Category: VRM (page 1 of 26)

Toward a lexicon for advertising in both directions

We need a lexicon for the different ways buyers and sellers express their intentions to each other. Or, one might say, advertise.

On the demand side (⊂) we have what in ProjectVRM we’ve called intentcasting and (earlier) personal RFP. Scott Adams calls it broadcast shopping and John Hagel and David Siegel both (in books by that title) call it pull.

On the sell side (⊃) I can list at least six kinds of advertising alone that desperately need distinctive labels. To pull them apart, these are:

  1. Brand advertising. This kind is aimed at populations. All of it is contextual, meaning placed in media, TV or radio programs, or publications, that appeal broadly or narrowly to a categorized audience. None of it is tracking-based, and none of it is personal. Little of it wants a direct response. It simply means to impress. This is also the form of advertising that burned every brand you can name into your brain. In fact the word brand itself was borrowed from the cattle industry by Procter & Gamble in the 1930s, when it also funded the golden age of radio. Today it is also what sponsors all of sports broadcasting and pays most sports stars their massive salaries.
  2. Search advertising. This is what shows up with search results. There are two very different kinds here:
    1. Context-based. Not based on tracking. This is what DuckDuckGo does.
    2. Context+tracking based. This is what Google and Bing do.
  3. Tracking-based advertising. I’ve called this adtech. Cory Doctorow calls it ad-tech. Others call it ad tech. Some euphemize it as behavioralrelevant, interest-based, or personalized. Shoshana Zuboff says all of them are based on surveillance, which they are. So many critics speak of it as surveillance-based advertising.
  4. Advertising that’s both contextual and personal—but only in the sense that a highly characterized individual falls within a group, or a collection of overlapping groups, chosen by the advertiser. These are Facebook’s Core, Custom and Look-Alike audiences. Talk to Facebook and they’ll tell you these ads are not meant to be personal, though you should not be surprised to see ads for shoes when you have made clear to Facebook’s trackers (on the site, the apps, and wherever the company’s tentacles reach) that you might be in the market for shoes. Still, since Facebook characterizes every face in its audience in almost countless ways, it’s easy to call this form of advertising tracking-based.
  5. Interactive advertising. Vaguely defined by Wikipedia here,  and sometimes called conversational advertising,  the purpose is to get an interactive response from people. The expression is not much used today, even though the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is the leading trade association in the tracking-based advertising field and its primary proponent.
  6. Native advertising, also called sponsored content, is advertising made to look like ordinary editorial material.

The list is actually much longer. But the distinction that matters is between advertising that is tracking-based and the advertising that is not. As I put it in Brands need to fire adtech,

Let’s be clear about all the differences between adtech and real advertising. It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and a vector for malware. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.

Real advertising doesn’t do any of those things, because it’s not personal. It is aimed at populations selected by the media they choose to watch, listen to or read. To reach those people with real ads, you buy space or time on those media. You sponsor those media because those media also have brand value.

With real advertising, you have brands supporting brands.

Brands can’t sponsor media through adtech because adtech isn’t built for that. On the contrary, adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media.

Adtech is magic in this literal sense: it’s all about misdirection. You think you’re getting one thing while you’re really getting another. It’s why brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire chase eyeballs. Since adtech systems are automated and biased toward finding the cheapest ways to hit sought-after eyeballs with ads, some ads show up on unsavory sites. And, let’s face it, even good eyeballs go to bad places.

This is why the media, the UK government, the brands, and even Google are all shocked. They all think adtech is advertising. Which makes sense: it looks like advertising and gets called advertising. But it is profoundly different in almost every other respect. I explain those differences in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:

…advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

This whole problem wouldn’t exist if the alien replica wasn’t chasing spied-on eyeballs, and if advertisers still sponsored desirable media the old-fashioned way.

Bonus link.

