Category: social (page 2 of 2)

Google’s Wallet and VRM

Yesterday Google opened the curtain on Google Wallet. I think it’s the most important thing Google has launched since the search engine. Here’s why:

Reason #1: We’ve always needed an electronic wallet, especially one in our mobile phone. And, although others have tried to give us one, it hasn’t worked out for them, because…

Reason #2: We’ve needed one from somebody who doesn’t also have a hand in our pocket. Google WalletGoogle is the only company in the world that can pull this off, because it’s the only company in the world that lives to commodify exactly the businesses that desperately need commodification, and to await interesting consequences. I can’t think of a single company that’s better at causing tsunamis of commodification so they can join hundreds of other companies, surfing them to new shores. List the things Google does but doesn’t make money with, and you’ll have a roster of businesses that needed commodification. What Google looks for is what JP Rangaswami and I call because effects: you make money because of those things, not with them. (Note, not talking about “monetization” here. A subtle distinction.) A Google lawyer once told me this strategy was “looking for second and third order effects.” Same thing. Either way, they’re out to give us — and retailers we do business with — a hand. (But they will need to keep it out of our pockets, which includes data we consider personal. We’re the ones to say what that is, and others — including Google, Sprint, Citi and the retailers — need to respect that.)

Reason #3: This reduces friction in a huge way. It’s not an exaggeration when Google says this on their Vision page for the project:

In the past few thousand years, the way we pay has changed just three times—from coins, to paper money, to plastic cards.

Now we’re on the brink of the next big shift.

What weighs your wallet down? What slows you down at checkout? Sometimes it’s pulling out cash, but most times it’s dealing with cards. In the last few years every store, it seems, has been piling on with loyalty cards and keyring tags. This last week Panera Bread started, and watching the results have been a clinic in business fashion gone wrong. The poor folks behind the counter are now forced to ask customers if they have a Panera bread card, and the customers have to either say no (and feel strange), or to produce one from their wallet or key ring. Yesterday I asked the person behind the counter how she liked it. “We don’t need it, and customers don’t want it,” she said. “We’re only doing it because every other store does it. That’s all.” That’s a pain in the pocket nobody needs.

Says Google,

Google Wallet has been designed for an open commerce ecosystem. It will eventually hold many if not all of the cards you keep in your leather wallet today. And because Google Wallet is a mobile app, it will be able to do more than a regular wallet ever could, like storing thousands of payment cards and Google Offers but without the bulk. Eventually your loyalty cards, gift cards, receipts, boarding passes, tickets, even your keys will be seamlessly synced to your Google Wallet. And every offer and loyalty point will be redeemed automatically with a single tap via NFC.

This assumes that the ecosystem will continue to support the kind of loyalty programs we have today. It won’t, because we won’t and that brings me to…

Reason #4: Now customers can truly relate with vendors. That is, if Google Wallet and participating retailers and other players welcome it. See, CRM — Customer Relationship Management — has thus far been almost entirely a sell-side thing. It’s how companies related with you, not how you related with them. They set the rules, they provided the cards, they put up the websites where you filled out long complicated forms, they send you the junk mail, and they do the guesswork about what you might want, usually because you’ve bought something like it before. But what if your phone has your shopping list? What if you want to advertise what you’re looking for, as a personal RFP for something you need right now, and may never need again? Think of this as advertising in reverse, or what Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) calls “Broadcast Shopping”. This is one example of how …

Reason #5: Now demand can signal supply in great detail. Until now, about the only signals we could send were with cash, cards, and whatever might percolate up the corporate CRM chain from “social” CRM. There’s a lot here (see Brian Solis’ Converation Prism, for example, or follow Paul Greenberg). But those all depended on second (vendor) or third parties (all the petals in Brian’s prism, which actually looks more like a flower). They weren’t your signals. I see no reason why the open commerce ecosystem shouldn’t include that. Why should customers always be the dependent variables and not the independent ones? Speaking of independence…

Reason #6: Now you have your own pricing gun. You can tell a store, or a whole market, what you’re willing to pay for something — or what you might offer along with payment, such as information about your other relationships, or the fact that you just moved here and are likely to be shopping at this store more. (Or that you’re a high-status frequent flyer with another airline, and considering the same for this one.) Why not?

