The Intention Economy: Free Markets Require Free Customers

I’ve just started reading a relatively new book entitled The Intention Economy and written by Doc Searls, a leading Internet thinker and co-author of the 1999 classic, The Cluetrain Manifesto. And though I’ve only read a few chapters so far, I can already enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in the future of the Internet, our economy and our society.

The book, and a project Doc has been spearheading at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, build on an article he wrote for Linux Journal back in March 2006. The Berkman Center project is called ProjectVRM, with VRM standing for “vendor relationship management.” As Doc explains, in the emerging Intention Economy, VRM will serve as a healthy and market-improving counterbalance to what’s known today as “customer relationship management” (CRM).

As Doc puts it in the book’s prologue:

Behind ProjectVRM was a thesis: Free customers are more valuable than captive ones.  And, as a corollary, Free markets require free customers.

Doc wrote the original 2006 article for the Linux Journal, while attending an industry conference focused on “The Attention Economy.”  It begins with a few important and insightful questions:

Is “The Attention Economy” just another way for advertisers to skewer eyeballs? And why build an economy around Attention, when Intention is where the money comes from?

Later in the article Doc elaborates a bit more on the core idea that led to his book and ProjectVRM (bolding is mine).

The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them.

The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don’t need marketing to make Intention Markets.

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don’t have to fly from silo to silo, like a bees from flower to flower, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. 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.

The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions. Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just “branded” by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.

The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or “capturing”) buyers.

In The Intention Economy, a car rental customer should be able to say to the car rental market, “I’ll be skiing in Park City from March 20-25. I want to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV. I belong to Avis Wizard, Budget FastBreak and Hertz 1 Club. I don’t want to pay up front for gas or get any insurance. What can any of you companies do for me?” — and have the sellers compete for the buyer’s business.

In the Introduction to his book, Doc elaborates on the transition from the Attention Economy to the Intention Economy (again, bolding is mine):

The legal frameworks for doing business online are as absurd and broken as they were in the age of shrink-wrapped software.  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 captor.”

The Intention Economy, explains Doc, reflects a fundamentally different mentality and the institutionalization of more balanced and efficient market mechanisms:

This twisted norm will end because free markets require free customers.  The Internet by its nature invites developments that will equip customers with tools for both independence and engagement.  Over the last decade, many developers have accepted that invitation and have started work on tools that will make customers both independent of vendors and better able to engage with them.  These tools will also become the means by which individuals control their relationships with multiple social networks and social media…”

…Relationships between customers and vendors will be voluntary and genuine, with loyalty anchored in mutual respect and concern, rather than coercion. So, rather than “targeting,” “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in,” and “owning” customers, as if they were slaves or cattle, vendors will earn the respect of customers who are now free to bring far more to the market’s table than the old vendor-based systems ever contemplated, much less allowed.

Likewise, rather than guessing what might get the attention of consumers—or what might “drive” them like cattle—vendors will respond to actual intentions of customers. Once customers’ expressions of intent become abundant and clear, the range of economic interplay between supply and demand will widen, and its sum will increase. The result we will call the Intention Economy.

This new economy will outperform the Attention Economy that has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising. Customer intentions, well expressed and understood, will improve marketing and sales, because both will work with better information, and both will be spared the cost and effort wasted on guesses about what customers might want, flooding media with messages that miss their marks. Advertising will also improve.

The volume, variety and relevance of information coming from customers in the Intention Economy will strip the gears of systems built for controlling customer behavior or for limiting customer input. The quality of that information will also obsolete or repurpose the guesswork mills of marketing, fed by crumb trails of data shed by customers’ mobile gear and Web browsers. “Mining” of customer data will still be useful to vendors, though less so than intention-based data provided directly by customers.”

In the chapter that follows the Introduction, Doc describes a number of specific “market interactions” that might occur in the Intention Economy.  On reading it, my reaction was, “this makes total sense, is feasible, and is clearly the direction in which our increasingly online economy can and should evolve.”  It makes you not only want to read the rest of the book (which I plan to do), but also to live in the economy and society it points to, where markets are not only more efficient, but citizen-customers are empowered rather than captive as they function within them.

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