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Vendor Relationship Management

Last week, I attended the Internet Identity Workshop. Doc Searls, one of the organizers of the conference, ran multiple sessions on a concept he has been developing with others in his role as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, called Vendor Relation Management (or VRM.) The concept behind VRM is to “provide customers with tools for engaging with vendors in ways that work for both parties.”

According to Doc, he originally starting thinking about the idea after a conversation with his wife discussing why she couldn’t “take her shopping cart with her across different sites.” While at first this seems like an odd request, because we’re used to thinking about the site driving the transaction, interestingly when the transaction drives the site it becomes a provocative question. This is why VRM is often characterized as conceptually the inverse of CRM systems.

While embryonic, I found the sessions on VRM to be particularly interesting, because they show how the user centric identity community is evolving – and now focusing around things that can be built on top of decentralized authentication. I laid out the basics of the Identity Landscape in my previous post, but I also challenged the assumption that those technologies would even be part of the normal vocabulary as the space evolved. This is based on a hope that more initiatives like VRM will emerge from the community.

Leading to the Intention Economy

A lot of the theory builds and complements Attention Trust’s work (see Alex’s post on the Attention Economy.) However, rather than focus on all online digital attention, this is much more focused on supporting and build an economy around a subset of all attention – that part which is a user declaring their intention.

A common use case discussed throughout the presentations was around booking online travel. The current behavior of many users on the web was going to multiple online properties, as an example Expedia and Kayak for flights and then Priceline and Hertz for rental cars (some of these being meta-sites and others being run by specific travel vendors.) Instead of the current behavior, the desired use case would be that a user would issue a “personal RFP” about the trip they want to take. Then the user would be able to travel from site to site and the relevant information would persistently be delivered directly to the user based on their intentions.

Status of Project

The project is clearly still early in development and very conceptual. But a thought leader like Doc simply giving these concepts a name (VRM) and meeting with others to discuss it regularly, is an important early step. However, it definitely is early and won’t change how we behave online in the next 6 months. A crucial next step currently being focused on is developing a set of laws or principals around which solutions and use cases can be tested to determine if they qualify as a VRM solution. This certainly helped the user centric identity community clarify authentication, when Kim Cameron from Microsoft published the Laws of Identity. Hopefully, similar principals or laws from the VRM project will serve to clarify the concept; and then protocols and software can begin to be evolve.


Beyond serving as a valuable example of what can be built on top of authentication, I believe it is a very powerful concept. About a year ago, there was a popular meme that emerged on the the web via Fred Wilson and Caterina Fake called Business Development 2.0. The concept behind Biz Dev 2.0 is that instead of distribution deals being done by professionals in conference rooms (1.0), it can be done more efficiently by programmers leveraging other systems APIs. While not how the project group characterized it, I found myself afterward wondering if this is the next logical evolutionary step in this transition of business development. In other words, if VRM does get traction, business development 3.0 will be about users being in charge of generating their own synergies across sites, to generate value.

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