I wrote that in 2017. The GDPR became enforceable in 2018 and the CCPA in 2020.  Today more laws and regulations are being instituted to fight tracking-based advertising, yet the whole advertising industry remains drunk on digital, deeply corrupt and delusional, and growing like a Stage IV cancer.

We live digital lives now, and most of the advertising we see and hear is on or through glowing digital rectangles. Most of those are personal as well. So, naturally, most advertising on those media is personal—or wishes it was. Regulations that require “consent” for the tracking that personalization requires do not make the practice less hostile to personal privacy. They just make the whole mess easier to rationalize.

So I’m trying to do two things here.

One is to make clearer the distinctions between real advertising and direct marketing.

The other is to suggest that better signaling from demand to supply, starting with intentcasting, may serve as chemo for the cancer that adtech has become. It will do that by simply making clear to sellers what buyers actually want and don’t want.

 

 

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.

How yours is your car?

Peugeot

I’ve owned a lot of bad cars in my decades.  But some I’ve loved, at least when they were on the road. One was the 1965 Peugeot 404 wagon whose interior you see above, occupied by family dog Christy, guarding the infant seat next to her. You’ll note that the hood is open, because I was working on it at the time, which was constantly while I owned it.

I shot that photo in early 1974, not long after arriving at our new home in Graham, North Carolina. The trip down from our old home in far northern New Jersey was one of the most arduous I’ve ever taken, with frequent stops to fix whatever went wrong along the way, which was plenty.

Trouble started when a big hunk of rusted floor fell away beneath my feet, so I could see the New Jersey Turnpike whizzing by down there, while worrying that the driver’s seat itself might fall to the moving pavement, and my ass with it.

The floor had rusted because rainwater would gather in the air vents between the far side of the windshield and the dashboard, and suddenly splat down on one’s feet, and the floor, soon as the car began to move.  (The floor was prepared for this with a drainage system of tubes laminated between layers of metal, meant to carry downward whatever water fell on top. Great foresight, I suppose. But less prepared was the metal itself, which was determined to rust.)

Later a can attached to the exhaust manifold blew to pieces so sound and exhaust straight from the engine sounded like a machine gun and could be heard to the horizons in all directions, and echoed into the cabin off the pavement through the new hole in the floor. I am sure that the hearing loss I have now began right then.

I replaced the lost metal with an emptied V8 juice can that I filled with steel wool for percussive exhaust damping, and fastened into place with baling wire that I carried just in case of, well, anything. I also always carried a large toolbox, because you never know. If you owned a cheap used car back in those days, you had to be ready for anything.

The car did have its appeals, some of which were detailed by coincidence a month ago by Raphael Orlove in Jalopnik, calling this very model the best wagon he’s ever driven. His reasons were correct—for a working car. The best feature was a cargo area was so far beyond capacious that I once loaded a large office desk into it with room to spare. It also had double shocks on the rear axle, to help handle the load, plus other arcane graces meant for heavy use, such as a device in the brake fluid line to the rear axle that kept the brakes from locking up when both rear wheels were spinning but off the ground. This, I was told, was for drivers on rough dirt roads in Africa.

While the Peugeot 404 was not as weird in its time as the Citroën DS or 2CV (both of which my friend Julius called “triumphs of French genius over French engineering”), it was still weird as shit in some remarkably impractical ways.

For example, screw-on hubcaps. These meant no tire machine could handle changing a tire, and you had to do the job by hand with tire irons and a sledgehammer. I carried those too. For unknown reasons, Peugeot also also hid spark plugs way down inside the valve cover, and fed them electricity through a spring inside a bakelite sleeve that was easy to break and would malfunction even if they weren’t broken.

I could go on, but all that stuff is beside my point, which is that this car was, while I had it, mine. I could fix it myself, or take it to a mechanic friendly to the car’s oddities. While some design features were odd or crazy, there were no mysteries about how the car worked, or how to fix or replace its parts. More importantly, it contained no means for reporting its behavior or use back to Peugeot, or to anybody.

