First, let me say that this post is a little off topic for a communication blog. However, I think that discussions about how we can cut down on the adversarial relationship between companies and their customers is critical to effective communication. I also fight the idea that a communication professional is only good at getting the word out and should stay out of the business of strategic thinking. I think that smart communications professionals, with their close contact and understanding of a company's stakeholders belong right in the middle of innovative thinking.
I respect the thinking behind Doc Searls' thinking on the Intention Economy, which he came up with while sitting at the eTech conference in 2006 listening to the then hot idea of the Attention Economy, which at the time I posted about its implications for public relations.
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?
The idea of an Intention Economy, which Doc Searls continues to work on at Harvard University, has developed into the idea that there should be a mechanism for someone to be able to post his or her intention to buy and then allow businesses to compete to give them the best deal – a little like LendingTree.com without the silo or walled garden of a central Web site. Doc continues to explore the practical aspects of doing this in his role as a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He calls it ProjectVRM (Vendor Relationship Management). There is a health care relationship case study that outlines his thinking on how something like this would work.
As much as I like the idea, I have always thought it somewhat impractical. It seems it would be too overwhelming and unstructured to work for most people. I agree with Jeremiah Owyang who says he is concerned that the buyers just won't care enough to participate in such a system. To make it work, a large chunk of buyers would have to fully opt in. I wonder how we would possibly break through the clutter and get people to pay attention to embrace and learn this very new, and very foreign, way to acquire goods.
The Filtered Economy
I call this idea the “Filtered Economy.” It's similar in some ways to Doc's idea, but it requires companies to better anticipate what their customers want and provide it to them in real time as they search for it.
The idea isn't too far off either. People already use search as their primary window to the net, at least among those that have high speed Internet access. This was reinforced for me earlier this year. I did some focus group research for a client and found that people with high speed Internet access see their search engine (usually Google) as their primary window to the online world, versus a home page or other entry point. I also see it in the stats of this blog, where an overwhelming majority of people that visit come through key word searches.
The difference in the search side is that instead of multiple pages of search results and adsense ads, the search engine could return a competitive comparison of prices and other information to help the buyer make a choice. Additionally, Amazon-like commentary and reviews could be added by buyers.
Delivering Results Just in Time
On the delivery side of the equation, companies could adopt innovative delivery systems, such as the Kanban system used by Japanese car makers. This system is a lean manufacturing philosophy that allows products and services to be produced as the buyer requests them, cutting down on waste and inventory.
The cool thing about “just in time” delivery is that the customer gets exactly what they want for an attractive price and the maker of the product saves money on marketing and delivery. A true win-win situation in a too often adversarial market system.
Challenges of the Filtered Economy
But what about the search engines, you might ask? The search engines would have to participate to make this idea work. There would have to be an viable economic model. The current model works especially well for Google, who owns the lion's share oft the market, so one of the Google competitors might be a good place to start (Yahoo, MSN, etc.).
And since this is a blog read mostly by communicators, another question is, “Would this system render the the marketer or public relations professional obsolete?”
I don't think so.
First, not every product and service can be sold this way, the same goes for Doc Searl's Intention Economy model. Second, this idea continues to challenge communicators to do a much better job at tailoring information. The tools continue to evolve to make this possible. It is incumbent upon communicators to learn how to use the tools and to make conversations with the communities that are most important to them the highest priority.
It demands a communication strategy that requires the company to be more closely integrated into the community and tied to its needs.
It also requires a high level of transparency where companies stream out prices and rich information about their product or service and are regularly compared to their competitors.
I realize that my thesis is just starting to be formulated and I also realize other companies have done similar things to various levels of success. I would love to hear what you think of this idea for changing the way companies and buyers interact? Can it be made into a viable business model?
Update: Funny that I just posted this and then read Technosailor's post about the pervasive web
tags: Filtered+Economy, Doc+Searls, Attention+Economy, Intention+Economy