Reason #7: You can take your shopping cart with you. Back when e-commerce began, in 1995, my wife’s sister was the VP Finance for Netscape, so that company was something like family for us, making my wife (not a technical type) an early adopter. One of her first questions back then was one that exposes a flaw that’s been in e-commerce from the start: “Why can’t I take my shopping cart from one store to another?” At least conceivably, now you can. Let’s say you want to shop at Store B while you’re at Store A. This already happens when you scan a QR or a barcode with your smartphone to see if it’s cheaper at Amazon or something. But what if you want to be more sophisticated than that? The implications for retailers can be scary, but also advantageous. After all, retailers have physical locations, which Amazon doesn’t. Retailers can earn loyalty in ways that are as unique as each store, and each person working at a store.

Reason #8: Now you can bring your own data with you. Inevitably, you will have a personal data store, vault, lockerdata wallet (yes, it’s already called that), trust framework — or other combination of means for managing and selectively sharing that data in secure, trustworthy and auditable ways. And your data doesn’t just have to be about shopping. Personal tracking and informatics are getting big now (read Quantified Self for more). That’s stuff we bring to the market’s table as well. The wallet in one’s phone seems a good way.

Reason #9: Now you can actually relate. When a customer has the ability to shop as well as buy, right in his or her wallet — and to put shopping in the contect of the rest of his or her life, which includes far more than shopping alone — retailers can discover advantages other than discounts, coupons and other gimmicks. Maybe you’ll buy from Store B because you like the people there better, because they’re more helpful in general, because they took your advice about something, or because they help your kid’s school. Many more factors can come into play.

Reason #10: Now you’re in a free and open marketplace. Not just the space contained by any store’s exclusive loyalty system. Nor in a “free” market that’s “your choice of captor” (which is one of the purposes of loyalty programs).  Along those same lines…

Reason #11: You don’t have to play calf to every store and website’s cow. The reason you can’t take your shopping cart with you from store to store on the Web is that e-commerce normalized from the start on the calf-cow, slave-master architecture of client-server computing. This is what turned the Web from a peer-to-peer, end-to-end egalitarian greenfield into fenced-off ranchland where vendors built walled gardens for “consumers” who fed on the milk of each site’s exclusive offerings, and also got cookies that helped calf and cow remember each other, but which sometimes also tracked the calves as they wandered off into other gardens. It was a submissive/dominant system from the get-go, and has been flawed for exactly that reason ever since. Google Wallet, at least conceptually, gives you ways in which you can relate to anybody or anything, on your terms and not just theirs. And not just in the old commercial-Web-based calf-cow system. You can divine the bovine right in your pocket, and avoid or correct vendors trying to feed you tainted milk or tracking cookies.

I could go on, but I have a book to write and not much time left. But I consider Google Wallet a move of profound importance, even if it doesn’t work out, so I’m putting this list out there for us to correct, debate or whatever else we need to do . At the very least Google Wallet gives us one thing a BigCo is doing that can mesh well with what the VRM development community has been working on for the last few years. I hope the synergies will get everybody excited.

[Later, in August…] Some additional news:

Stay tuned.

The Customer Vector

In Call for startup: Easy domain editing, the first in a series of blog posts in which  lays out opportunities for startups, he says this:

In all cases, these startups will have a business model that revolves around an old-fashioned idea that will, imho, once again become fashionable — the customer. People pay the company for a service they provide. This has all kinds of good side-effects. We’ll see customer-driven products, ones designed to serve users, instead of some vague idea of a marketer that can sell things to the users. It will foster competition to serve users. It will help the economy straighten itself out and start creating products with obvious utility.

The italics and boldface are mine. I emphasize them because this is what VRM has been about for the duration. And it isn’t coincidental, because Dave’s work and thinking have been an influence on mine since I first ran into Dave in the booth at Comdex in Atlanta, circa 1982 (when Think Tank ran on the Apple II, as I recall).

I think at least some of the start-ups Dave’s talking about here fall into a category we’ve been calling . Put simply, fourth parties relate to customers the way third parties relate to larger parties on the vendors’ side. They are assistants, aligned with the the intentions of the customer. Money coming from the customer helps with that alignment. One problem we have right now, especially in the advertising-funded collection of companies on the Web, is that the customer — you and me — pay nothing directly for the services offered. Instead we (or assumptions about us) are what’s sold to the advertisers.

