Doc Searls On Becoming Part Of The Intention Economy

Fast Company talks with Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy, about the future of customer relationships.

Doc Searls On Becoming Part Of The Intention Economy


“In The Intention Economy,” Doc Searls begins his new book of the same name, “The buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase.”

That’s an easy enough idea–that rather than companies mining analytics for consumer info, customers will simply say what they want, thus forging efficient, close-knit relationships–but one with a number of moving parts.

Individuals will need ambient connectivity, a private store of personal data, and standardized ways to signal their desires. The businesses that match individuals’ terms will survive. 

To Searls, this possible future is present opportunity: Fast Company talked with the Harvard Berkman Center fellow about why entrepreneurs should empower customers, why personal relationships trump personalized advertising, and (in case it’s not obvious), why companies need to stop saying “fuck you” to the marketplace. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

To signal their intentions, individuals need a private place for data: 

“Customers need to have signaling that’s fully respected and respectable. It’s going to take apps, it’s going to take protocols, it’s going to take some new inventions and some new concepts. It would be really great if we had commonly accepted UI elements that would signal ‘this is mine’ and ‘that is theirs’ (Ed. note: such as Searls’ r-buttons). In other words, this is my space, this is my personal data place, where we store personal data that is useful to us in market interactions and also our preferences and policies, our own terms and services, for example, ‘don’t stalk me,’ or ‘give me back my data when I’m done with it.’ Here are the things you can look at, here are the things you can’t–but I’m in control of that, I don’t have to go to somebody’s silo for that. 


When their policies match up with mine, we can skip the friction of having to do the log-in and password thing, or we can skip the friction of having to accept onerous terms and conditions that frankly almost nobody has ever prosecuted.

George Carlin had a really funny routine called ‘A Place For My Stuff’–we have not had that at all, other than, I have a hard drive full of crap. Nearly every solution we’ve come up so far is yet another sell-side service that wants to be the exclusive place that you put this stuff–for their purposes. Apple has one, Google has one, Facebook has one for you, but there’s no way of integrating those together inside your own space yet.”

As businesses and customers become more peer-to-peer, advertising is the wrong tool for engagement:

“A completely ridiculous amount of money is being spent on advertising now. A whole lot of it is put into valuations of companies far above what they’re worth, based on a faith that people are going to want to be advertised at and that they are in fact buying something all the time. Can big data and big business guess at what we want better than we can express ourselves?

Quit expecting advertising to do a good job. At its best, it works a tiny fraction of the time. We also don’t want to be advertised at all the time, because we’re not always buying stuff. Sooner or later, we will, and the relationships we build will not be based on advertising or branding.

Having perfectly personalized advertising for Best Buy isn’t going to solve their big problem right now, which is that they’re a showroom for Amazon. How do they fix that? They’re going to have to get tight with the customers in ways that they haven’t before. The will is there, but they way is not–the way is going to take backing off from practices that are in the long run dead ends, or at least now insufficient.


Take some of that money that you’re currently flushing into advertising–there’s going to be so much more to be gained by plugging into a customer’s actual intention to buy.”

Companies miss out if they ignore customers’ “readiness to buy” signals:

“I spend a lot of time in Europe. I would be willing to spend a hundred bucks or pounds or euros to be able to make a data connection over my phone in Europe and not be punished when I go from country to country. There are billions of dollars from business people right now ready to be spent on that, but the telecom companies aren’t hearing it, the regulators aren’t hearing it, they’ve got these one-way systems with customer capture, confuse-opolies. That that service right now does not exist is a ‘fuck you’ to the marketplace.

Instead, we need to start loving through the marketplace. Start loving where your customers are autonomous, sovereign, individual free agents who bring far more to you than money and loyalty. They have signals, they have intelligence, they have all kinds of things they can bring that you’re ignoring right now because you’re running closed systems in which you know almost nothing about them.

In the long run, individual autonomy is going to be a persistent state, and getting along with customers and being true cooperators with customers is going to be what helps retail, aviation, you name it, to adapt fully to what the Internet has been implying from the beginning.”

What this means for entrepreneurs:


“I think there’s a huge opportunity for startups to help customers buy, to help customers relate, and doing it in a way that is not exclusive or siloed. In the course of doing that, it’s important to see customers as the first and final authorities on where their data lives and what gets done with it, and what their intentions are, and help them with that.

This is not about a prediction for the future. This is about development. We need more investors to look and say, ‘What are you guys doing for customers? What are you doing to help customers and sellers come together? What are you doing to help build relationships?'”

[Image: Flickr user Julio César Cerletti García]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.