Marketing vs. Intention

by Doc Searls

Editor's Note: The following is a version of the March 30th
edition of Doc Searls' SuitWatch newsletter. Click
to subscribe.

I rent a lot of cars. One reason for this is I travel a lot, mostly to
conferences and meetings in other cities. Another reason is my own car,
a late-80s Subaru wagon (the exact model year is a mystery not worth
solving), can't be trusted on long trips. Also, its roof leaks.

So, I'm a veteran car rental customer. Because I'm also a veteran
airline passenger whose most frequent flying has been to cities served
heavily by United Airlines--Denver, Chicago, Washington, New York--I
belong to a high, though not the highest, frequent flier caste in
United's Mileage Plus system. So, when I go to car rental agency sites,
I usually enter through United's portal, which tells the agencies to
give me a few extra miles.

Mostly I rent from Budget, mostly for one reason: I have at least some
chance of renting the only compact rental car I like, the Ford Focus. I
like it for two reasons: 1) it's a fun car to drive and 2) its radio
plays MP3 CDs, which lets me listen to podcasts when I'm driving. So
does the Ford Fusion, by the way, which is an excellent "intermediate"
upgrade from the Focus. I recently enjoyed driving one of those from my home in
Santa Barbara to San Francisco and back. I got the Fusion after
rejecting the only Focus on the lot; the power outlet didn't work, and I
needed the outlet to recharge my cell phone. As it happened, it was the
same Focus I had rejected a couple of weeks earlier for the same reason.
When I asked why it hadn't been fixed, the person behind the counter
explained that the problem "doesn't effect the rentability of the car",
and so there were no plans to fix it at all. But she had mercy on me and
gave me the Fusion for the same price, telling me "You'll like it,
believe me". And she was right.

And I guess that's another reason I like to rent from Budget, at least
in Santa Barbara. The people behind the counter know me and always have
been good to me.

Unfortunately, the same doesn't go for the random counters I avoid
at airports elsewhere. The instrument of my avoidance is the on-line
rental gauntlet at each agency's Web site, which differ as little
as their airline counters. Hertz, Avis, Alamo, National, Budget,
Dollar and Thrifty are seven brands of vanilla. Within each brand is a
CRM (customer relationship management) system that limits your choices
to a portfolio of marketing traps and come-ons that are meant to manage
far more than to relate. Each agency's CRM is a silo meant to trap and
hold customers and shake them down for as many pennies as possible. Some
club memberships, such as Budget's FastBreak, allow you to "rent my
favorite car" and bypass the insurance and tank-o-gas upsell at the
counter. That's nice, I suppose, except that it barely works, if at all.

Isn't it amazing that we're in our seventh year of the new millennium,
and the on-line car rental experience still sucks rocks? And that the
human experience at the counter is little if any different than it was
five, ten, fifteen years ago?

Of course, I've been carping about this for a long time. But lately, some
people have been asking me for details. Not only do they want to know
What Goes Wrong but What Can Be Done to fix it.

So I've been taking screenshots of my car rental experiences. The other night
I posted an annotated tour of them on the Linux-based Flickr. You can
find them

Now, I could say more about how lame and useless these agencies are.
But that would be too easy, and it would miss the larger screw-up,
which is the economy itself.

The car rental example is one of a marketing economy, not a market
economy. A marketing economy is one in which marketing "manages", "owns"
and otherwise controls the "behavior" of customers whose choices are so
limited that they are known only as "consumers". A market economy is one
in which buyers and sellers are both autonomous and independent and are
free to make all kinds of choices. The two economies are very different.

The problem is, we've been in a marketing economy for so long that we
think it's natural, not just normal. That's why so many of us--even
certified economists--continue to believe a free market is "your choice
of silo", each of which is designed more to trap customers than to serve

To borrow the language of geology, marketing economies flourished in the
Mass Marketing period of the Industrial Era, both of which now are
coming to an end. Comparably, tyrannosaurs flourished in the Cretaceous
period of the Mesozoic era, both of which came to an end when a meteor
smacked into the Yucatan and changed everything.

The meteor that ended the Mass Marketing period and the Industrial Era
was the Internet. But instead of setting the old world on fire and
killing off species, the Net gave every living thing a better world in
which to do business and make culture. In pure business terms, the
networked world is far better suited for markets than for marketing.