In this respect much of the commercial Web shares a problem that commercial broadcasing has had since the beginning: their customers and their consumers are different populations. For most of its services (search, Gmail, etc.) Google has no more of a direct economic (i.e. paid) relationship with you than does a commercial radio station. But rather than go down the rat-hole of what’s wrong (or not yet right) about the commercial Web, let’s look at what kinds of businesses might operate in the space Dave is laying out: the one where customers do the driving.

First, let’s go back three years to , by (who is sitting next to me here at ). The pull quote:

VRM… is about starting with the user and creating value on their behalf, first. We do that specifically by focusing on commercial transactions and by enabling mutually beneficial relationships. It isn’t about moving the power from Vendors to Individuals, it is about creating new efficiencies and new value points across the ecosystem and marketplace that improve the situation for everyone.

With VRM, the value begins with the individual. The rest is implementation.

By focusing directly on the point of value for the user, I believe we can create more value, more quickly than trying a forensics approach on deeper, larger, data sets. The user is the natural point of integration for any number of services.

Right now there are more new companies and development groups in this space than I can begin to count, and many more have showed up in the past two weeks, at in Austin, at in Zurich and now at Kynetx Impact in Salt Lake City. In fact I’m in a room full of them here. Some of us are talking about the stir that one VRM developer, Connect.Me, made at SXSW, getting more than 60 thousand new users in a matter of hours. All Things Digital has a good write-up and video on the whole thing, featuring an interview with Drummond Reed, who has been doing VRM development since before the beginning. My own case for Connect.Me is simple: it’s safe single sign-on, or SSSO. Think Facebook Connect without Facebook. No personal data spillage. No hidden games. No bait for advertisers. (For more on how all that works, see Joe Andrieu’s ISharedWhat.com.)

So, in no particular order (or, in the order of the business cards I’ve saved and browser tabs I’ve kept open), here are just some of the outfits I’ve encountered recently:

  • (“…develops specifications for a secure, scalable, standards-based way to establish universal health addressing and transport for participants (including providers, laboratories, hospitals, pharmacies and patients) to send encrypted health information directly to known, trusted recipients over the Internet”)
  • (“Benefit from the digital data you create every day.”)
  • (“your collection of the products you love”)
  • (“A New Dawn for Federated Identity… Achieve SSO with internal and external websites”)
  • (“More than a digital filing cabinet, it’s ONE place to store family memories and householdl information…”)
  • (“The Social Exchange where you Own, Control and Monetize your Digital Life”)
  • (“The global provider of secure financial messaging services”)
  • (“It’s almost here. We’ll be ready to lift the covers in 20110325040000. “We’re talking a full work platform with messaging, calendars…”)
  • (“Where everything has a price.”)
  • (The store. You’ve been there.)

And that’s on top of all the other VRM projects and companies listed here.

We’re not talking here about pure VRM efforts, but about organizations with (or about) which I’ve had VRM conversations, and are interested either in participating in VRM development or seeing where it goes.

What they all understand is that power is growing on the customer side, and that this growing power is native. That is, personal. It’s natural to talk about “shifts” in power, as if power is always balanced and zero sum. But this is different. What we have is new work on tools that make customers independent and better able to interact in the networked world.

Here at Kynetx Impact I’m going to give a brief keynote tonight (right ahead of himself), in which I’ll bring up three more companies that are front-burner for me right now, because I’ll be meeting with them and talking seriously about VRM in the next few weeks.

The first is . I’ll be at for the whole show and will speak there too. A lot of what we talked about at VRM+CRM 2010 will be on the table there, plus much more.

The second is, and the third is . I’ll be meeting with both in Minneapolis right after SugarCon.

We are now at the point in history when development and zeitgeist converge. The Social era is ending and the Personal era is beginning. makes it possible. This is the Web that is both real-time and interactive at the human level: where the supply follows and responds to personal demand and other economic signals, in secure and safe ways, outside the old client-server-based system of submissive and dominant parties, of cookies for clients and guesswork by servers, that has dominated e-commerce for 1.5 decades.

In the personal era, on the Live Web, individuals will be in charge of the contexts and conditions in which their personal data — their intentions especially — are shared with sellers, either directly or with the help of fourth parties.

This is where an enormous amount of development will bloom, and economic activity will follow.

