The Intention Economy

I recently finished reading Doc Searl’s “The Intention Economy” and have no qualms at all in suggesting that anyone, with any interest as to what the next 15 years might bring, should read it.

The book is a comprehensive overview of VRM or vendor relationship marketing. For all that that sounds like yet another scheme to empower business, which it is, it proposes to do so by balancing the playing field and empowering not the vendor, but the customer, to the betterment of all involved.

It is a much required antidote to the current marketing landscape that refuses to recognise how incomplete and inefficient current data practices are, and more acutely, how these inefficiencies are, in part, caused by the deterioration of trust between individuals and corporations.

The thrust of the argument is that free markets require free customers, and proceeds to show us exactly how current accepted norms are in fact quite counteractive to such a goal.

The magic ingredient is to give customers ownership and control of their commercial data (and non-commercial data for that matter), how it is used and whether and for how long a 3rd party (such as your electricity company) can use and store it. The quid pro quo for business is the evolution of a paradigm whereby we signal our commercial requirements, the terms we are willing to do business under and other data that may be valuable to the assessment of the transaction. They won’t need to spend untold millions to guess our intentions, if we are happy to tell them in plain language. It will be a damn sight more accurate too.

On the bare bones of a 900 word blog post that seems quite some challenge, which, of course, is the reason why you should read the book.

For me, the key revealed concept was the solution to the trust issues that permeate the current commercial relationships across almost all areas of business. I have long been of the opinion that the current trend to big data was always going to come unstuck in the marketing sphere. The line in the sand for me was the potential for data aggregation of several permissioned data sets, to deliver information to commercial entities that was clearly not within the intentions of the individual, when they signed each individual data release.

Rapleaf in the US, has already fallen foul of this trend, caught by the WSJ using personally identifiable information. Initially marketed as a reputation management system it didn’t take long for them to sell your data onwards.

Rapleaf still operate. Indeed in some circles are still considered something of a pioneering  trendsetter. For me, though, they clearly demonstrated that I could not trust them with my data (not that they ever asked permission). And they aren’t alone. Aside from the fact that in most circumstances I don’t have a choice, I am not happy giving faceless commercials ownership and control over MY data. I won’t use an app that requires data that is not essential to the service they provide. An asinine game, that insists on access to my phone number, my device ID and the numbers I am connected to, is, quite frankly, taking the piss. I know many don’t seem to care, but I do.

The VRM paradigm solves this entire problem.

Imagine having a personal data store, a personal RFP (request for proposal tool) that is linked to all commercial entities and a set of tools that easily allow you to set the rules as to how your data can be used. You will tell the market what you want, how, when, where and how much you are willing to pay. And the market will respond to you.

This will facilitate real relationships, something that just doesn’t happen today. Social is not personal (to puncture one current trend), and any relationship based on an un-negotiable contract of adhesion is one based on such ridiculously one sided power that to call it anything other than an abusive relationship must be a misunderstanding. All those TOS you accept? They are all contracts of adhesion, an aberration of civil expectation brought about by the complications of mass marketing and production. The communicative flexibility of the internet allows us to move beyond this legal lunacy.

The VRM movement, started in 2006, has been quietly laying the foundations for this massive transformation via ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

There are many different providers of personal data stores lining up products (mydex, singly,

Kynetx has built the language KRL for writing the rule permissions I mentioned earlier.

Doc Searl has written a highly accessible book to summarise the progress and the vision and there are many many other players in this space active and alive. It really isn’t just an academic projection.

Not only do we have the theory and the vision, we have the protocols (the bit without a business model) and the tools. But perhaps most surprisingly we have traction with governance.

The UK government has launched Midata. An initiative that, among other things, is encouraging commercial parties to release data back to their customers.

Scottish Power are the first to play and have recently announced that they will release back to their customers their usage data. If that doesn’t sound massive to you (it is) imagine how crazy it is that until now you didn’t have access, to this admittedly basic data, in usable form, at all.