Lunchtime Musings: what Doc Searls (still) wants…


Doc Searls’ latest post on what he’s calling “Vendor Relationship Management” (VRM) is getting a fair bit of attention. [Yes, pun intended, attention geeks.]

This is something that he and others, including me, have been thinking about for a while. Back in 2004, when Doc was looking for a minidisc transcribing machine, I made a few notes on the topic, which seem even more intelligent and insightful when I fix the typos and structural/grammatical weirdnesses:

Seems like there are two issues here, and advertising is the secondary one. The primary purpose of advertising is to enlighten people about all the wonderful products and services that they don’t yet know they need. That advertising may be caught by someone who happens to have a specific, personal need that dovetails with a particular ad, but that’s generally a happy coincidence. Avertisers place their ads (online or off) where they expect to reach people who could need what is being offered, because the could need market is waaaay bigger than the do need market.

What Doc is primarily concerned with is something that doesn’t yet exist, and I don’t think it’s “advertising,” exactly. The closest equivalent to what he’s talking about is actually product comparison Web sites: you already know what you want, so you go to the site and are presented with a list of links to the places that have what you want, with a little information about each vendor [and perhaps some alternatives that you may not have known about].

You could take Doc’s idea in some interesting directions; what’s most interesting, though, is that the hardest part of such a system isn’t the tech but rather the psychology. How do people want to use such a tool, even if they’re motivated enough to use it at all? Do they want, like Doc, the ability to “actively but selectively” tell people about very specific product needs, or do they want to say “I’m looking for a digital camera” and let the vendors work off of that? What does “selectively” mean in a context like this, anyway? How do you, the user, decide who should have access to the information that you’re publishing, and control that distribution process?

Now that it’s 2006 and I’m all 2.0, microformats immediately come to mind as I read what’s been discussed over the last day or so. From a microcontent point of view, I’d work with a tool that allows me to create a little datachunk that defines what I’m looking for, vendors create their own little datachunks that define what they’ve got available, and a clever little system sits in the middle connecting the two and managing the whos and whys of contact.

There are a lot of possible ways this could be implemented (public vs. private system, mechanisms for managing which vendors and seekers can connect, contact mechanisms in both directions, and a dozen variations and refinements pop to mind immediately), but they all share a couple of characteristics: they’re not “advertising” in the way that we normally think about it today, nor are they a replacement for advertising as we normally think about it today.

At the crudest level, this model is very different simply because it’s -catch based, rather than -cast based. Broadcast begat “narrowcast,” but both start with a vendor deciding that it’s time for them to reach out and touch someone. The VRM approach (or “monocatch,” if you will) is driven by an individual, on their own schedule, making it known that they are interested in something.

While I stand by my statement that defining how this approach can actually solve some advertising-related problems is the big open issue, I’ll note that there are interesting technological questions in there as well: how do you manage the relationships involved to keep VRM from becoming just another marketing-department-schedule-driven ad vehicle? How do you classify all the request and offer datachunks so that people aren’t getting offered microcassette transcribing machines or minidisc players when they’re looking for a minidisc transcribing machine — while still making it easy for someone to say that they’re interested in any of the above (but not minidisc recorders)?

There’s a lot to be done here, but maybe the time really has come to start working on a supplement to our old, familiar advertising.