Our job in the VRM community is to do that development, and to help each other make our cases to all those who are interested. My specific request is for help with the three parties named above. Others will step up, but those three at the front of my own queue, right now.

VRM as Agency

Most of us understand agency to mean a kind of company: one that represents other companies, or individuals. Insurance, real estate and advertising agencies come to mind.

In fact agency has a deeper and more important meaning. Namely, the capacity of individuals to act independently, to make choices, and to impose their will in the world. By this meaning, agency is a big deal in sociology, psychology, philosophy, law and many other fields. But it’s missing is business. That’s because we’re accustomed to understanding business as a structural thing:  an instrument of control.

Wikipedia frames this problem well in the opening paragraph of its Structure vs. Agency Debate article:

The debate concerning the primacy of either structure or agency on human behaviour is a central ontological issue in sociology, political science, and the other social sciences. In this context, “agency” refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.[1]Structure“, by contrast, refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which seem to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.[2] The structure versus agency debate may therefore be understood simply as the issue of socialisation against autonomy.

Limiting individual choices through “patterned arrangements” has been an ideal of big business for a very long time. Choice is an ideal too, provided your product or service provides a choice for customers to not choose competing products or services. Agency-type choice, in which individuals are free to assert their will and their means, doesn’t get much respect.

In fact, most big businesses aren’t interested in customers that have lots of agency — unless those customers aren’t captured yet. Instead big business has long idealized controlling customers. That’s why they talk about “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” them. And spend billions on systems that help them do that.

These controlling ideals are still with us in the era of “social networking” and “social media.” (Or what one friend calls SEFTTI, for “social every fucking thing there is.”) Sure, Facebook is as social as a kegger (or more so), but it is also a “patterned arrangement that seems to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.”

Personal autonomy on Facebook only goes as far as Facebook lets it go. Same with every other “social” system run by an entity other than yourself. They put a lid on your agency. You are not free.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with social systems, or structures, or even with businesses that want to control your choices. I am saying that agency has been AWOL from the market’s table. And bringing it there is what we’re doing with VRM.

I realized that VRM is about agency when I was talking with Iain Henderson the other day. Iain and his company MyDex have been working on creating and deploying personal data stores, or PDSes. These are the means by which individuals manage and  share personal data selectively. In that conversation Iain casually mentioned that the U.K. government was clearly invested in “user agency.” That is, in citizen responsibility for data about themselves and generated by themselves. In this fundamental way, he said, the U.K. government is far ahead of our own here in the U.S. — and the U.K. is therefore a more ideal environment for testing out VRM tools, such as the personal data store. (In fact MyDex’s prototype trials are going on right now, in three U.K. towns.)

What we’ll have, as VRM tools roll out and come into use, is many ways to test concepts such as methodological individualism and action theory. Mostly, however, I think it’s a way to see how much larger, and better, we can make the economy once individual customers are free to express their intentions.

Bonus link — which I put here hoping that somebody can fix it. Since it’s about me and some stuff I’ve said, I’m not the one to do that.

Do we have to “trade off” privacy?

Look up privacy trade-offs and you’ll get more than 150,000,000 results. The assumption in many of those is that privacy is something one can (and often should) trade away. Also that privacy trading is mostly done with marketers and advertisers, the most energetic of which take advantage of social media such as and .

I don’t think this has to be so.

One example of a trade-off story is this one on public radio’s Marketplace program, which I heard this evening. It begins with the case of Shea Sylvia, a FourSquare user who got creeped out by an unwelcome call from a follower who knew her location. Marketplace’s Sally Herships says,

There are millions of Sylvias out there, giving away their private information for social reasons. More and more, they’re also trading it in for financial benefits, like coupons and discounts. Social shopping websites like Blippy and Swipely let shoppers post about what they buy. But first they turn over the logins to their e-mail accounts or their credit card numbers, so their purchases can be tracked online.

Later, there’s this (the voice is Herships again):

Alessandro Acquisti researches the economics of privacy at Carnegie Mellon, and he says the value we put on privacy can easily shift. In other words, if giving away your credit card information or even your location in return for a discount or a deal seems normal, it must be OK.

ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: Five years ago, if someone told you that there’d be lots of people going online to show, to share with strangers their credit card purchases, you probably would have been surprised, you probably would thought, “No, I can’t believe this. I wouldn’t have believed this.”

