Within the VRM community there is a view, most clearly put forward by Alec Muffet and Adriana Lukas, that VRM is a ‘phenomenon’ like blogging. Vendor Relationship Management will happen, it’s argued, as clever geeks come up with clever software tools that work on the user’s side, helping individuals gather, store and manipulate their own personal data, and share this data in ways they see fit with other parties, including suppliers.
I felt uneasy about this view when it was first expressed but couldn’t get to grips with why. Now I think I understand. This vision of VRM is both incredibly helpful and incredibly dangerous, both at the same time.
It’s incredibly helpful because it opens up a vista of new opportunities that we can seize right now, without having to wait for powerful corporations to say, “Yes, we will invest resources in making it happen.” Once the tools for blogging were invented, people were empowered to express their thoughts and opinions online without any say-so from the powers that be. This, in turn, changed the environment that these powers had to operate within. Suddenly there was another influential channel of communication they had no control over.
Likewise, as clever geeks come up with cool tools that help individuals do what they want to do with their data – rather than having to fit into corporate systems that are invariably designed to fit corporate purposes – this will change the environment in which all organisations operate, including the biggest, most powerful corporations with the most sophisticated CRM systems.
This part of the vision is very powerful. VRM probably won’t happen without it. So why is it also so dangerous?
Let’s take an iconic example from the wild west, bottom up, individual empowered Web 2.0 phenomenon: the peer review. In one sense, peer reviews perfectly fit Alex and Adriana’s vision of a bottom up phenomenon that’s beyond top down corporate control and spawns a new environment. There are many, endlessly retold stories about the power of one individual blogger upending the might of entire corporations by pointing out that a particular emperor has no clothes. Bicycle locks that can be opened with paper clips, come to mind for example.
Trouble is these apocalyptic stories are a tiny exception, not the rule. The reason we all know them (and repeat them ad nauseam) is because they are so rare. They stand out from the crowd, so what’s happening in this crowd, where 99.99 per cent of peer reviews remain?
The answer is, ‘not as much as should be happening’, because left as they are – as an unorganised, chaotic, bottom-up process of individuals simply reporting on their experiences and opinions – the real potential of the peer review is actually being squandered.
Take the issue of trust. In a world where anyone can say anything, and anything goes, it’s easy for sellers to play fast and loose with the peer review format. Retailers can choose to display only the positive reviews, perhaps showing only one superficial criticism for the sake of credibility. Suppliers can pay their PR companies to post positive reviews, thereby turning the review into just another messaging channel. Yes, of course, in this wild west atmosphere, they may be ‘found out’ and exposed – but only after the damage has been done. After people have been misled, and trust undermined.
An alternative approach is to have filtered, audited peer reviews – allowing reviews only from individuals with proof of purchase, for example. This in turn requires mechanisms for delivering proof of purchase: a new requirement which is not simply a bottom up tool in the hands of a user but an organised process. Reevoo.com does exactly this. It only accepts reviews from accredited purchasers of products via participating retailers, which has involved Reevoo.com having to build relationships with these retailers, and set up standardised information processes, both of which take us yet another step from the simplified world of “cool tools working on the individual’s side”.
There’s another problem with leaving the peer review as a blogging-type phenomenon: how am I supposed to find all these reviews, read them, and assess their value? If ten thousand people separately review a product on their own personal blogs, how am I supposed to access them all, read them, and gather a balanced sense of the product’s value from the many contradictory things that have been said about it?
There’s a complex tangle of issues here. First, there’s the question of access. Yes, if you have a clever search tool you might be able to discover each one of these individual reviews, but it’s still hard work navigating your way to each one. Far better if they were centralised in one place under a heading “Reviews of product X”, which takes us beyond cool tools on the individual’s side to organised web sites.
But that’s only the beginning. Assuming you’ve already dealt with the trust issue of kosher versus non-kosher reviews, there’s still an outstanding issue of utility. Frankly, a review that say’s a product or service is ‘great’ or ‘sucks’ is of limited value. One of the biggest drawbacks of the peer review today is its amorphous nature: the amount of hard work that’s needed to find and read many peer reviews and generate are realistic picture of the product in question. What the buyer needs is detail – and many reviewers don’t think of mentioning many details when writing their review. That’s why Reevoo.com prompts reviewers with particular questions. If it’s a TV for example, what about its design, sound quality, image quality, ease of set-up, and so on? Here, we are on a journey from unstructured to structured data – and the more structure there is the greater the potential value.
With structured questions for example, it becomes possible to collate many different reviews to ‘score’ different aspects of a product (‘its image is really sharp, but its greens are sometimes a bit weird, and it’s a real hassle to get it working’) along with an overall rating of ‘8.3’ or ‘9.6’. It’s impossible to create such a picture without a disciplined approach to information management that has nothing to do with the original process of individuals volunteering their opinions.
Please note how, in just a few paragraphs, we have travelled a long, long way: from ‘anything goes’ information to certified information (trust); from distributed to centralised; from unstructured to structured, etc.
I could go on. There are other data quality issues. How old is the review? Is what it is saying out of date? Is it factually incorrect? There are usability issues. A buyer who is a novice in a category has different needs to those of a connoisseur. Someone willing to invest time and effort researching the ‘absolute best in class’ is different to someone who wants to find a good enough product in the least time possible. These different user needs create a further knock-on need for even more information processing and presentation (different content for different types of user) plus the need to research and understand these different needs … which, in turn, generates even more requirements.
Doing all this researching, relationships building and info-crunching takes a lot of hard, expert work. That means you have to employ people, in a business, that earns enough money to cover its costs. So what is its business model? What sorts of relationships does it build with individual reviewers, retailers, suppliers and so on? How is value to be exchanged between them to make the service viable?
The upshot of all this is simple. VRM is not just a ‘phenomenon’ generated by placing cool tools in the hands of users. Yes, of course, we need cool tools (it may not happen without them). But we also need new types of service, and new types of business models to make these new types of service possible. It’s about all three, together.
The danger with the ‘VRM is a phenomenon’ argument is that it encourages us to focus on just one of these pillars and to ignore the other two. If we do, we will never create a stable, scalable platform – and VRM risks being still born.