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When VRM begins to get adopted in the world, we will need to encourage research the same way we have encouraged development — and to conduct research as well. Here are a few questions we might probe, as the principles, goals and tools listed on our home page start having effects:

  • How will VRM companies work together and/or at cross purposes? How will new categories emerge, and markets grow, as an effect of both?
  • In what ways and to what extents are VRM tools and services interoperable, or substitutable?
  • Will VRM disrupt existing businesses, enhance them, neither or both? How and where? One example: online advertising, which is already impacted by ad and tracking blockers. And, once selective ad and tracking blocking becomes more normative, what happens to surveillance-based personalized advertising? (It is easy to track investment; but what about actual effects on businesses, e.g. publishers and advertising companies)?
  • How will existing CRM and other customer relationship systems (e.g. Customer Experience Management, call centers) open up and change after they begin shaking hands with VRM tools and services on the customer side?
  • How will jargon normalize? With personal data, for example, will "stores," "lockers," "life management platforms," "vaults" or PIMS (personal information management systems) become the prevailing label?
  • How and where will intentcasting catch on first?
  • In which countries or geographical regions will VRM and approaches like it first become organized and take off? How? Why?
  • How do policy environments — laws, regulations, government purchasing practices — encourage or discourage VRM development, usage and market growth? (Of special interest already are European and Australian privacy laws, and Government Digital Services appetites for normalized citizen data in the U.K.) And how do VRM developers and/or citizens affect policy decisions?
  • In what ways and to what extents to VRM developers adopt open standards, produce (and support) open APIs, and both use and generate free and open source code?
  • One of the results of a ClarityRay survey (no longer online, since ClarityRay was bought by Yahoo ) was that ad blocker users tend to spend more money online. It would be good to expand on that. Do privacy tools other than ad blockers also have an effect? Does the effect hold even when you control for skill and time spent online?
  • It would be good to follow up on last year's Pew study on Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online and ask, To what extent are user concerns about security and privacy affecting commerce? What security and privacy tools, behaviors, and policies are most effective for helping to address those concerns and promote commerce?

Testing Principles

The idea behind VRM is to equip individuals with tools that make them independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply sides of markets. VRM will be successful when customers get direct benefits from taking control of their relationships (including the data they acquire and generate) -- and vendors see alternatives to customer lock-in for gaining loyalty and generating profit.

This vision makes several assumptions. Primarily, that a free customer is more valuable than a captive one (both to himself or herself and to vendors). Testing this hypothesis (or more accurately, specific versions and aspects of this hypothesis) is the goal of our current research. A number of questions come up:

  • What characterizes a free customer? (Autonomy? Ability to engage independently? Something else?)
  • How will customers know they are free?
  • What are the potential benefits to a vendor for freeing a customer -- or dealing with customers that are already free?
  • How can customers signal their freedom to vendors?
  • How will that freedom attract vendors? (What makes a free customer more attractive than a captive one?)
  • What do free customers bring to markets that captive ones don't?
  • By what social and economic processes will freedom for customers become normative and not merely desirable?

In our first round of research, we are creating an information gathering process in which subjects are placed in either a free or captive customer scenario and subsequently asked to enter personal information of several kinds. Different treatments within this experiment will test participants' willingness to engage, exchange information, and offer the experience to their friends.

A possible controlled experiment, offered for discussion: Subjects in both groups will be told that an information-gathering tool is being tested. The "captive" group will be presented with a vendor-driven information gathering tool, about which will be made clear that the data gathered can be used by the vendor. The other group will be presented with a user-driven information gathering tool, in which it will be made clear that the data gathered is not for any vendor but for the subject's own use, and cannot be shared without the user's permission.

Help toward the above was provided by the Berkman Klein Center's Cooperation Group, and we thank them for their valuable assistance.