How Consumer Messaging Is Going From ‘Push’ to ‘Pull’

project VRMThe biggest battle coming in the world of marketing is a 180-degree shift in the routing of commerce-related messages. Today, we call them “advertisements,” one-directional messages FROM somebody with something to sell TO somebody who may potentially be a buyer. Tomorrow, the messages will come FROM those wishing to buy TO those with something to sell.

This is the vision of Project VRM (Vendor Relationship Management, as opposed to CRM — Customer Relationship Management), Doc Searls’ ingenious concept of using the Web to turn advertising on its head by putting transactional power in the hands of the buyers. If you’re not up-to-speed on VRM, now’s the time to get started.

Some companies and investors are beginning to explore the creation of sophisticated systems to enable this, but Project VRM is a long way from fruition. It’s something we need to talk about now, however, because the vision logically and naturally “fits” the functioning connectivity known as “the network.” Here’s just one, admittedly overly simplified, VRM approach: The Fourth Party.

Commerce is a transaction between two parties, the buyer and the seller. In the 20th Century world, the duty of initiating a transaction was generally regarded to lie with the seller, and so a third party entered into the equation, one who delivers a message from the seller to the buyer. This is advertising in every one of its flavors. This third party — known as the advertising industry — exists as a complex and sophisticated infrastructure that puts food on many, many tables — it is identified as “Madison Avenue” and glorified in the TV series “Mad Men.”

I keep reading where people are looking for “the new infrastructure” for advertising’s reinvention, one that will “work” in the network. There won’t be a new advertising infrastructure, because it’s against the nature of networks. Geeks are familiar with Gilmore’s Law, but I’d wager you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody on Madison Avenue who’s ever even heard of it. Coined by John Gilmore, one of the very early web innovators — an alpha geek, if you will — it reads like this:

The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

According to Adam Thierer, there are variations of Gilmore’s Law:

  • “The net regards hierarchy as a failure, and routes around it.” — Mark Pesce, Writer, consultant, Sydney, Australia
  • “The web regards centralization as a failure, and routes around it” by moving to the edge.” — Stowe Boyd, /Message blog

Damage. Failure. Whatever. The point is that the nature of the net — that every node is connected up, down and sideways — makes hierarchical, siloed, one-to-many connections seem woefully archaic and inefficient. VRM, however, takes advantage of this omni-connected universe by introducing a fourth party into the commerce chain, one that represents the best interests of the buyers, not the sellers. This fourth party will be the new infrastructure, but it will not be manipulable by deep pockets. In order to make money, this fourth party will have to put customer service first, working backwards by turning the hierarchical pyramid upside down.

Here’s an illustration created a couple of years ago for Doc Searls by Hugh MacLeod:

The Fourth Party

As noted, VRM is not ready for prime time yet. Zaarly, a highly publicized and well-financed version of the fourth party concept, has more or less given up on the concept and gone in a different direction. Other companies have similarly taken the “intent to purchase” idea and likewise failed. VRM is a much bigger concept than any single company can fulfill, especially at this time. It is, however, coming. The most promising current work is in the area of personal clouds, from which concepts like the fourth party can run. Companies like Kynetx and Respect Network are currently working to create the code necessary to enable VRM. The next few years will see some extraordinary technical accomplishments on behalf of consumers.

A good place to start your journey into the world of VRM is with Doc Searls’ fascinating book, The Intention Economy.

This is the kind of thinking that a.) fits the structure of the Web, b.) enables an entirely new branch of commerce, and c.) already has a growing number of infrastructure and other companies working on solving its various problems. There are tons of questions, of course, and many difficult arguments about the viability of a total tipping of the advertising world from supply to demand (not entirely likely). It’s the kind of thing, however, that seems more possible with every passing intersection on the road to the future of a connected and empowered consumer world.

TerryNaplesTerry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.