But Acquisti says, when new technologies are presented as the norm, people accept them that way. Like social shopping websites.

HERSHIPS: So the more we use sites like Blippy, the more we’ll use sites like Blippy?

ACQUISTI: Or Blippy 2.0.

Which Acquisti says will probably be even more invasive, because as time passes, we’re going to care less and less about privacy.

Back in Kansas City Shea Sylvia is feeling both better and worse. She thinks the phone call she got that night at the restaurant was probably a prank. But it was a wake up call.

What we’re dealing with here is an evanescent norm. A fashion. A craze. I’ve indulged in it myself with FourSquare, and at one point was the “mayor” of ten different places, including the #77 bus on Mass Ave in Cambridge. (In fact, I created that location.) Gradually I came to believe that it wasn’t worth the hassle of “checking in” all over the place, and was worth nothing to know Sally was at the airport, or Bill was teaching a class, or Mary was bored waiting in some check-out line, much as I might like all those people. The only time FourSquare came in handy was when a friend intercepted me on my way out of a stop in downtown Boston, and even then it felt strange.

The idea, I am sure, is that FourSquare comes to serve as a huge central clearing house for contacts between companies selling stuff and potential buyers (that’s you and me) wandering about the world. But is knowing that a near-infinite number of sellers can zero in on you at any time a Good Thing? And is the assumption that we’re out there buying stuff all the time not so wrong as to be insane?

Remember that we’re the product being sold to advertisers. The fact that our friends may be helping us out might be cool, but is that the ideal way to route our demand to supply? Or is it just one that’s fun at the moment but in the long term will produce a few hits but a lot of misses—some of which might be very personal, as was the case with Shea Silvia? (Of course I might be wrong about both assumptions. What I’m right about is that FourSquare’s business model will be based on what they get from sellers, not from you or me.)

The issue here isn’t how much our privacy is worth to the advertising mills of the world, or to intermediaries like FourSquare. It’s how we maintain and control our privacy, which is essentially priceless—even if millions of us give it away for trinkets or less. Privacy is deeply tied with who we are as human beings in the world. To be fully human is to be in control of one’s self, including the spaces we occupy.

An excellent summary of our current privacy challenge is this report by Joy L. Pitts (developed as part of health sciences policy development process at the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences). It sets context with these two quotes:

“The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.”

—Justice Louis Brandeis (1928)

“You already have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

—Scott McNealy, Chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems (1999)

And, in the midst of a long, thoughtful and well-developed case, it says this (I’ve dropped the footnotes, which are many):

Privacy has deep historical roots. References to a private domain, the private or domestic sphere of family, as distinct from the public sphere, have existed since the days of ancient Greece.  Indeed, the English words “private” and “privacy” are derived from the Latin privatus, meaning “restricted to the use of a particular person; peculiar to oneself, one who holds no public office.” Systematic evaluations of the concept of privacy, however, are often said to have begun with the 1890 Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis article, “The Right of Privacy,” in which the authors examined the law’s effectiveness in protecting privacy against the invasiveness of new technology and business practices (photography, other mechanical devices and newspaper enterprises). The authors, perhaps presciently, expressed concern that modern innovations had “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and . . . threatened to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” They equated the right of privacy with “the right to be let alone” from these outside intrusions.

Since then, the scholarly literature prescribing ideal definitions of privacy has been “extensive and inconclusive.” While many different models of privacy have been developed, they generally incorporate concepts of:

  • Solitude (being alone)
  • Seclusion (having limited contact with others)
  • Anonymity (being in a group or in public, but not having one’s name or identity known to others; not being the subject of others’ attention)
  • Secrecy or reserve (information being withheld or inaccessible to others)

In essence, privacy has to do with having or being in one’s own space.

Some describe privacy as a state or sphere where others do not have access to a person, their information, or their identity. Others focus on the ability of an individual to control who may have access to or intrude on that sphere. Alan Westin, for example, considered by some to be the “father” of contemporary privacy thought, defines privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” Privacy can also be seen as encompassing an individual’s right to control the quality of information they share with others.