Back on March 8, I posted
"The Intention
, which has topped this Web site's
"Today's popular content" list pretty much since it published. I wrote
the piece in response to lip-service given to the "attention economy" at
O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference (eTech). Too much of it seemed
to be about butchering consumer cattle and serving their eyeballs for
hors d'oeuvres. It did this rather than respecting the fact that we're
way overdue for the emergence of a real market economy in the best
environment ever built for one. Namely, the Net.

Between eTech and PC Forum--which I missed this year, having been
recruited to speak at SXSW in Austin--Esther
pointed to
"The Intention Economy" and wrote:

Doc Searls rightly blogged that most of what people are talking
about when they say "attention" is in fact (purchasing) intention.
From the marketers' point of view, there is indeed a desire to get
attention and to transform that into monetizable intention.

She also wrote:

In fact, the new world is one of insincere businesses (even ones
made up of sincere individuals) trying to figure out how to listen
to--really listen, not just collect data from--their customer. From
some pundits' point of view, heartless businesses are finally being
forced to give individuals due respect.

I love the term "insincere businesses". She nails it there and in the
line about giving individuals due respect. But in what context?

Here's how I put it in "The Intention Economy":

The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages
the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that
they come ready-made. You don't need advertising to make them.

The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don't
need marketing to make Intention Markets.

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a
collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don't have
to fly from silo to silo, like bees from flower to flower,
collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. In
The Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent
to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer's purchase. Simple as that.

The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions.
Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation,
authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers
(as well as buyers) and not just "branded" by sellers on the minds
of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.

The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers
finding (or "capturing") buyers.

In The Intention Economy, a car rental customer should be able to
say to the car rental market, "I'll be skiing in Park City from
March 20-25. I want to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV. I belong to Avis
Wizard, Budget FastBreak and Hertz 1 Club. I don't want to pay up
front for gas or get any insurance. What can any of you companies do
for me?"--and have the sellers compete for the buyer's business.

What I tried to do there is isolate, or factor out, marketing. I wanted
to restrict sell-side concern to serving customers with an actual
intention to buy. In the case I detailed in that screenshot series, we
had a ready customer, with real money, who failed to make a purchase at
either of the silos (Budget and Avis) in which he holds actual
memberships. In other words, even the damn traps didn't work. Alamo got
the business because it answered demand with supply, at a price about
half of what all the others were charging.

In the language of
Steve Gillmor,
I made a series of failed gestures
followed by one that worked. Steve may differ in his interpretation, but
I have a feeling that the Gesture Economy and the Intention Economy are
pretty much the same. They're both about getting marketing out of the
way so markets can actually work.

In addition to receiving some excellent comments about "The Intention
Economy", I had a nice exchange with Jordan Rule, whose blog is
Genuine Incorporated.
Here's what I said in an e-mail:

I think what's missing on the sell side is the perception of the
customer as fully empowered--partly because sellers are too used to
seeing customers merely as consumers, or as transient sources of
cash; and partly because customers in fact still are not yet fully
empowered, because too many of the power cards are held by sellers
or intermediaries.

For a customer to become fully empowered, we need to work out a
number of problems in a general area we call identity, but which
really needs a less loaded term.

The fully empowered customer is a collection of qualitative and
quantitative facts about the buyer that may be relevant at either of
the two other levels present in a sale, in addition to the
transaction. Those levels are conversation and relationship. I am
more likely to rent a car, say, from Budget than Thrifty, if
conversational lines are open and there is a known and useful
relationship (such as with a club membership... but it can go beyond
that, to transaction history and relationships with partners such as
airlines) with Budget. Right now too many conversations and
relationships are siloed inside the seller's CMS (customer
"relationship" management system), requiring the customer to go from
one silo to the next, with little or no data persistence along the way.

I also said I thought there was a good chance The Answer would emerge
from the growing conversation around identity. Some amazing things are
happening right now in the midst of the
Identity Gang, an informal group
lightly organized by Harvard's Berkman Center that anybody can join. We
have two conferences coming up, and I invite anyone interested to come
and participate. The first is the
Identity Workshop
, which will
be held in Silicon Valley, May 2-3. The second will be held at Harvard
Law School, June 19-21 (details pending).

Meanwhile, watch your intentions. One of these days the market, with no
assistance from marketing, might just fulfill them.

Doc Searls ( is Senior Editor of
Linux Journal, for which he writes the Linux for Suits column.
He also presides over Doc
Searls' IT Garage
. He recently was named Visiting
Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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