  1. Dana
    April 24, 2013

    Great piece. Since the devices connecting consumers to the web continue to become so much more personal, recognizing intent is in itself a recognition of privacy. And not willingly either but by sheer necessity of the vendor.

  2. Michael Brill
    April 24, 2013

    I find this whole distinction between third and fourth parties too adversarial. It’s rooted in the us (consumers) vs. them (evil advertiser companies) and it’s not clear how putting another layer of conflicting motivations helps the situation. Advertisers exist because historically it hasn’t been feasible for 1:1 communication between sellers and buyers. That is no longer the case. What is needed is a way for people to express their intent and then anyone – companies or independent third parties – can subscribe to that and provide value back to consumers.

    1. John_PopeXIII
      April 25, 2013

      Sounds like a great VRM opportunity you’ve just described.

      1. Michael Brill
        April 25, 2013

        I definitely think there’s a pony in there… it’s just that I’d hate to see architectural decisions driven by adversary rather than collaboration. Perhaps it’s too pedantic of an interpretation on my part, but arming consumers with counter-CRM technology and fourth parties guns for hire seems pretty dramatic and unnecessary. Look at the motivations of sellers and the motivations of buyers and you’ll see that there’s huge overlap. Where they conflict, independent entities that operate transparently can fill the gap. Imagine the efficiencies gained in a fluid, transparent environment.. global retail is $20 trillion. It seems more than feasible to wring out 5% or even 10% of that through better decisions that can only be made in a reasonably efficient market. That requires simultaneous communication of intent and capabilities and mediation by neutral parties. Technologically not a hard problem; culturally huge.

        1. John_PopeXIII
          April 25, 2013

          Mr Brill, you have just described exactly, what we’re about to do. Kudos.

          1. Michael Brill
            April 25, 2013

            Cool… probably worth chatting then. Happy to give a brain dump on all the crap I wrestled with for > 1 year (building the single side of two-sided markets, inferred vs. explicit intent, eliciting explicit intent, conversational models, two-way predicate processing, dynamic UI generation, synchronous vs. asynchronous user models, integration of location, etc. – really a frightful load of stuff that you have or will confront). You can reach me at

  3. April 24, 2013

    Michael, it is actually QUITE an adversarial relationship. Wouldn’t you feel just a wee bit touchy after a lifetime of being “driven, targeted, captured” or worse? We are literally carpetbombed with unwanted messages in the West, and relieving that won’t be easy. It will happen, though. And the things you suggest as needed are exactly what is being created through the personal cloud concept, among others. Appreciate your comment.

  4. Michael Brill
    April 24, 2013

    Having thought a ton about this and actually spent a year building a pretty cool product that I ultimately decided not to ship (, I don’t hold companies/advertisers in contempt. Their job is to sell stuff, but the *communications channels* they have are not designed for buyer-seller collaboration and certainly there is no easy way for neutral third parties to inject themselves into a relationship to facilitate commerce. So all companies can do is try to yell louder and trick consumers into listening to their message. It’s a failing of communication technology not of Madison Avenue or CMOs.

    Although history may not be on my side, I actually think some centralization of communication is necessary to address this problem – look at stock markets, dating sites and other vertical markets that have a large number of partipants based on matching engines/pubsub. imho, that’s the future of commerce – if I can communicate my intent explicitly to the universe and the universe can see my intent and add value to me, then we’ve gone a long way in overcoming the problems of one-day “blind” channels. Seems like a natural mechanism for neutral third parties (partially or entirely software-based) and you can keep marketers from ruining it through reputational measures and financial incentives to optimize relevance to counterparties. Users explicitly share what they want to share.

    Companies are blind, not evil. Most/all of what I’ve seen in the personal cloud concept doesn’t address blindness… it just provides new weapons to consumers to fight a war that doesn’t need to exist.

    1. Marcus
      April 25, 2013

      Hi Michael, I would be very interested in chatting with you about Botnik. Can you drop me a line via linkedin or similar? Cheers, Marcus Tonndorf

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