. But I wasn’t surprised, since Withings’ original privacy policy featured the lack of assurance long customary to one-sided contracts of adhesion that have been pro forma on the Web since commercial activity exploded there in 1995: “The Service Provider reserves the right to modify all or part of the Service’s Privacy Rules without notice. Use of the Service by the User constitutes full and complete acceptance of any changes made to these Privacy Rules.” (The exact same language appears in the original terms of use.)

Still, I was too busy with other stuff to care more about it until I got this from  community at two days ago:

Here’s the announcement at the “learn more” link. Sounded encouraging.

So I dug a bit and and saw that Nokia in May planned to sell its Health division to Withings co-founder Éric Carreel (@ecaeca).

Thinking that perhaps Withings would welcome some feedback from a customer, I wrote this in a customer service form:

One big reason I bought my Withings scale was to monitor my own weight, by myself. As I recall the promise from Withings was that my data would remain known only to me (though Withings would store it). Since then I have received many robotic emailings telling me my weight and offering encouragements. This annoys me, and I would like my data to be exclusively my own again — and for that to be among Withings’ enticements to buy the company’s products. Thank you.

Here’s the response I got back, by email:


Thank you for contacting Nokia Customer Support about monitoring your own weight. I’ll be glad to help.

Following your request to remove your email address from our mailing lists, and in accordance with data privacy laws, we have created an interface which allows our customers to manage their email preferences and easily opt-out from receiving emails from us. To access this interface, please follow the link below:

Obviously, the person there didn’t understand what I said.

So I’m saying it here. And on Twitter.

What I’m hoping isn’t for Withings to make a minor correction for one customer, but rather that Éric & Withings enter a dialog with the @VRM community and @CustomerCommons about a different approach to #GDPR compliance: one at the end of which Withings might pioneer agreeing to customers’ friendly terms and conditions, such as those starting to appear at Customer Commons.

Why personal agency matters more than personal data

Lately a lot of thought, work and advocacy has been going into valuing personal data as a fungible commodity: one that can be made scarce, bought, sold, traded and so on.  While there are good reasons to challenge whether or not data can be property (see Jefferson and  Renieris), I want to focus on a different problem: the one best to solve first: the need for personal agency in the online world.

I see two reasons why personal agency matters more than personal data.

The first reason we have far too little agency in the networked world is that we settled, way back in 1995, on a model for websites called client-server, which should have been called calf-cow or slave-master, because we’re always the weaker party: dependent, subordinate, secondary. In defaulted regulatory terms, we clients are mere “data subjects,” and only server operators are privileged to be “data controllers,” “data processors,” or both.

Fortunately, the Net’s and the Web’s base protocols remain peer-to-peer, by design. We can still build on those. And it’s early.

A critical start in that direction is making each of us the first party rather than the second when we deal with the sites, services, companies and apps of the world—and doing that at scale across all of them.

Think about how much more simple and sane it is for websites to accept our terms and our privacy policies, rather than to force each of us, all the time, to accept their terms, all expressed in their own different ways. (Because they are advised by different lawyers, equipped by different third parties, and generally confused anyway.)

Getting sites to agree to our own personal terms and policies is not a stretch, because that’s exactly what we have in the way we deal with each other in the physical world.

For example, the clothes that we wear are privacy technologies. We also have  norms that discourage others from doing rude things, such as sticking their hands inside our clothes without permission.

We don’t yet have those norms online, because we have no clothing there. The browser should have been clothing, but instead it became an easy way for adtech and its dependents in digital publishing to plant tracking beacons on our naked digital selves, so they could track us like marked animals across the digital frontier. That this normative is no excuse. Tracking people without their conscious and explicit invitation—or a court order—is morally wrong, massively rude, and now (at least hopefully) illegal under the GDPR and other privacy laws.

We can easily create privacy tech, personal terms and personal privacy policies that are normative and scale for each of us across all the entities that deal with us. (This is what ProjectVRM’s nonprofit spin-off, Customer Commons, is about.)

It is the height of fatuity for websites and services to say their cookie notice settings are “your privacy choices” when you have no power to offer, or to make, your own privacy choices, with records of those choices that you keep.

The simple fact of the matter is that businesses can’t give us privacy if we’re always the second parties clicking “agree.” It doesn’t matter how well-meaning and GDPR-compliant those businesses are. Making people second parties in all cases is a design flaw in every standing “agreement” we “accept.” And we need to correct that.

The second reason agency matters more than data is that nearly the entire market for personal data today is adtech, and adtech is too dysfunctional, too corrupt, too drunk on the data it already has, and absolutely awful at doing what they’ve harvested that data for, which is so machines can guess at what we might want before they shoot “relevant” and “interest-based” ads at our tracked eyeballs.

Not only do tracking-based ads fail to convince us to do a damn thing 99.xx+% of the time, but we’re also not buying something most of the time as well.

As incentive alignments go, adtech’s failure to serve the actual interests of its targets verges on absolute. (It’s no coincidence that more than a year ago, up to 1.7 billion people were already blocking ads online.)

And hell, what they do also isn’t really advertising, even though it’s called that. It’s direct marketing, which gives us junk mail and is the model for spam. (For more on this, see Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.)

Privacy is personal. That means privacy is an effect of personal agency, projected by personal tech and by personal expressions of intent that others can respect without working at it. We have that in the offline world. We can have it in the online world too.

Privacy is not something given to us by companies or governments, no matter how well they do Privacy by Design or craft their privacy policies. Top-down privacy simply can’t work.

In the physical world we got privacy tech and norms before we got privacy law. In the networked world we got the law first. That’s why the GDPR has caused so much confusion. Good and helpful though it may be, it is the regulatory cart in front of the technology horse. In the absence of privacy tech, we also failed to get the norms that would normally and naturally guide lawmaking.

So let’s get the tech horse back in front of the lawmaking cart. If we don’t do that first, adtech will stay in control. And we know how that movie goes, because it’s a horror show and we’re living in it now.


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