In the context of personal information, concepts of privacy are closely intertwined with those of confidentiality and security. Privacy addresses “the question of what personal information should be collected or stored at all for a given function.” In contrast, confidentiality addresses the issue of how personal data that has been collected for one approved purpose may be held and used by the organization that collected it, what other secondary or further uses may be made of it, and when the permission of the individual is required for such uses.Unauthorized or inadvertent disclosures of data are breaches of confidentiality. Informational security is the administrative and technological infrastructure that limits unauthorized access to information. When someone hacks into a computer system, there is a breach of security (and also potentially, a breach of confidentiality). In common parlance, the term privacy is often used to encompass all three of these concepts.

Take any one of these meanings, or understandings, and be assured that it is ignored or violated in practice by large parts of today’s online advertising business—for one simple reason (I got from long ago): Individuals have no independent status on the Web. Instead we have dependent status. Our relationships (and we have many) are all defined by the entities with which we choose to relate via the Web. All those dependencies are silo’d in the systems of sellers, schools, churches, government agencies, social media, associations, whatever. You name it. You have to deal with all of them separately, on their terms, and in their spaces. Those spaces are not your spaces. (Even if they’re in a place called . Isn’t it weird to have somebody else using the first person possessive pronoun for you? It will be interesting to see how retro that will seem after it goes out of fashion.)

What I’m saying here is that, on the Web, we do all our privacy-trading in contexts that are not out in the open marketplace, much less in our own private spaces (by any of the above definitions). They’re all in closed private spaces owned by the other party—where none of the rules, none of the terms of engagement, are yours. In other words, these places can’t be private, in the sense that you control them. You don’t. And in nearly all cases (at least here in the U.S.), your “agreements” with these silos are contracts of adhesion that you can’t break or change, but the other party can—and often does.

These contexts have been so normative, for so long, that we can hardly imagine anything else, even though we have that “else” out here in the physical world. We live and sleep and travel and get along in the physical world with a well-developed understanding of what’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours, and what’s none of those. That’s because we have an equally well-developed understanding of bounded spaces. These differ by culture. In her wonderful book , Polly Platt writes about how French —comfortable distances from others—are smaller than those of Americans. The French feel more comfortable getting close, and bump into each other more in streets, while Americans tend to want more personal space, and spread out far more when they sit. Whether she’s right about that or not, we actually have personal spaces on Earth. We don’t on the Web, and in Web’d spaces provided by others. (The Net includes more than the Web, but let’s not get into that here. The Web is big enough.)

So one reason that privacy trading is so normative is that dependency requires it. We have to trade it, if that’s what the sites we use want, regardless of how they use whatever we trade away.

The only way we can get past this problem (and it is a very real one) is to create personal spaces on the Web. Ones that we own and control. Ones where we set the terms of engagement. Ones where we decide what’s private and what’s not.

In the VRM development community we have a number of different projects and companies working on exactly this challenge.  is pure open source and has a self-explanatory name. Others (, and others) are open in many ways as well, and are working together to create (or put to use) common code, standards, protocols, terminologies and other conventions on which all of us can build privacy-supporting solutions. You’ll find links to some of the people involved in those efforts (among others) in Personal Data Stores, Exchanges, and Applications, a new post by  (of Switchbook). There’s also the One example is the and at . (For more context on that, check out Iain Henderson’s unpacking of the .) There’s also our own work at ProjectVRM and , which has lately centered on developing -like legal tools for both individuals and companies.  What matters most here is that a bunch of good developers are working on creating spaces online that are as natural, human, personal—and under personal control—as the ones we enjoy offline.

Once we have those, the need for privacy trade-offs won’t end. But they will begin to make the same kind of down-to-Earth sense they do in the physical world. And that will be a huge leap forward.

Getting Real and VRM

Deep in a post about other stuff, Tony Fish asks, “What is Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) and how will it effect your future customer relationship strategy?” The parties to whom that is addressed are corporate CRM and marketing folks. Alan Mitchell provides some answers, along with more questions, in Get ready for Vendor Relationship Management:

Why should marketers be interested in VRM? Because, given a choice between a product that isn’t really addressing their needs (CRM) and one that is (VRM), customers are more likely to opt for VRM. In other words, VRM is a game changer.

A VRM filter helps create a new operational and innovation agenda. The simple question ‘how does this help the customer achieve his or her relationship management goals’ can go a long way to predicting which initiatives will stick, and which won’t. Creating systems to recognise customers at every touchpoint and treat them in a seamless fashion looks pretty good under this spotlight. Profiling and propensity modelling for the purposes of direct marketing? Not so sure.