It’s very different today. That difference is nicely unpacked in A Fight Over the Right to Repair Cars Turns Ugly, by @Aarian Marshall in Wired. At issue are right-to-repair laws, such as the one currently raising a fuss in Massachusetts.

See, all of us and our mechanics had a right to repair our own cars for most of the time since automobiles first hit the road. But cars in recent years have become digital as well as mechanical beings. One good thing about this is that lots of helpful diagnostics can be revealed. One bad thing is that many of those diagnostics are highly proprietary to the carmakers, as the cars themselves become so vertically integrated that only dealers can repair them.

But there is hope. Reports Aarian,

…today anyone can buy a tool that will plug into a car’s port, accessing diagnostic codes that clue them in to what’s wrong. Mechanics are able to purchase tools and subscriptions to manuals that guide them through repairs.

So for years, the right-to-repair movement has held up the automotive industry as the rare place where things were going right. Independent mechanics remain competitive: 70 percent of auto repairs happen at independent shops, according to the US trade association that represents them. Backyard tinkerers abound.

But new vehicles are now computers on wheels, gathering an estimated 25 gigabytes per hour of driving data—the equivalent of five HD movies. Automakers say that lots of this information isn’t useful to them and is discarded. But some—a vehicle’s location, how specific components are operating at a given moment—is anonymized and sent to the manufacturers; sensitive, personally identifying information like vehicle identification numbers are handled, automakers say, according to strict privacy principles.

These days, much of the data is transmitted wirelessly. So independent mechanics and right-to-repair proponents worry that automakers will stop sending vital repair information to the diagnostic ports. That would hamper the independents and lock customers into relationships with dealerships. Independent mechanics fear that automakers could potentially “block what they want” when an independent repairer tries to access a car’s technified guts, Glenn Wilder, the owner of an auto and tire repair shop in Scituate, Massachusetts, told lawmakers in 2020.

The fight could have national implications for not only the automotive industry but any gadget that transmits data to its manufacturer after a customer has paid money and walked away from the sales desk. “I think of it as ‘right to repair 2.0,’” says Kyle Wiens, a longtime right-to-repair advocate and the founder of iFixit, a website that offers tools and repair guides. “The auto world is farther along than the rest of the world is,” Wiens says. Independents “already have access to information and parts. Now they’re talking about data streams. But that doesn’t make the fight any less important.”

As Cory Doctorow put it two days ago in Agricultural right to repair law is a no-brainer, this issue is an extremely broad one that basically puts Big Car and Big Tech on one side and all the world’s gear owners and fixers on the other:

Now, there’s new federal agricultural Right to Repair bill, courtesy of Montana Senator Jon Tester, which will require Big Ag to supply manuals, spare parts and software access codes:

 https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2…

The legislation is very similar to the Massachusetts automotive Right to Repair ballot initiative that passed with a huge margin in 2020:

 https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/03/rip-d…

Both initiatives try to break the otherwise indomitable coalition of anti-repair companies, led by Apple, which destroyed dozens of R2R initiatives at the state level in 2018:

 https://pluralistic.net/2021/02/02/eutha…

It’s a bet that there is more solidarity among tinkerers, fixers, makers and users of gadgets than there is among the different industries who depend on repair price-gouging. That is, it’s a bet that drivers will back farmers’ right to repair and vice-versa, but that Big Car won’t defend Big Ag.

The opposing side in the repair wars is on the ropes. Their position is getting harder and harder to maintain with a straight face. It helps that the Biden administration is incredibly hostile to that position:

 https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/07/instr…

It’s no coincidence that this legislation dropped the same week as Aaron Perzanowski’s outstanding book “The Right to Repair” — R2R is an idea whose time has come to pass.

 added this in a follow-up newsletter and post:

…remember computers are intrinsically universal. Even if manufacturers don’t cooperate with interop, we can still make new services and products that plug into their existing ones. We can do it with reverse-engineering, scraping, bots – a suite of tactics we call Adversarial Interoperability or Competitive Compatibility (AKA “comcom”):

 https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/ad…

These tactics have a long and honorable history, and have been a part of every tech giant’s own growth…

Read all three of those pieces. There is much to be optimistic about, especially once the fighting is mostly done, and companies have proven knowledge that free customers—and truly free markets—are more valuable than captive ones. That has been our position at ProjectVRM from the start. Perhaps, once #R2R and #comcom start paying off, we’ll finally have one of the proofs we’ve wanted all along.

