Advertising in Reverse

Here in the VRM development community we’ve been talking (and in some cases working) for several years on the Personal RFP. Technically an RFP is a “buyer-initiated procurement protocol” for businesses doing business with businesses: B2B as they say. With VRM the buyer is an individual. Hence, Personal RFP. Not a great label, but one that businesses understand.

Now comes Scott Adams (Dilbert’s cartoonist), with Hunter Becomes the Prey. His compressed case:

Shopping is broken… Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don’t involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can’t hope to close the can’t-find-what-I-want gap. The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch…

You can imagine this service as a web site. The consumer goes to the section that best fits his needs (furniture, cars, computers, etc.) and describes what he wants, in his own words. Vendors could set key word alerts via e-mail or text for any products in their general category.

Once they read the customer’s needs online, they have the option of posting their solution, publicly, which gives other vendors and consumers an opportunity to offer counterpoints.

I assume this service already exists in some weaker form. is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t broadcast your needs to vendors.

My prediction is that Broadcast Shopping (as I just decided to name it) will become the normal way to shop.

I love “broadcast shopping.”

Where I veer from Scott’s approach is with the assumption that this requires “a site.” That’s because sites become silos, and silos are a big part of the problem we also have with loyalty cards. All are different. All say We have ways of making you shop. Tll trap and control you in their own ways. We need something that serves as a customer’s own tool, and works as simply as a keyring, a car key, an emailing, or a text message. “Here’s what I want: _________.” That’s it.

In business, RFPs use an open protocol (essentially, formalized paperwork and bidding processes). Anybody can use it. We need the same for broadcast shopping. Any of us should be able to broadcast, in a secure and selective way that protects our privacies, specified goods we’re shopping for.

I use the plural of privacy because what we reveal selectively will depend on who we already relate to. For example, say I have a trusted relationship with Nordstrom, Sears and a variety of smaller clothing retailers. I could broadcast only to those stores my need for a tan cotton dress shirt of a particular brand, with a 17″ neck and 31″ sleeves (my actual dimensions, there — I have a linebacker’s neck and arms like a penguin’s flippers). Or I could broadcast the same need to the general marketplace through a fourth party that intermediates on my behalf, not revealing any information about me beside my actual need.

One scenario Scott describes in his post…

For example, let’s say you’re looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, “I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I’m on a budget.”

Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

… outlines a broad class of needs where the customer’s mind is not yet made up. Those are within the scope of VRM, but I think we should start with cases where the actual requirements are known by the buyer, and the buyer can set the terms of engagement. For example, “I want my receipt emailed to me in (this specified) data format, and I don’t want to receive any promotional material.”

All this is not only do-able, but inevitable.

I’ll conclude with a pitch of my own for funding research and development on this work.

Google should be interested because Advertising in Reverse, or Broadcast Shopping (a term I love, by the way), will either undermine or replace the company’s standing business model (which pays for all those freebies we enjoy).

Microsoft should be interested because this could give them something Google doesn’t have yet.

Yahoo should be interested because they need something new that’s a winning idea. Amazon and eBay should be interested because they’re already in that business, though in a silo’d way.

Oracle should be interested because it will sell more databases and Sun gear.

Apple should be interested because it’s one more area where they can push for new standards on which the range of innovation goes through the roof.

Every retailer and intermediary should be interested because the promise of the Net for buyers is not an infinite variety of closed silos, but a truly open marketplace where any buyer can do business with any seller — and on the buyer’s terms and not just the seller’s.

Like everything else we will come to depend on utterly while remaining absent in the present, VRM is thoroughly disruptive idea. It’s always smart to get ahead of the curve by getting behind what will bend it.


  1. Dave


    I’ve been passively following your posts, tweets, thoughts, etc. for awhile now and I really like your ideas – VRM especially. With a lot of the examples you give on how it could/should work there is one big problem I see for the “vendors”. You may have addressed this before, I’m not sure.

    Would vendors not face the issue of a large long tail of requests from customers? For these large businesses to be able to turn around on-demand requests, like these would be, would they not have to fundamentally change the way they produce their goods? I guess over (a long period of) time I could see this happening and forward looking companies and their technology leading the way.

    – Dave

  2. Philip Sheldrake


    Thanks for bringing Scott’s post to our attention. Taking inspiration from ProjectVRM’s Personal RFP, and closely aligned I can see now with Scott’s “broadcast shopping”, we talk about “buyer marketing” at the Thymo Alliance.

