Making sense of the future: intention vs. attention in a technology-powered world

At SXSW recently, after what sounds like a fascinating talk, Mel Exon and Jeremy Ettinghausen from BBH Labs polled the attendees on which of two technology-enabled futures they’d prefer living in.

The SXSW panel used the analogies of Skynet (the robot-enabled antithesis to the Terminator) and Mad Max (the one-man crusade against evil in the warped future painted by the eponymous series of films) to compare a future where our information moulds our world on the one hand, meaning everything is seamless because everything everywhere knows our preferences beforehand, and on the other, a future where we can mandate what our information can and should be used for in a ‘fair exchange of data’.

Depending on what your personal take on science fiction is, you could call both visions dystopian (if you’re a science fiction fan though, one or both are probably simply part of a time you’re genuinely looking forward to!).  A 1984-inspired vision of the future is a theme that has been echoed not just in the movies lately as Mel and Jeremy mention, but on TV as well – Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in December 2011 being the most recent example – and with good reason: apparently NASA is close to completing the construction of the single biggest spy centre in the US, so it isn’t even really ‘fiction’ anymore.

Back to the SXSW panel, however: the overwhelming majority of the audience said that they’d like a future where information was open and seamlessly sent to our apps.

I find this extremely interesting. Mainly because it speaks to a conversation that has been going on in another part of the world wide web.

For a few months now, I have been paying attention to the discussions occurring in en email group moderated by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, called Project VRM. It focuses on the issue of vendor relationship management, or managing the relationship between customers and businesses in an online world. To put it frankly, it aims to ensure that people are not commoditized – something that the likes of Google and Facebook are often accused of when they use our data for their financial gain. Project VRM vociferously supports “the development of tools by which individuals can take control of their relationships with organizations — especially in commercial marketplaces”. These can range from Azigo, a site that allows you to track the various brands and deal sites you’ve signed up to whether they are Groupon or Gap, to Zaarly, a site that allows people to post jobs that need doing and specify how much they’re willing to pay for it.

More and more start-ups trying to tackle the VRM challenge are launched every month – every week perhaps, with some being more conscientious than others. It doesn’t look like the issue is going to die a quiet death anytime soon. Nor should it.

Doc Searls, one of the authors of 1999’s much-loved ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ and the author of the forthcoming ‘Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge’ is a founder of the group, and is relentless in his aim to build a more customer-friendly world. He hopes VRM will take up where ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ left off. It’s worth recalling the Manifesto’s preamble taking up the cause of people the world over: “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings—and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.” Or as Mark Slater, the CEO of Getabl, another start-up operating in the VRM space and a member of the VRM group articulated in an email, “My attention is not for sale. My intention is.”

As media folk, we are at a potentially crucial junction in the crossroads of marketing. A managing director at Bain Capital Ventures wrote on GigaOm recently that we are now at a stage where marketers can take advantage of enterprise technology (the way businesses mine the information they collect from their customers at different points during their journey from intention to purchase) and social network data pioneered by Facebook’s OpenGraph to engage in true ‘closed-loop marketing’ – using data insights to push marketing messages to people in a more trackable and contextual manner. The worry is that this model is still very much based on attracting people’s attention (‘hey, look at this!’) as opposed to proffering a solution based on declared intent (‘you like this, we can offer it to you, let’s work together to see how it can be done to mutual satisfaction’), which is what we should be moving to.

At the end of the day people don’t like being treated as objects, which is what the attention model assumes.

At an event organised by Thinkbox in late March examining brand behaviour in a world obsessed with fads, Richard Huntington, Director of Strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi said something that really stuck in my mind: that often marketers treat social media with disrespect, and that unlike paid and owned media which belong to the brand, earned media belongs to the people. Which is why ‘cupcake communication’ rarely works. (Think of the number of times on Twitter and Facebook you’ve seen a brand say ‘We’re loving cupcakes today. What’s your favourite flavour?’ or something to that effect, and how inane it sounds).

My point is that technology is already driving the refinement of marketing analytics to a point where brands can see almost at a glance what they’re doing right or wrong, in as much as they can stalk people each step of the way to convince them to buy their product. And they can go either way. It’s easy to push your product today if that’s your sole business priority (and there are businesses to whom that is a priority – many finance and insurance services for example), but it’s easier and makes more business sense to listen to people and tweak your product and marketing to give them what they want such that not only do they buy your product because it makes sense for them, but they ask others to as well.

I’m not trying to pretend this is a perfect world though. Businesses operate for profit. As Farhad Manjoo said last week about Google causing a certain amount of discomfort and confusion because of the way they’re acting with Search Plus Your World and Google Plus, compared to their ‘don’t be evil’ company philosophy, “By never claiming to be above evil, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are free to act like normal companies whose efforts to optimize their own self-interest don’t arouse much suspicion. We expect Apple to play rough with others; we’d be surprised if it didn’t. But we don’t expect sharp elbows from Google. And now that it’s acting in new ways, we don’t know what to expect at all.”

His advice is for Google to simply re-define what they do, so that there is no cognitive dissonance. He’s realistic in his declaration that Google isn’t so bad; they’re merely doing what businesses do, but they haven’t communicated that well enough.

Going back to the visions of the future I brought up at the beginning, people want their lives to be simpler and they’re happy for technology to be the arbiter of that. But, as Project VRM is looking into, they don’t expect to be taken for a ride – the vast majority of human beings just don’t expect to as a matter of principle and most likely will revolt if companies try to do so with the information they have guilelessly handed over. And finally, it is the responsibility of brands to respect people’s intentions in the social forums that they operate in, because they don’t own those spaces. It’s like being at a dinner party – you don’t go to someone’s house for dinner and yell and shout at them.

If brands articulate their own intent clearly at the outset, channel the technology and resources at their disposal to speak to people’s intent rather than jostle for their attention, and very simply act human, we’ll all be happy.

Or so we hope.

Posted by Anjali Ramachandran, @anjali28


One comment

  1. Pingback: I’m back « One Size Fits One

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