Salon with Robin Chase

Robin Chase, co-founder and original CEO of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, will speak at the Ostrom Workshop s Beyond the Web Salon Series at Indiana University at 2:00 PM Eastern this coming Monday, February 7, 2022. The event link is here, where you’ll also find the Zoom link.

The full theme of the salon series is Beyond the Web: Making a platform-free online marketplace for goods, ideas and everything else, about which you can read more here.

Robin’s work with transportation and peer production has been VRooMy from the start, and especially consistent with our work with the Ostrom Workshop on the Intention Byway in Bloomington, Indiana.

Upcoming speakers in the Salon Series (mark your calendars) are Ethan Zuckerman and Shoshana Zuboff. Both are BKC veterans and, like Robin, devoted to moving beyond status quos that vex us all. Ethan will be with us on March 7 and Shoshana on April 11. Days and times for both are Mondays at 2:00 PM Eastern. Details at those links.<

These events are all participatory, informative, challenging and fun. Please join us.

Beyond the Web

The Cluetrain Manifesto said this…

not

…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: https://events.iu.edu/ostromworkshop/event/264653-ostrom-salon-series-beyond-the-web

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.

Solving Subscriptions


Count the number of companies you pay regularly for anything. Add up what you pay for all of them. Then think about the time you spend trying and failing to “manage” any of it—especially when most or all of the management tools are separately held by every outfit’s subscription system, all for their convenience rather than yours. And then think about how in most cases you also need to swim upstream against a tide of promotional BS and manipulation.

There is an industry on the corporate side of this, and won’t fix itself. That would be like asking AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy to fix the online service business in 1994.

There’s also not much help coming from the subscription management services we have on our side: Truebill, Bobby, Money Dashboard, Mint, Subscript Me, BillTracker Pro, Trim, Subby, Card Due, Sift, SubMan, and Subscript Me.

Nor from the subscription management systems offered by  Paypal, Amazon, Apple or Google (e.g. with  Google Sheets and Google Doc templates).

All of those are too narrow, too closed, too exclusive, too easily purposed for surveillance on subscribers, and too vested in the status quo. Which royally sucks. For evidence, see here, or just look up subscription hell.

So it’s long past time to unscrew it. But how?

The better question is where?

The answer is on our side: the customer’s side.

See, subscriptions are in a class of problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side. They can’t be solved from the companies’ side because they’ll all do it differently, and always in their interests before ours.

Also, most of them will want to hold you captive, just like Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy did with online services before the Internet solved that problem by obsolescing them.

A refresher: the Internet is ours. Meaning everybody’s. It doesn’t just belong to companies.

We need a similar move here. Fortunately, by subscriptions as easy as possible to make, change and cancel—in standardized ways—companies living on subscriptions will do a better job of making their goods competitive.

Now to how.

The short answer is with open standards, code and protocols. The longer answer is to start with a punch list of requirements, based on what we, as customers, need most. So, we should—

  • Be able to see all our subscriptions, what they cost, and when they start and end
  • Be able to cancel or renew, manually or automatically, in the simplest possible ways
  • Get the best possible prices
  • Be able to keep records of subscriptions and histories
  • Show our actual (rather than coerced) loyalty
  • Be able to provide constructive help, as loyal and experienced customers
  • Join in collectives—commons—of other customers to start normalizing the way subscriptions should be offered on the corporate side and managed on the personal side

Some tech already exists for at least some of this, but we’ll leave that topic for another post. Meanwhile, give us suggestions in the comments below. Thanks!