More answers and questions emerge in a thread that starts with Denis Pombriant‘s The Relationship Entity, at the heart of which is this:

Who owns the customer relationship?  Is it the customer?  The vendor?  Both?  I think this is a trick question because a relationship is a duality that exists independent of both parties but requires both to exist at all.  In fact, the relationship becomes an entity of itself, a mass-less, weightless entity but a reality nonetheless.  Substitute the word marriage for relationship and you see my point.

(Tell me about it. Inside our wedding rings my wife and I have engraved “The couple decides.”)

Denis concludes,

I advocate thinking about the relationship as an independent entity, one that has to be nurtured from both sides.  And that drives my thinking on social CRM.

Paul Greenberg follows with Customer Ownership: Relationship? Conversation? Simply Put. SCRM is not VRM. Simple Being the Operative Principle. Some excerpts:

…the company owns the company, the customer owns their own personal value chain so to speak. That’s why there is a difference between SCRM and VRM.  Vendor Relationship Management is what the customer does to command their side of the relationship.  SCRM is what the company does in response to the customer’s control of the conversation – and all the other things associated with that.  But the company still owns itself – meaning its operational practices and its objectives and its records and its legal status as a company.

I think that the customer is at the hub of business ecosystem – to the point that you can call it a customer ecosystem. Meaning the customer drives demand and the company is now forced to respond to that.   But a relationship between company and customer is exactly what Denis says it is and that relationship’s success is the essence of SCRM…

Companies are increasingly being pushed to respond to customers and that is where SCRM begins to show itself.

So let me put it this way.  The final line of my definition of CRM says, “Its the company’s response to the customer’s control of the conversation.”  At this time, the ongoing way that the company responds to the customers control of the conversation IS the relationship.

Thanks to Chris Carfi for pointing us to that thread.

On the topic of branding (one of marketing’s oldest terms, borrowed originally by Procter & Gamble from the cattle industry), Alan Mitchell gets us started again with Brand messsaging: the heart of it. He begins,

I’ll be as blunt as possible. So long as marketers accept the conventional wisdom so neatly summed up by McKinsey, that the job of marketers is to increase “brands’ power to generate messages that influence the consumer’s decision to purchase” we will never – repeat, never – be able to make the mental and operational changes we need to flourish in the emerging era…

To explore the dynamics of what’s happening here, let’s approach the issue obliquely via a wonderful passage in Youngme Moon’s new book Different

In this passage she describes how modern markets work (or, to be more precise, our prevailing mental model of how they work). They display at least five defining characteristics.

  1. Consumers are exercising choice (but only from among the choices that producers have decided to offer them).
  2. Every consumer in every category is on a journey from novicedom to connoisseurship: most of us are neither novices or connoisseurs, we’re somewhere in the middle, learning. This learning is achieved almost entirely via DIY methods (there are no GSCEs or degrees in shopping).
  3. Aside from advertising, most product information is inseparable from the product itself: we go to market to inspect the product, to understand its features, attributes and qualities etc. To learn, in other words.
  4. Virtually all the information provided about the product is provided by the seller …
  5. … designed and distributed in furtherance of the seller’s goals, i.e. to persuade the buyer to buy.

This is the environment that created the brand-messaging consumer-influencing agenda. But it’s an environment that is fading fast. If we look at the emerging environment it looks rather different:

  1. An increasing proportion of the information that’s made available about the product is separate from the product itself: e.g. online.
  2. An increasing proportion of this information comes from independent sources (including other consumers), not the seller …
  3. … so an increasing proportion of this information addresses the consumer’s goal of making better decisions, rather than the seller’s goal of influence.
  4. These last two developments mean that learning about products and markets isn’t just a DIY activity any more: specialist services (search, comparison, peer-to-peer advice etc) are emerging to help consumers on this front; to provide them with the information they need; to help them become more ‘professional’ in their product judgements and choices.
  5. The more consumers get to understand what’s available and what’s possible, the more the process of arriving at a decision changes – from ‘choosing from among the choices presented to me’ to ‘building a specification of what I would like, and then finding the best fit’.

What this means is that we are in transition. Let’s accept that sellers will always want to influence consumers’ decisions in their favour and that consumers will always want to make better decisions. That’s not changing, but how they go about these tasks is being turned upside down (or, to be more precise, right side up).

