Book review (and much more): The Intention Economy by Doc Searls

The Intention EconomyOn 6 October 2009, Endava hosted an event for all the Premier League Football clubs (and a handful of European ones too) called Football Club Website of the Future. It was to mark the end of the transition of the IMG Digital team over to Endava.

We had a number of high profile speakers at the event including some of the Premier League clubs, IMG, Facebook, and Deloitte, who produce the annual Deloitte Football Money League report.

At the event I gave the introduction/ welcome presentation, and discussed two key concepts based on the experience moving from IMG to Endava:

  1. Football clubs have unrivalled levels of loyalty – a fan might change clubs once in their lifetime, compared to moving around financial services companies every few years.
  2. Technology trends in the marketplace.

The technology trends became a regular part of all our future presentations and events. As I look back on the various industry conferences we’ve spoken at or hosted, I can see how they developed from the Football Club Website of the Future event.

The first trends we highlighted included the following:

  1. Content won’t be free for much longer. Content overly relies on the advertising model as a source of funding. In the future, users will pay tiny amounts per page or function (such as a web search on Google, etc.) and there will be a central ‘agency’ for distributing these micropayments back to the content author.
  2. The web needs an SSO (Single Sign On) system to be the single method to log on to all websites with the same username and password (or another form of authentication such as facial recognition or text message). Facebook Connect had been launched for little under a year when we hosted Football Club Website of the Future, and I thought it was a brilliant first attempt at a web-wide sign on system. However, I didn’t (and still don’t) think Facebook is a trusted brand that I would use for everything across the web. I wouldn’t use it for my tax returns, share dealing, pensions, and so on. I would want the SSO system provided by a fully trusted organisation such as Visa, Mastercard or HSBC. It probably wouldn’t be a government or a dotcom company.

These trends have evolved, and I’ve started documenting them in much more detail since reading The Intention Economy by Doc Searls.

I was recommended to read The Intention Economy by a client when we travelled to Romania to show them one of Endava’s delivery centres (where the project management, development and testing is executed). At dinner one night I went through some of the trends, and the client asked whether I’d read The Intention Economy. I hadn’t even heard of the book at the time. The client said that many of the trends ran parallel to Doc Searls’ thoughts.

When I returned to the UK I bought the book within an hour of landing.

When I started reading the book, it was a strange feeling. It was like someone reading back to me some of the presentations I’ve been giving for the last four years (only he is infinitely more articulate and structured!)

The book covers a dozen or so different topics for the future under the banner as a customer-centric economy. These include the Single Sign On concept above, the unsustainable advertising bubble, cookie tracking, modern legal contracts, so-called loyalty schemes, big data, ownership, and the core of the new economy: VRM.

I first reported about a VRM tool (it was a mobile app) that I’d seen on holiday in Israel last summer. I called it a personal CRM tool at the time, which Doc Searls calls VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management.

The concept of VRM or The Intention Economy is simple – we are constantly being pitched stuff all the time – buy this, buy that, this is why you need this or that. However technology should enable us to say “I want this thing, who wants to match the price I’m willing to pay?”

The example in the book is landing at an airport and entering into your VRM system “I want to hire a car, with 5 seats, and can hold 3 large suitcases, and I want to pay $x for 6 days”. Searls calls these ‘personal RFPs’ (Request For Proposals). After submitting this request, the hire companies will return a result with offers.

I don’t agree with everything in Doc Searls’ ecosystem.

He highlights the overuse of cookies, i.e. tracking technology. Although the use of cookies has become too much – his example is the top fifty childrens’ websites installed a total of 4,123 cookies seems extreme. These cookies are then used on other websites to make the advertising more relevant. However cookies are mainly used to track behaviours, not individuals.

The chapter on online loyalty is over simplified for the real world. I often give an analogy that website personalisation [via the use of cookies] is the online equivalent to an old fashioned shopkeeper who recognises customers when they walk into their shop. This is a good thing – I like how Amazon knows about me and recommends relevant products.

Whilst I completely agree with Searls’ key point that the advertising industry has become a huge bubble that now sustains such a large industry, it is necessary. If there was no advertising, customers simply wouldn’t know about new products or services. There needs to be a balance. In June last year I posted an article about Tencent in China, who have revenues of $1.5bn per quarter – not from advertising:

I find it fascinating that whilst most US/ UK B2C digital offerings are focussed on advertising models, especially Facebook and Google, Tencent are earning money from subscription models and e-commerce.

Why isn't The Intention Economy owned by Creative Commons?
Why isn’t The Intention Economy owned by Creative Commons?

Doc Searls is the editor of Linux Journal, so he is a strong advocate of open source. He puts his case for open source in the book, however it’s unbalanced and I see the software industry from the opposite side of the fence, where vendors do want to earn profit from selling software. He then moves on to discuss why Creative Commons (essentially open source Intellectual Property). At the end of that chapter I agreed with his thoughts on this, and decided so change some of the content strategy on this blog – make it more open and not hold back on personal thoughts. However, The Intention Economy book is copyright!

It’s a shame that Searls doesn’t have any retail experience. Although he cites a number of conversations with CEOs of huge retailers, they are completely biased towards their own model (e.g. of not having loyalty schemes) rather than providing a balanced argument.

The Intention Economy is the best business/ technology book I’ve read for a long time. I thoroughly recommend you read it. The style of the writing with lots of short chapters, and an opening argument and closing ‘so, then’ closing argument makes it easy reading.

Most importantly though, Doc Searls gets across how companies need to get back to customer centric organisations. The current organisational trend is that branding and marketing and advertising and other departments within an organisation are becoming more distant from paying customers, even during the recession.

We need to reverse the trend and put the customer first. This can be accomplished through changing corporate culture (making senior managers physically meet customers in their own environment) and systems such as VRM.

I’m delighted to see large organisations begin to do this. At the Visa conference last week, before I’d finished reading The Intention Economy, I could see how the CEO and CTO were discussing key concepts from the book – putting customers first.

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