The nature of conversations

It’s been a while since my last blog post. Curiously, that delay changed my mental model for conversations, especially online conversations.

Understanding conversations is, I think, one of the first steps to creating something amazing with VRM. Re-inventing the online search/advertising/sales conversation may just be the most important part of Vendor Relationship Management… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Blogging is a global conversation. People anywhere can pick a topic, have their say, and if they say it well, find a self-organizing conversation group. As my friend Christian Gray once put it, people don’t blog to connect with other blogs. They blog to connect with other bloggers. And we do it through a decentralized online conversation enabled by the Internet.

In many ways, it is that simple. By saying something that matters, by adding to the shared conversation in a way that engenders response, we connect with others of a like-mind. Even when we disagree with folks, we’re still sharing a communal ritual of debate and argument, a conversation that connects us far more than it divides us.

So, what happens when I disappear for a bit? When I don’t blog for a while? What happens to that conversation? Well, that depends in large part on how others connect to me, on the nature of the “room” or “place” in which we are having the conversation. For those who like my contributions enough to subscribe to a feed or who get their news via searching the blogosphere at Technorati or Google, I might be missed, but will otherwise pop back into their news flow once I start posting again. This actually works great for me when reading blogs from Steve Gilmor, Abe Burmeister, and Steve Yegge, for example, who don’t blog frequently, but are worth reading when they do.

For folks that check in at blogs they like every so often to see what’s new, I’ve probably fallen off the radar after nearly two full months with just one post each. That’s not too good.

Of course, the pace of the conversation, for me, grinds to a halt, and maybe people have been wondering where I am, but when one returns, it is like rejoining a party already in progress. Maybe folks wonder why it took so long to return from wherever you went, but people are glad to see you. Well, some people, anyway.

So, that’s just one of the myriad interesting differences between conversations in the blogosphere and those in IM, forums, and email.

  • Instant messaging–in whatever form you prefer–is all about the instant response. Say now, respond now. Short bits. More twitter, less dissertation. And usually extremely focused.
  • IRC and public chat are curiously impersonal, more like a shared conversation at the local pub than the directed private chat.
  • Forums have some of the permanence of blogging, but none of its vast, open territory. You have to go to a forum to participate, just like IRC or public chat. Forum conversations each have a place of their own, a place you “visit” to participate. Thanks to RSS, Technorati, and a culture of cross-linking, blogs don’t require that.
  • Finally, email is usually a directed conversation; either one-to-one personal correspondence, or perhaps a focused mailing list on a specific topic. The former is hugely isolated from outsider input, while the latter isolates within a peer group of sorts. Outsiders are lucky to be able to view an archive.

In contrast, blog conversations are

  • open,
  • inclusionary,
  • permanent,
  • placeless, and
  • fungible.

Anyone can contribute anything and there is a culture of supporting and encouraging contributions. There is generally excellent archiving as permalinks, yet without a sense of a “place” that one must go to to find a particular conversation. The conversation is happening in a sort of emergent global commons, a shared nexus of A-listers, C-listers, and people who just have something to say and don’t really care about lists. It extends over time and space, yet self-selects into internally coherent threads and discussions, and those threads evolve and change and reconnect as the conversation continues. It is amazing, frankly, a new thing, something that couldn’t have happened without the ubiquitous availability of the inherently decentralized wonderthing we know as the Internet.

All of which makes me think about how we might/can/should/must do something similar for VRM.

Vendor Relationship Management, as the reciprocal of CRM, puts the customer in control, providing tools to take charge of relationships with vendors, rather than passively accepting the role of “consumer”. My first thoughts focused on personal RFPs, a way to specify what you want as a consumer and drop that specification into a distributed marketspace where vendors reply and a purchase would be made. It is easy to imagine a blog, tag, and Pingerati style architecture creating a passable solution today, and even more exciting to think about how user-centric Identity could take it to another, higher level of security and privacy. This also seemed like a natural output after the type of Complex Search we are working to support at SwitchBook.

Good stuff.

And then, at the VRM Developers Meeting in Redwood City this last January (2007), the naive initial idea of the personal RFP evolved to embrace an interactive experience. What if a vendor needs clarification? What if none of the offers make sense? What if a Vendor has a near-miss soluton at a great price? The fact is, we regularly have rich conversations as we shop and buy things. Shouldn’t a VRM RFP support a rich conversation? After all, markets are conversations.

Add to that the opportunity for third parties to enhance that conversation. At that same developer meeting, we explored what “relationship” means in the real world and how we express ourselves in relationships. In the sales conversation, there are a lot of people involved, especially in higher price, more complex sales. In traditional sales channels, we are likely to have a manufacturer, a distributor, a retailer, each as institutions with multiple people involved in a web of relationships supporting the ultimate purchase.

I discussed previously how Shopatron is re-intermediating retailers in sales from manufacturers’ websites. Why? Because retailers add value, despite the heralding by pundits of a new, disintermediated marketplace. Shopatron is an illuminating example of how we can reinterpret offline relationships in the online marketplace.

Consider also the friendly salesperson, the kind you might find at your local shoe or clothing store. These people are knowledgeable about the products, help you find the right item, and can create a sense of humanity in what otherwise might feel like a semi-automated warehouse. Sometimes the variety and competitive pricing at a big-box discount retailer is compelling. Yet, there is also a lot to be said for the personal touch of a real person at the point of sale–witness the enduring success of the high-end boutique.

Why? Because good salespeople engage in a real conversations. Have you ever had a great buying experience with a salesperson that didn’t involve a conversation? So, where are the online sales agents? I have seen a few click-to-talk or real-time chat opportunities on some websites. And ChaCha applies that to agent-assisted search, yet perhaps they might do better by helping people buy things. So far none of these solutions yet seems to offer the power and flexibility I sense as latent potential in this medium.

So, that leaves me with a bunch of questions. How do we engage in user-centric conversations in a distributed marketplace? How do we enable third parties to constructively engage in market conversations? How can we leverage what we’ve learned from blogs, wikis, IM, email, and the web, to reinvent conversations between customers and vendors. And most importantly, how do we do it so that it dramatically increases the value to customers while creating or enhancing profits for vendors?

These are questions I’m going to enjoy figuring out.

Perhaps a bit of time off from blogging isn’t so bad after all.

As always, I encourage you to check out Project VRM and join us if you want to help create the next generation of market conversations.

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2 Responses to The nature of conversations

  1. bankwatch says:

    Nice post, and welcome back … time off is healthy!

    This is a great exploration of the dynamics of VRM that need to be considered. Its obviously not as simple as an on/ off switch, and the part on conversations, and “near misses” captures those fuzzy dynamics well.

    I also like the analogy to your blog posting hiatus, that you can only go “into the market” when you (the customer) are ready.

  2. Joe says:

    Thanks, Colin. I have to say it felt really good to sit down and put something out there.

    Glad I still have a few readers left. 😉

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