For many decades now we have lived in a seller-centric market largely shaped and defined by marketers’ quest to influence consumers’ decisions. Consumers have had to pursue their goals within this context. We are now moving towards a buyer-centric market shaped and defined by consumers’ quest for better decisions, with marketers having to pursue their goals within this context. This is the “tectonic power shift”, the “dramatically altered” balance of power between companies and consumers that McKinsey so rightly referred to.

In Sixth Characteristic, Jacek Chwalisz adds to Alan’s list,

Using current communications tools it is possible to find, understand, communicate and satisfy people who at the moment are looking for particular object, not only its perception.

In that post Jacek probes the distance between the real and the unreal, and the role of branding in creating the latter. He sees in brands a “magic” that is “not rational.” Specifically,

I think people taking under consideration different choices than offered by brands feel risk related to possible lost of this “magic”. And they are right, because brands satisfy their needs of “magic”. How this “magic” works? People have a tendency to mix up subject of perception and method of perception. For many people “story about facts” is the same as “facts”, “knowledge about something” is the same as “something”, “self perception” is the same as “self” (this mechanism was described many times, even in European Middle Ages as “medium quo” and “medium quod”).

This distance between perception and reality is reduced by authenticity, and therein lies the problem with branding itself, of the current craze around “personal branding,” and why the latter is oxymoronic.

I took all this on earlier this month in a string of posts titled Brands are Boring, Branding is Bull, and The Unbearable Lightness of Branding. Quite a few comments followed, but none does a better job than Phil Windley’s
Branding and Indispensability vs Reputation and Influence. “We already have an identity and we have our humanity. Those are the things that we need to emphasize, not the idea of personal brand.”

As everybody above make clear, VRM is something that happens on the customer’s side of his or her relationship with vendors (or with any other entity). As Jacek suggests, real relationship requires authenticity. For that, traditional branding is largely a side issue. In fact, I suggest that all branding is essentially a distraction. I might even suggest that nearly all marketing is too. That’s because marketing is still mostly about push. Let’s face it: pushing is what most marketers get paid to do.

But pull will outperform push, because it will involve less — or no — guesswork. It will be based on what the customer actually wants, rather than what vendors want to push at them.

Back in 1997, before blogging got started, I wrote two pieces no publisher would touch, both about “push,” which was then a big buzzcraze: Shoveling Push Media, and When Push Comes to Shove. The craze went away, but the urge to push hasn’t, and shouldn’t. Sellers need to let buyers know what they’ve got and why it’s good. But the waste involved in blasting out message, and “branding,” is huge. And it wastes more than money.

Bonus link: VRM is #15 on Web Design Cool’s list of 21 Twitter Tips From Socially Savvy Companies.

‘RM alignments

In the next several months we’ll start seeing VRM getting respect as a counterpart to CRM — in some cases with a social angle as SRM and sCRM get into the mix. For more on that, here’s Bob Pike on Social Customer Relationship Management:

Forrester predicts the era of Social Commerce, the future of the social Web as I see it, starts to embrace a corporate philosophy and supporting infrastructure that migrates away from CRM and even sCRM to one of Social Relationship Management or SRM. This will usher in the fifth era as observed by Forrester. And, SRM is also acutely cognizant of and in harmony with VRM (Vendor Relationship Management).

VRM is the opposite of CRM, capsizing the concept of talking at or marketing to customers and shifting the balance of power in relationships from vendors to consumers. As such, systems are created to empower consumer participation and sentiment and improve products and services with every engagement.

Should we think the unthinkable and finally adopt a set of new rules which are aligned to actually what is happening this new world of social collaboratio online? Yes I do think so.

And here’s John Lewis on The Manageability of Information:

Nowadays the science of selling has gone much further with ‘relationships selling” as distinct from “transactional selling” and is even being inverted in the form of “soft selling” or should that now be “soft buying”.  It goes beyond selling, organisations have CRM (Customer Relationship Management) processes and systems and are now starting to realise that they need to provide their customers with access to VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) processes and, possibly, systems. There had always been some people who understood it, but there was a development of a general realisation that “selling” and other related areas are manageable!

I believe here John is talking about VRM in a B2B context, where it has been used for many years. Still, it speaks to the need for customers to interact with companies that have transparent and available processes.

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