VRM

At the VRM West Coast Workshop on May 15, I briefly presented The Six Key Traits of the proposed VRM ListenLog project. Each trait distinguishes the technology from a straightforward, local log file. Each differentiator is critical in highlighting what makes the ListenLog concept so powerful.

Listen to the bad audio while you click through the two slides. What could be a more informative way to spend six minutes?

I have written about the VRM ListenLog before, so I won't recount the basics.

One of the panels I sat on for the 2009 Public Media Conference was the mobile tech day panel along with folks from APM, PRX, NPR, and the Berkman Center. Here's the audio overview of my brief ListenLog presentation:

Check out the Public Radio Tuner project I talk about in the audio.

The following is a basic description for a proposed approach to integrating VRM into an existing software application. I welcome your input on this emerging idea in the comments section here or follow the evolution on the Project VRM Wiki.

Update (5/19) - Audio slideshow and presentation video on ListenLog now posted.

The VRM ListenLog is a proposed method for integrating simple user-driven functionality into an online audio player device or application. The ListenLog concept was devised in part for the Public Radio Tuner iPhone project, where it will likely be first introduced. The ListenLog is a consolidated and documented history of an individual's online listening activity. It is simply a recorded activity log, in a standard and open format, documenting an individual's listening actions through one (or more) online devices. The ListenLog is unique in that its aim is to give the user complete control over what to do with their listener activity data, including where the data lives, who to share it with, and how it can be used.

While tracking listener behavior is not a new concept, the ListenLog is a novel user-driven approach to deploying early VRM functionality. While a simple activity log might not be the killer app, it succeeds by putting in place a small piece of user-driven infrastructure into a larger application - one with a promise of relatively wide distribution. Since this infrastructure component will write, store, and share listener activity in an open and standard format, we hope that such a log will become significantly more useful as other devices and tools leverage the standard to increase what an individual can do with their ListenLog data. This type of sideways approach holds the promise of planting the seeds of VRM onto lots of devices without requiring the primary application functionality (i.e. audio listening) be purely user-driven.

A user-driven activity log works well for an application that pulls together audio streams and files from a number of different sources. Of course, online audio providers (vendors in the VRM model) can already track and aggregate listening behavior data, but only for the audio they control. When the user acts as the sole point of integration, pulling together audio from multiple sources, their own consolidated log becomes unique and powerful. Only when the listener is the point of integration does such an approach yield unique value.

Here is a working document of some emerging ListenLog Specifics as we flesh them out.

Public Radio Tuner iPhone Application
A collaborative effort that launched a single, free Public Radio iPhone application to support radio streams and on-demand public radio program content from all public radio networks (NPR, PRI, APM, and PRX). The application builds upon APM's Public Radio Tuner application, and the 1.1 release available on 1/6/2009 incorporates over 200 public radio station streams from around the US, a GPS-enabled local stream finder, and station search functionality. We hope to have ListenLog functionality incorporated in V 2.x.

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Ze Frank recently did an interview with Jesse Thorn as part of Sketchfest NYC where he spoke about how Colorwars 2008 was an experiment in trying to break the dominant metaphor of the web (23:00 mark). This sounds similar to Doc Searls' insight that when we frame the web as a space or a construction, it can limit what we do with it. Ze goes on to suggest that bringing companies and customers together under this new paradigm yields something new and meaningful. Again, this sounds very much like the idea behind Doc's VRM concept. It's likely no coincidence that these two ideas fit together.

Ze's quote from the interview:

What's holding the web back in some sort of way is a metaphor that people use for it, which is as a play space. You go to Flickr to look at your Flickr photos, but the real strength right now is real distribution of media. If you distribute media intensely and fully, then place can't really be the dominant metaphor anymore. This idea of creating play spaces that are mediated by personalities in some sort of way, that you can move fluidly and play a game inside Google street view and then move out to another space and things like that was an opportunity to play with breaking [the metaphor] down a little bit.

I'm really interested in getting brands – companies – involved directly in these kinds of games. To have the proximity of consumers and brands shrink a little bit. This is a capitalist society and we're not going to escape that relationship, and good citizenry comes out of that proximity. [For example] getting Jet Blue to sponsor a contest like this and also judge it and talk to people that are engaged in this kind of thing.

Full disclosure: This recording was for The Sound of Young America program, a program distributed by my parent company, PRI.

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The first ever VRM Workshop conference just wrapped up, filled with smart discussion, great ideas, and forward momentum. One topic quickly gaining traction is the Relbutton, an early-stage VRM tool in the works that allows customers and vendors to visually declare their willingness to relate to one another on equal terms. "Relate" here means a wide variety of potential communications, transactions and intentions that might flow between a customer and vendor. "On equal terms" means that the responsibility for initiating, sharing and storing interactions rests equally on the two parties.

