Infomediaries–Where Are They?

I have been thinking a lot about “infomediaries.” If you’re not familiar with the term, John Hagel first described it in a 1997 Harvard Business Review article The Coming Battle for Customer Information (with Rayport) and then fleshed out his vision in the 1999 book Net Worth (with Singer).

Infomediaries interpose themselves between marketers and consumers to facilitate better marketing matches. Consumers disclose their personal preferences to an infomediary, who can then offer marketers the ability to engage in highly targeted marketing without knowing consumers’ personal identities. Further, infomediaries will use their aggregated consumer demand to cut consumer-favorable deals with marketers. To make this work, consumers must completely trust that infomediaries will respect their privacy and will not become a biased shill for marketers based on which marketer pays the infomediary the most.

From an academic’s perspective, I think infomediaries would substantially improve social welfare. Consumers get what they want—relevant and trustworthy marketing without sacrificing privacy; marketers get what they want—a cost-effective source of interested consumers; and infomediaries profit by taking cuts of the deal. Society wins due to lowered transaction/search costs and fewer marketing mismatches between consumers who don’t want the marketing and marketers who cannot target granularly enough.

Compare this with our current marketing environment, where consumers lack an easy one-stop way to disclose their preferences (and many consumers refuse to do so due to privacy fears). More regulated solutions of marketing communications have high transaction costs (for marketers, and sometimes for consumers too) and a high risk of Type I and Type II errors (i.e., relevant marketing is squashed; unwanted marketing is unregulated).

Despite all of these benefits, as far as I can tell, the infomediary industry has failed to materialize. In Feb. 1999, James Glave wrote a Wired News story called The Dawn of the Infomediary listing five companies trying to enter the infomediary business: Lumeria, PrivaSeek, InterOmni, @YourCommand, and PrivacyBank. On January 24, 2005, I visited the purported websites of all five infomediaries discussed in Glave’s article. Lumeria’s site still exists but appears not to have been updated since 2000. InterOmni was acquired by Lumeria in 1999. The PrivaSeek and @yourcommand domains appear to have lapsed and been reregistered by others. InfoSpace.com bought PrivacyBank in 2000; it is unclear what happened thereafter.

In other words, it appears that all of these infomediaries are out of the business. Also gone are the group buying sites (like Mercata and Accompany) that aggregated consumer interests to negotiate better deals with merchants.

We have some more success if we broaden our definition of infomediaries further. In some industry verticals, infomediary-like businesses have emerged, like LendingTree for loans and Autobytel for cars. However, to some extent, Autobytel act like messaging services—I submit my information, a message goes to interested dealers, then the dealers spam me directly (sometimes relentlessly). Rather than protecting my privacy (whatever that means), Autobytel just ratchet up the email volume. There is still value to consumers to messaging systems, but I don’t think they rise to the infomediary level. LendingTree actually makes offers, not just referrals. However, I’m not entirely clear how these offers are ordered.

We could also try to analogize the shopbots to infomediaries. Shopbots like Shopping.com, Shopzilla and PriceGrabber have survived the dot com crash and offer some infomediary-like services, such as organizing marketing information by product and pitting merchants against each other. However, shopbots do not personalize the offers based on a consumer’s preferences or try to act as a consumer agent; instead, like some industry vertical sites, shopbots view their role as referral services (i.e., send the consumers to the merchant and get out of the way). Further, merchant listings are generally presented based on merchant willingness-to-pay, so consumers may feel like shopbots put merchant interests ahead of their own.

Why haven’t infomediaries emerged? I am struggling to answer this question. Some of the possible theories I’ve come up with:

· Infomediaries do exist but I’m not defining the term expansively enough.

· Infomediaries cannot convince consumers that they are trustworthy. In my experience, my clients would routinely start out saying that they wanted to protect their customers’ privacy, but inevitably they would, over time, look for ways to monetize their customers’ information. Further, companies usually cater to those who pay the bills; so any infomediary will inevitably be tempted to put merchants’ interests over consumers.

· Consumers’ privacy concerns are not strong enough that they need infomediaries. The empirical evidence here is sharply split. Consumers routinely say that privacy concerns inhibit their online actions, but consumer behavior routinely belies this. There are plenty of good reasons to use an infomediary beyond privacy protection, but perhaps this motivation is not as strong as Hagel predicted.

· There is no viable profitable business here (i.e., the economics simply don’t work).

· There is a market failure that prevents companies from entering the market. If we could find a market failure, would this support government intervention to sponsor the creation/operation of one or more infomediaries?

As you can see, I’m stuck. I ask for your help, and I’m opening comments on this post. (Unfortunately, to prevent comment spam, registration is required—sorry). Why do you think infomediaries have not arisen?

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