We need customertech. It’s as simple as that.

Doc Searls
5 min readSep 4, 2017

To see what I mean, imagine if there was no Internet, no World Wide Web, no standard way to do email, no telephony—and the only way for companies to engage with customers was with tools they alone create and manage, in as many different ways as there are companies, with no engagement means whatsoever of the customers’ own. In other words, with scale across all of us for each of them, and zero scale for us.

In fact this is exactly the situation we are in.

While the Net, the Web, email and telephony support single ways for individuals to engage everybody and everything else in the world, marketing would rather create their own separate ways to “acquire,” “capture,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” customers herded on a “journey” down a “funnel,” as if they were slaves or cattle. Which is what you get when one side has all the power and the other has little or none.

The Net, the Web, email, telephony, SMS and credit card systems all give everybody standard ways to engage in the marketplace; but they don’t cover all the bases. We still need standard ways for customers to engage with companies at scale—for customers. That’s customertech.

In the absence of customertech, we have every company trying to get scale for themselves, in their own different ways, across all their customer bases. Supplying that demand is all of martech. The result is this:

Source: Chiefmartec.

Every one of those thousands of martech companies provide solutions for corporate customers. None sell a damn thing to you and me, and none give any one of us scale across all companies. Not the way the Net, the Web, telephony and SMS do.

Thus engaging companies requires that we learn every language in a Tower of Babble (pun intended) that only gets higher, more annoying and more complex with every new login and password.

Making all of this even worse is that spying on customers is now a huge part of what companies do. See here:

Source: Google Trends, cted in After Peak Marketing.

Since 2011, gathering Big Data by spying on people has become Job One for CMOs, mostly by using icky tools from companies that whisper promises like “You can know customers better than they know themselves” in the CMO’s ear.

That myth is about as absolute as bullshit can get, and only rationalizes distancing companies from human contact and the genuine help only customers can provide directly, and in ways that work best for them, and not just for the companies they deal with.

So it doesn’t matter how much companies care about the “customer experience,” how well companies listen for complaints in the proprietary halls of Twitter and Facebook, or how well companies tweak their CRM, CX, call centers and other proprietary customer engagement systems bought from companies in martech’s B2B shopping mall, if customers lack their own standardized tools of engagement.

With customertech (aka VRM, for vendor relationship management), customers will have one way to register a product, one way to call for support, one way to share private data and restrict its use, one way to schedule a call, one way to listen for product upgrades, one way to proffer terms companies can agree to, and so on.

There can be many suppliers of those “one ways,” just as there are many suppliers of Web browsers, home wifi, and of handheld devices that can make phone calls and send SMS messages. (This principle is called substitutability, which Phil Windley explains nicely here.)

That customertech is almost impossible for most of us to imagine is a measure of how poorly we have learned the lessons of the Internet and its native protocols. In The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain warned that “the Internet’s current trajectory is one of lost opportunity. Its salvation… lies in the hands of its millions of users.” That was in 2009. Since then we’ve had a steady growth of complication in the hands of companies. We see that in the growth of both Big Data and martech “solutions” (manifest in the two graphics above). For all their good intentions (and some good effects), these have also made things worse.

But the Net we all share today was born in 1995. It’s still young. Most of the open and standardized ways of doing things we’ll end up with haven’t been invented yet. Customertech is among those and is totally do-able. But it won’t manifest to marketing until customers have it and reach out with it, just like they did with the Net, the Web and email.

For the last 20+ years I’ve worked toward making customertech happen, and I have more faith than ever that it will. Lots of companies and projects on the ProjectVRM developments list are working toward that goal and many more will jump aboard the Cluetrain that Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I saw coming in 1999.

One reason I’m optimistic is that the EU will start shooting companies for violating the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which outlaws spying on EU citizens, even in the US, or by US companies operating in Europe. Starting next May.

One bit of martech that will help companies in the GDPR’s crosshairs is a readiness to agree with terms customers proffer. That’s where companies click “agree” to your terms. Inside tech both of you operate, such as in your browser and the company’s website.

Before the GDPR, companies had no incentive to agree to your terms. This is why they not only ignored Do Not Track, but fought against it. We (600 million of us) fought back with ad blocking and tracking protection, but those aren’t engaging.

If we want real engagement, companies are going to need to work with us, in our ways rather than theirs alone. For that they need to be what lawyers call second parties, rather than first parties. The Net and the Web already support that. All we need now are the terms we’ll both use.

For that we created Customer Commons, a nonprofit spun out of the Berkman Klein Center, much as Creative Commons did in 2001. And, just as Creative Commons is where personal copyright licenses live, Customer Commons is where personal terms of engagement will live.

If you want to help with that, talk to me.



Doc Searls

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.