    First off, the emphasis on a buyer marketing his or her need leaves it a little more open ended as to the speed or indeed inevitability of a purchase; where perhaps “procurement” conveys a pre-determined course of action and timeline.

    Second, “broadcast” doesn’t quite sit well with my protocol obsessed perspective. Buyer marketing is more of a Web service, perhaps a pubsub. It is the spreading of the peacock’s feathers to say to anyone (any vendor / supplier) that’s intent on looking that I have a perceived need and I’m interested in hearing how you might meet that need. Perhaps the zoological metaphor isn’t quite suitable; any zoologists help me out here?

    Lastly, whilst the idea of “buyer marketing” reverses the normal marketing world, one thing does not necessarily get flipped… identity. There is no need to associate an identity with the buyer marketing message, and indeed third parties may provide anonymity services accordingly.

    – Philip.

  3. Don Marti

    If a resource with detailed information on products and sellers is a “Buyer’s Guide,” maybe a resource with detailed information on requirements and buyers is a “Seller’s Guide.”

  4. Anat

    This reminds me a bit of Etsy’s Alchemy feature (Custom), on a larger scale, of course.

  5. Iain Henderson

    Hi Doc, I can see the attraction of ‘broadcast shopping’ over personal RFP, but in practice ‘broadcast’ won’t always be the approach, it could just as easily be ‘subscribe to me and my needs’.

    Can’t quite think of the right term, ‘demand articulation’ is the closest I can get in terms of what is actually happening – but then again that’s not much better than PRFP.

    I’ll keep the thinking cap on….


  6. KD

    Maybe I just don’t have a long enough view, but this sort of “offers come to me” approach seems like an overly-ambitious approach.

    Certainly it would be nice to have some sort of genie whom you tell what you want and it presents you with offers to sell it to you. But it seems to me that most of the benefit would be provided by something more doable, such as a specialized search engine, for which sellers publish their catalogs in some standardized way, allowing for more sophisticated searching than the current attempts at shopping search engines provide.

    Perhaps this would be an example of good enough being the enemy of best. I can see this simpler approach probably would eliminate the ability for sellers to make customized offers based on requirements expressed by the buyer, but I don’t see that as being something that I would be likely to use. Of course, as I said above, I just might not be able to see clearly how useful that could be to me.

  7. NOJ

    I understand the premise, but can only conclude it’s fundamentally flawed due to the massive assumptions within your opening gambit. It assumes the vast majority of web users are not savvy enough to define a product search in anything but vaguest descriptive terms – and this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how people who buy online behave.

    If these same people are confident parting with cash online, you can bet your boots they know what they are looking for and how to define a product search that will locate it quickly. You are presenting a solution to a problem that in reality doesn’t exist.

    Admirable though it is, as a theoretical evolution of the consumer / retailer relationship, it will never become more than that. Unfortunately it isn’t bending the curve, it’s wide of the mark.

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  9. Jay Deragon

    Well said again Doc

    Shopping is definitely broken. As a result of your post I documented by shopping experience this weekend. Over five hours of wasted time. The experience was not fun at all and I received no value. On top of that my seven year old son was left with an impression he will never forget.

    I think you’ll like this short video….see it here

    Your feedback is welcome and appreciated.

  10. judy franks

    Where is the Brand in this scenario? Consumer choice is more complicated than spec fulfillment. While I support more contextual shopping, it must come along with mass marketing that creates a brand statement. My concern: don’t fix one end of the funnel at the expense of the other. True IMC requires optimization throughout.

  11. Doc Searls

    Judy, this is a VRM blog, and part of a VRM project. What we’re trying to do is equip customers (not “consumers,” which are degraded forms of customers) with their own tools of engagement. We’re not here to improve marketing, “the Brand” or marketing as usual (of which “brand statement” is one example).

    Relatiing between buyers and sellers is not a funnel. If it is, we need to fix that. And we can’t from the sell side alone.

  12. Clark

    Quite perfect.. Broadcast shopping is the prime requirement of the times and the technical upliftment you suggested for Google are real needs of time to make the competition tougher and smarter. I vote up in the favor of broadcast shopping.

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    Why do ASDA broadcast their piped shop radio station through web radio?

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    I understand the premise, but can only conclude it’s fundamentally flawed due to the massive assumptions within your opening gambit. It assumes the vast majority of web users are not savvy enough to define a product search in anything but vaguest descriptive terms – and this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how people who buy online behave.

  16. Jacinto Ridderhoff

    I agree. Great Post

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