It might seem odd that such a distinction of equality is necessary here, but in our current economic reality, the responsibility for customer-vendor relationships lies almost entirely with the vendor. Historically, this hasn't always been the case. For at least a century, customers have subtlety and perhaps unwittingly handed over to vendors increasing responsibility for initiating and supporting their market relationships.

Customers once shopped primarily at marketplaces and bazaars, purchasing directly from individual sellers. Now customers interact with vendors in very different ways, relating with larger and more formally-structured organizations. In a bazaar, you might have set the price along with the seller. Nowadays, this price is generally dictated in advance. You might have located a product in the market by asking around or actively seeking out merchants on your own. Now, vendors take on the responsibility of finding and informing customers through their well-honed marketing, selling, and advertising push machines.

These advancements aren't designed to be nefarious. Customers often benefit from this shift in responsibility. For one, it's less work for us, and many enjoy simply choosing from among the product options marched before them. Additionally, I suspect vendors are initially unwilling to take on this added responsibility. Like all responsibilities, it means more work and increased risk. The first vendors forced to publically declare their prices in a market probably did so begrudgingly. And I don't know about you, but nothing sounds like more fun than implementing a corporate-wide CRM system. Good times.

This shift from shared responsibility to primarily vendor-owned has occurred for two reasons. First, relationships with vendors have gotten significantly more complex. As sellers morphed into more stable, meaningful and larger organizations, they found themselves with new needs – product development, brand management, enduring customer service, and shareholder accountability – all demanding excellence in order to compete. Addressing these needs required more and deeper relationships with customers, and the emergence of information technologies made managing these relationships possible. Good vendors now touch the customer at virtually every step of their value chain and tools like CRM systems helped feed the flames.

The second reason for vendors taking the relationship responsibility is that customers didn't step up and do it themselves. Individuals have been too distributed and independent to take on any sort of enlightened responsibility. It's hardly surprising that vendors picked up the ball. However, the Cluetrain Manifesto has taught us that the Internet holds the power to change this dynamic. Distributed connectivity has enabled a new set of communications and transaction environments to support individually-driven marketplace activity like customer price setting, product finding, and product reviews.

But these new internet offerings constitute proprietary destinations that are formal vendor organizations in their own right. What VRM is championing with the relbutton is a new type of distributed tool set that does not belong to any one company, that is vendor-agnostic, and that is mutually-beneficial for both customers and vendors. With the relbutton, individuals can begin to once again share in the responsibility of initiating and maintaining relationships, for example, by proactively communicating their needs in a more open and uncontrolled way. Shared responsibility is an important factor in all healthy relationships, and as VRM tools gain adoption, this paves the way for a more natural and authentic way of doing business.

The following is a snippet from my recently published chapter from the book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace. Over the course of the next week, I will post short segments to this blog. This snippet is on avoiding centralized control when inspiring individuals to particiapte online.

Designing Systems That Work
Decentralized peer production environments hold more promise in directing participatory systems towards collectively intelligent outcomes than the traditional approach of using centralized authority to drive individual behavior. The success of open source software development and wikis suggests that production environments based on autonomous individual action have the most potential for large-scale, enduring participation. These systems provide individual freedom and choice for interacting with resources and projects without any single authority dictating individual behavior or focus. It is precisely the individual's response to the freedom inherent in a decentralized system that triggers the desire to participate.

Words like “harness” or “leverage” used to describe value produced through individual participation signals a misguided perspective of centralized authority controlling participants. Seeing individuals as a ready resource to be wheedled and mined for value is, at best, a misunderstanding of how distributed production operates, and at worst, a setup to failure. Individually-motivated activity is the cornerstone of successful participatory environments, and presuming participation while undervaluing the individual causes contributions to evaporate. Cajoling effective production, dictating behavior, and exploiting contributions is inherently counter-productive to participatory environments. Empowering the individual creates beneficial outcomes and cultivates an environment where these contributions are most valuable. Since the best participatory environments exist to serve individuals and address their interests first and foremost, the heavy-handed, centralized actions or exploitation of participants corrupts an online collective environment irreparably. Ideally, participants develop a feeling of ownership over the environment, and providing such an atmosphere is indispensable to ensure the environment’s continuance.

Want more? Read the whole chapter Empowering Individuals Towards Collective Online Production, now freely available online.

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Was able to give Linux Insider / E-Commerce Times the scoop on VRM for their article VRM: Consumers Take Control. The article is a micro-intro to VRM from the perspective of a traditional business/tech news nutshell.

Here's my captured quips:

That can be a difficult concept to grasp -- especially when thinking in terms of business relationships or new killer Web 2.0 applications such Facebook admits Keith Hopper, who's on the Project VRM Steering Committee.

Applications facilitating electronic personal health records may come closest to this concept of any software category on the market today, Hopper told CRM Buyer. These can loosely be described as products that let patients use a single, unified electronic record when interacting with physicians and pharmacies.

