Michael Kieran

Technology, imaging, and more.

Is the Intention Economy Real?


IntentionNo, not yet. But it’s going to be.

The idea of the Intention Economy was proposed by David “Doc” Searls in an article for Linux Journal in 2006, to describe web-based tools that would refocus commerce on how customers like to buy, rather than on how vendors like to sell.

“The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In the Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase. Simple as that.”

Searls was a co-author of the influential 1999 web site / book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, which described commerce in a web-enabled world as a conversation between informed buyers and sellers. Over the past few years he’s worked at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society on Project VRM, aiming to build Vendor Relationship Management systems as the customer-side counterpart to the Customer Relationship Management systems like Salesforce.com that are now routinely used to “manage” the sales process. VRM tools would “make individuals both independent of vendors and better able to engage with them.”

Searls has now compiled his research in a book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, and it provides a sobering view of how little impact VRM has had so far, yet why the idea’s more important than ever. Searl makes it clear that VRM tools and protocols are in the earliest stages of development, far from the critical mass required on the customer side. But they’re definitely needed, he says, pointing to the widespread strategy of customer captivity embodied in pervasive online tracking and the “take-it-or-leave-it” terms of service required by many web sites and social networks.

“Marketing and sales have made great efforts to become more ‘conversational’ and ‘social’, but customers in too many cases are still ‘assets’ to be ‘managed’. Implicit in this mentality is a belief that the best customers are captive ones and that therefore a ‘free market’ for customers means ‘your choice of captors’. This twisted norm will end because free markets require free customers.”

Free Markets Require Free Customers

VRM hasn’t caught on yet, and some might consider it naive to think it ever will. But I’m convinced the next couple of years will see the emergence of web-based tools that ordinary people can and will use to better control how they buy all kinds of goods and services.

Here’s why:

  • Customer pushback against increasingly creepy online tracking and privacy issues;
  • Regulatory pushback, as social media issues become too big to avoid oversight;
  • Market opportunity, to drive costs from wasteful and expensive marketing / advertising standard practices;
  • Long-term, it’s best economically for both vendors and customers;
  • Evolving customer needs for secure, portable digital identity.

And finally, customer-driven tools for managing commercial relationships are inevitable simply because they’re fairer, and more respectful of the fact that every customer is actually a real human being.


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