The Intention Economy

Finally a thoughtful, hype free book worth reading about digital marketing, the relationships we have with vendors and a vision for a better future where we have greater control of our personal data
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

I read Doc Searls excellent book 'The Intention Economy' while traveling last week. Searls was one of the authors in 1999 of the highly influential 'Cluetrain Manifesto', collaborating with Rick Levine, Christopher Locke and David Weinberger at the height of the dot com boom. The Cluetrain's 95 visionary theses focused on the gestalt of the new digital era.

In essence,

...A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

Cluetrain captured the best ideas of the boom era and through the painful dot com crash helped people sort out the value from all the bum info floated by the pump and dumpers before the 2000 collapse of the economy. Fast forward twelve years and we're in a remarkably similar situation: while the digital economy fundamentals are much more stable than the last crash there has been a tsunami of noisy nonsense around 'social media' (enabled ironically by mediums being the message) which will peak this year with Facebook's ipo ('a single point of failure' by Searls reckoning).

I normally steer clear of utopian futurism, which Searls freely admits he is practicing in 'The Intention Manifesto', but given the track record and respect 'Cluetrain' has, along with my familiarity with Searls and colleagues great work around 'Vendor Relationship Management' over the last five years this book deserves to be taken seriously.

Cluetrain author Chris Locke commented on my 'The Groundswell of Social Media Backlash' post here in May of 2009, which lamented the quality of clumsy social media marketing

I wrote a goodly chunk of The Cluetrain Manifesto and I hate seeing it invoked to hawk the same old crap the same old way.

The Intention Economy gets perspectives back on track with a credible vision of a world where you are in complete control of your digital persona and grant permission for vendors to access it on your terms and pitch bids for products or services you are interested in buying - essentially you publish a 'Request For Proposal' (RFP) for what you are looking for. Digital agents applications work for you to signal your needs which vendors then respond to, scrabbling to compete for your business.

It's a vision which is heavily weighted towards individual rights and quality of service - an area the rapidly growing and mutating Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market currently serves and which is valued at eighteen billion dollars in 2012. Where CRM often seeks to 'lock in' and 'own' you, flipping over to a 'VRM' model would empower you and give you greater control over your relationships and choices. 'Caveat venditor - let the seller beware' says the book blurb.

Like the unglamorous world of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) which forms the underpinnings of the internet Searls seeks a world where both vendor and customer are free on an agile yet level playing field. John Battelle wrote a great post on the 'Web is Dead' meme last December, fearing 'a hybrid between what we’ve come to know as the Web and the crippled chicletized place I’ve been calling AppWorld'. No gatekeepers, an ethos of the commons, no preset rules about how data is used, neutrality and interoperability are all prerequisites for the continued health and growth of the web from Batelle's perspective. Searls doesn't get into the dumbed down vertical 'App economy' in his book, but perhaps that is sweating the near term details in his eyes.

Today's business back room reality is an often inflexible world of Enterprise Resource Planning technology Frankensteined together with enterprise business intelligence components to serve the bean counters and report good things to the quarterly public markets. We often experience CRM when interacting with customer service call centers: vendors improving efficiencies and squeezing out their costs are painfully evident as we struggle to resolve issues with products and services we are committed to. Our time on support call hold is cheaper than quick service and resolution in many business models.

Getting to the sort of world Searls paints a portrait of is fraught with roadblocks, as he openly admits. Current contract law is almost laughably weighted towards the vendor: contracts of adhesion routinely force you to waive your rights before you can use online services. We have to endlessly fill out forms with our personal details for vendor silos, yet our every online move is picked over by vast armies of marketers rifling through all our online activity every time we access commercial web pages to add to their big data files on the valuable details of our existence.

Along with the fundamentalist war being fought between 'Bell Heads' in the telecoms industry who want to perpetuate metered use business models for online services and FOSS focused 'net heads' like Searls, much will need to shift before the individual can be empowered. People currently enthusiastically give away their personal life on Facebook to marketers where they could be leveraging their persona and artifacts on centralizing-around-the-individual sites such as personal.com.

Nonetheless the clarity of vision laid out in 'The Intention Economy' is important as our freedoms are eroded and surveillance increases. In our ever more connected and personal data trail analysis oriented world, your digital rights to privacy and relationships with commercial entities require increasing vigilance. There are two benefits to reading this book: one is understanding how collective action could result in more control of your digital footprint, data and buying power, the other is understanding what more effective marketing interactions with prospects can look like.

Both of these discussions in 'The Intention Economy' are worth the price of admission and help us focus and that has to be a good thing.


Image from 'How to win at haggling'

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