A personal RFP, or request for proposal, is another example of a killer VRM app, Hopper said, describing that potential product as a vehicle for consumers to reach out to VRM-compliant vendors when looking to buy a certain product or service.

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"The Break Up" video has been around for about a year, but it's so relevant to what we've been working on with Project VRM, I couldn't resist posting it. Produced by Microsoft (of all people) along with ad agency openhere.be, the short video is a brilliant slam on how the traditional approach to customer outreach is woefully out of touch. It basically runs like an ad for The Cluetrain Manifesto.

The video is by Geert Desager and originally posted at bringtheloveback.com.


As you have no doubt heard, Radiohead skipped the middleman with their latest release, offering the album online for download. This resulted in an estimated $10 Million in profits from 1.5 million downloads over the past week, more than the first week sales of their last three albums combined. Not too shabby, particularly when users could set their own price for the download, including being able to set the price of nothing. Radiohead's VRM-like experiment did trigger a flood of promotion, but at the end of the day, fans still volunteered to cough-up an average of $8 per album. Gets one thinking, don't it?

We will undoubtedly see more stunts like this to promote online sales, along with an increasing willingness to go cheaper and wider by offering digital downloads for free. But I want to know, will we see more customer-driven price setting? It feels a little like a public radio pledge drive, essentially asking the customer at transaction time - what is this worth to you? Applying this sort of purchasing model to product transactions is one approach that the VRM project is exploring - where the customer takes a more proactive stance in setting the relationship terms with vendors. Doc Searls introduces this idea in the context of public broadcasting at the tail-end of a Berkman.tv video on the future of public media. Don't miss the first part of the video either, as Jake Shaprio takes on predicting the future.

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Conversations around VRM often include impassioned demands for more customer control. We live in an increasingly decentralized world with more customer choice, yet vendors continue to fiercely collect and control customer data and exploit the opportunities therein. It is no surprise that VRM can serve as a rallying cry of sorts for frustrated customers wanting to take back control from vendor lock-in, offensive communications, and privacy and security concerns in a world of mishandled personal data.

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Thanks to the Project VRM team, I now understand the concept of a personal RFP (Request For Proposal). The idea is simple: have the individual consumer dictate what they want and at what price. Let the vendors who can match this need come to them rather than the other way around. Product marketers currently have an annoying habit of telling us what we need and then inundating us with a sea of unsolicited communications around products we may not want. Removing this vendor behavior would reduce an unwanted advertising burden on the consumer (annoyance) as well as on the marketer (cost). This should decrease total unit costs, and by extension the cost to the consumer.

A Project VRM participant (I believe it was Chris Carfi as referenced here) suggested that Google’s AdWords already is a great vendor matching tool for highly-personalized consumer requests – albeit around the broader realm of information rather than more specifically of products (I’m paraphrasing). I think he was implying that an AdWord ad is a real-time response to an individual's "three word RFP" (e.g. keyword search).

Leading up to this insightful comment, I had been noodling on who might be the perfect VRM vendor. If we found a good fit to sponsor a VRM initiative, the solution definition and adoption would be a cinch. The secret is to find a vendor with a unique customer acquisition problem that can be best addressed by the VRM model – an organization that would benefit only if consumers were driving the relationship and a traditional vendor-consumer model just wasn’t working. This is essentially the crossing-the-chasm strategy for high tech products – focus on a vertical that is uniquely positioned to benefit from the format and structure of your solution. In essence, who is the perfect vendor candidate for what VRM could provide?

Traditional large product companies would probably be a bad fit for VRM. Their competencies are centered on creating narrow demand, not addressing widespread niche demand. Chris’s comment about AdWords got me thinking that when looking at a personal RFP, you are essentially looking at the Long Tail of demand – a big chunk of typical, common requests followed by an endless sea of nuanced consumer need. But large, traditional companies are experts only at The Short Head of product options. The combined forces of scarce shelf space and the economies of scale explains why these companies meet demand the way they do and are wholly unprepared to respond to individualized consumer demand. For example, scarcity of parking and the economies of mass production explain why you won’t find a convertible, hybrid-powered rental car with an MP3 player. For many existing mass-market products, these laws push less consumer choice into the short head of product options. In other words, they will not respond to the majority of personal RFPs. But then, who will?

I propose that those best suited to responding to niche, personalized RFPs will likely be those already in the long tail business, such as product aggregators like Amazon, retail aggregators like eBay and the thousands of specialized merchants currently relying on search and filter technology to drive personalized demand to their unique solutions.


How can a public radio listener take greater control of their relationship with public media?

This was (more or less) the question posed to a public media-savvy group last week at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Led by Doc Searls, our ad hoc team explored how to equip the public media audience with a VRM tool to better drive their relationship with existing broadcasters, distributors, and shows.

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