VRM post-iCitizen linkage and coverage

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

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

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

From Is VRM a phenomenon? by Alan Mitchell:

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

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

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

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

Tom O’Brien reporting from iCitizen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out Andrea’s coverage for more background.


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

Echovar on Small Bits of the Distributed Future in Cleveland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mads Kristensen on Trying to get to grips with VRM:

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

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

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

Bart on My Request to Give:

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

It could look something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Doc


  1. Tom O'Brien


    Thanks for the mention – and I enjoyed meeting you at iCitizen last week. My own feeling is that while the issues of data privacy are very significant – we happily abandon our privacy concerns when it suits our needs – see online banking or facebook.

    So, if Project VRM can focus on delivering overwhelming “convenience” then the privacy concerns fade away.


  2. Patricia Martin

    As the author of RenGen theory, it’s my honor to have had Advergirl think you’re a RenGen guy. I agree with her. Here’s my stupid question to you regarding VRM. Who in God’s name has time for it? A few weeks ago my travel agent (I know, sounds like a live in a cave, but read on) had a baby and I had to return to the time suck that is online travel booking. In the end, I had an e-ticket n hand. But I was also brain dead from the experience. So, I am not meaning to be cheeky here, just askin’. Can the average consumer manage any more transactions that are supposedly easy bacause they are web-enabled but in truth take hours? Give up lots of secure data to do so? And enjoy the experience enough to want to do it again and again?
    Patricia Martin

  3. David Griner


    I found myself feeling pretty contrarian during your presentation at iCitizen, but in the good way. It challenged my strong personal opinion that what consumers most desire is high-quality, low-volume interaction with brands — not complex relationships built around preferences, opt-outs and, as will inevitably happen, chronic upselling.

    That said, I’ve been thinking of your talk each time I read about Ariel Waldman’s heated exchange with Twitter over their reluctance to ban abusive users.


    Her criticism, which I share, is that Twitter is viewing its Terms of Service as a one-way street. We, as users, are required to follow the rules. But when pressed to enforce their end, Twitter announces they’re re-writing the terms to reflect them as a “utility” instead of a “community.”

    I look forward to the day when companies view Terms of Service (or any contract) as a handshake instead of handcuffs.

  4. Doc Searls


    The word “lawful” in S.215 (to which both Obama’s and Clinton’s names are affixed, for what that’s worth) speak to exactly the concerns you express.

    In broadcast we already have exactly this mess. It is not speech. It is transport. And transport is regulated in ways that speech and the press are not. It is carved out of the First Amendment. Hence “indecent” and “obscene” speech is not only forbidden, but fined severely.

    If we conceive the Net as a transport system, and regulate it “lawfully” as that, all kinds of “content” will fall under the same broad prohibitions. Count on it.

    This is why, in both Saving the Net and Framing the Net I urge framings of the Net more as place than as transport system, in full respect of the fact that we can’t help framing it as both.

    Meanwhile, the less regulation, the better. IMHO.

  5. Doc Searls


    Obvioiusly I failed to communicate something.

    VRM can’t work unless it saves time and creates less work for customers. That’s a steep challenge, but it’s what we’re after here.

    The shift has to be as practical and useful as the one from cash to credit cards. If it isn’t, it won’t work, and there we’ll be.

    I showed the relbutton stuff because it’s the first thing we’ve come up with that shows some of that promise.

    You say, “Can the average consumer manage any more transactions that are supposedly easy bacause they are web-enabled but in truth take hours? Give up lots of secure data to do so? And enjoy the experience enough to want to do it again and again?”

    We’re not talking about “more transactions”. We’re talking about fewer, better ones, in some cases based on actual two-way relationshiips. Like you have with your travel agent.

    We’re talking about making mobile phones and other devices the primary means for interactions not only because they are more personal and in some ways flexible than computers, but because “web enabled” is a freaking mess in too many cases.

    Do you recall what I said about the car rental business? About how online they replicate or worsen the airport experience? That’s a perfect example of wasting time that does not need to be wasted.

    There are endless cases of needs that cannot be met currently by any online or offline system — such as demand for something not in the CRM or inventory systems of any service. I gave the “stroller for twins in the next two hours” example, but there are many more. VRM, if we can get it to work, will allow you to issue that demand and have it met or not met in short order, without having to go on the Web and shop around, or let your fingers do the walking in the yellow pages, or whatever substitutes for that today.

    Again, if you don’t enjoy the experience, it won’t work.

    But the key, with VRM, is not to see it as something complicated and additional to business as usual. It’s a way to uncomplicate what doesn’t work very well in business as usual.

  6. debs

    Doc – I think you did a great job simplifying and laying out the framework for why VRM is important. Here’s the rub – market forces are only NOW starting to push the guys in the room at icitizen [mostly agencies, brands, marketers] to start to understand that they need to listen and *relate* to customers in a non media driven model. The realization of VRM is a huge leapfrog for them. I think they get it intellectually – or when they take of their corporate hats – but on a job level they are struggling with HOW to even wrap their arms around all this social web stuff.

    The difference between now and 10 years ago – it WILL happen a lot faster – it will NOT take 10 years for VRM to impact the market.

    Hugs – D

  7. Molly Metzger

    Thanks for simplifying this concept at iCitizen. Individual control over personal data will change the way we, as marketers, relate to consumers, which will lead to new way of conducting business. Scary stuff at a job level.

    The relbutton helped us to visualize the future. We’ll need to keep creating pilots and prototypes in addition to the code to help marketers envision the future and make the concept more real. I agree with Debs — we all struggle with how to change our current media-centric leanings. I believe VRM is additive — media doesn’t go away — but balance and logic is returned.

  8. Doc Searls

    Thanks, Debs and Molly.

    I would add that “scary stuff at the job level” also equals “joyful stuff at the job level” in the realm of opportunity.

    I am reminded of when PCs came along. Lou Cole, then an MIS director at a large company, said he felt he went from “wrestling with aligators” (fighting mainframes and large suppliers) to being “nibbled to death by tiny fish” (PCs). He told me this in 1986, when he was running CXI, a “micro to mainframe” card company that later was bought by Novell, where Lou made millions, I am sure. In short, he sided with the tiny fish, because that’s where the future was.

    As one wise businesswoman (my wife) once told me, you can’t go wrong by siding with your customer.

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