Bonus link: From coffee to cars: how Britain became a nation of subscribers, by Tim Lewis in The Guardian. (Via John Naughton’s excellent newsletter.)


The modified image above is a Doctor Who TARDIS console, photographed by Chris Sampson, offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license, published here, and obtained via Wikimedia Commons, here. We thank Chris for making it available.

Also, the original version of this post is at Customer Commons, here.

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.

Thinking outside the browser

Even if you’re on a phone, chances are you’re reading this in a browser.

Chances are also that most of what you do online is through a browser.

Hell, many—maybe even most—of the apps you use on your phone use the Webkit browser engine. Meaning they’re browsers too.

And, of course, I’m writing this in a browser.

Which, alas, is subordinate by design. That’s because, while the Internet at its base is a word-wide collection of peers, the Web that runs on it is a collection of servers to which we are mere clients. The model is an old mainframe one called client-server. This is actually more of a calf-cow arrangement than a peer-to-peer one:

The reason we don’t feel like cattle is that the base functions of a browser work fine, and misdirect us away from the actual subordination of personal agency and autonomy that’s also taking place.

See, the Web invented by Tim Berners-Lee was just a way for one person to look at another’s documents over the Internet. And that it still is. When you “go to” or “visit” a website, you don’t go anywhere. Instead, you request a file. Even when you’re watching or listening to an audio or video stream, what actually happens is that a file unfurls itself into your browser.

What you typically expect when you go to a website is typically the file called a page. You also expect that page will bring a payload of other files: ones providing graphics, video clips, or whatever. You might also expect the site to remember that you’ve been there before, or that you’re a subscriber to the site’s services.

You may also understand that the site remembers you because your browser carries a “cookie” the site put there, to helps the site remember what’s called “state,” so the browser and the site can renew their acquaintance with every visit. It is for this simple purpose that Lou Montulli invented the cookie in the first place, back in 1994. Lou got that idea because the client-server model puts the most agency on the server’s side, and in the dial-up world of the time, that made the most sense.

Alas, even though we now live in a world where there can be boundless intelligence on the individual’s side, and there is far more capacious communication bandwidth between network nodes, damn near everyone continues to presume a near-absolute power asymmetry between clients and servers, calves and cows, people and sites. It’s also why today when you go to a site and it asks you to accept its use of cookies, something unknown to you (presumably—you can’t tell) remembers that “agreement” and its settings, and you don’t—even though there is no reason why you shouldn’t or couldn’t. It doesn’t even occur to the inventors and maintainers of cookie acceptance systems that a mere “user” should have a way to record, revisit or audit the “agreement.” All they want is what the law now requires of them: your “consent.”

This near-absolute power asymmetry between the Web’s calves and cows is also why you typically get a vast payload of spyware when your browser simply asks to see whatever it is you actually want from the website.  To see how big that payload can be, I highly recommend a tool called PageXray, from Fou Analytics, run by Dr. Augustine Fou (aka @acfou). For a test run, try PageXray on the Daily Mail’s U.S. home page, and you’ll see that you’re also getting this huge payload of stuff you didn’t ask for:

Adserver Requests: 756
Tracking Requests: 492
Other Requests: 184

The visualization looks like this:

This is how, as Richard Whitt perfectly puts it, “the browser is actually browsing us.”

All those requests, most of which are for personal data of some kind, come in the form of cookies and similar files. The visual above shows how information about you spreads out to a nearly countless number of third parties and dependents on those. And, while these cookies are stored by your browser, they are meant to be readable only by the server or one or more of its third parties.

This is the icky heart of the e-commerce “ecosystem” today.

By the way, and to be fair, two of the browsers in the graphic above—Epic and Tor—by default disclose as little as possible about you and your equipment to the sites you visit. Others have privacy features and settings. But getting past the whole calf-cow system is the real problem we need to solve.


Cross-posted at the Customer Commons blog, here.

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