The Devil’s in the Data

Am I only the one unnerved by online advertisers? Seeing ads from marketers who know exactly what I’ve been browsing online makes me feel like I’m being stalked. And what’s more, seeing ads based on my past experiences squashes any opportunity for true discovery, since they’re all based on tracking things I’ve already looked for (and perhaps decided against).

All in all, the whole notion of “personalizing” my Web experience is far too Big Brother–ish for my taste. But it’s such a common practice that I feel powerless against the onslaught.

That’s why this fascinating essay from the July 20 Wall Street Journal, by Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, resonated with me. Titled “The Customer as a God,” the piece predicted a coming revolution not in big data—the much-hyped field of digital information available to marketers—but in the nascent discipline of vendor relationship management. “VRM works on the demand side of the marketplace: for you, the customer, rather than for sellers and third parties on the supply side,” Searls writes.

The idea is that within another decade or so, there will be a “revolution in personal liberation and empowerment” that allows customers to select which vendors they buy from and how much personal information they want revealed (if any)—all facilitated by the use of smart handheld devices that are distant cousins of our current smartphones (for starters, users won’t be locked into contracts with providers).

Searls writes that the revolution will force companies to recognize customers “as human beings and not just as cattle to be herded.”

“In the not-too-distant future, you will be able, for example, to change your contact information with many vendors at once, rather than many times, over and over, at many different websites,” he continues. “You will declare your own policies, preferences and terms of engagement—and do it in ways that can be automated both for you and the companies you engage. You will no longer have to ‘accept’ agreements that aren’t worth reading because, as we all know, they cover the other party’s butt but expose yours.”

For many independent jewelers, Searls’ predictions may seem moot. They’re not out there hustling customers with products based on reams of data collected on the Internet. And many probably already treat their customers as God. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand how and why the marketplace is changing. Sellers who learn to treat customers as individuals—unpredictable, perhaps, but also loyal when they’re free to make their own choices—will undoubtedly triumph.

Look for more fascinating predictions in JCK’s September “Future of Retail” issue!