What’s completely screwed about this picture

So I got an email today from Forbes, with the subject “You are Important to Us”. It says this:

Dear Subscriber:

Forbes values you as a customer and your opinions are very important to us.  We are conducting a study and would like to include your opinions.

The survey will take about 10 minutes to complete and we think you’ll find it interesting and enjoyable. Your responses will be used for research purposes only and will be held in the strictest confidence.

Simply click on the link below to visit our survey.

Click here to take the survey [The link goes to a long address that begins http://forbes.puresendmail.com/print.]

Again, we thank you so much for participation.


Bruce Rogers, Chief Brand Officer – Forbes

You are receiving this email because you registered at Forbes.com LLC. and signed up to receive third party emails To manage your preferences or change your delivery address, please click here.

You may also email your opt-out request to privacy@forbes.net or send your request in the mail directly to:

Forbes.com LLC

Attn: Privacy Administrator
90 5th Ave. 6th Floor
New York, NY 10011

To review our privacy policy click here.

Copyright 2008 Forbes.com LLC TM

I thought, “Hey, I’m busy, but I like Forbes, and I’m inclined to cooperate, even if I hate most surveys and would rather relate to Forbes in a less one-sided and impersonal way. So I punched on “Click here to take the survey”.

The first step was one that asked me what my title was. I have several, but none of them are from the lexicon of corporate hierarchies. So, next to “other” I wrote “fellow”. Because that’s what I am, here at the Berkman Center. (I’m also Senior Editor of Linux Journal and President of my own small company, but I went with “fellow” because I get Forbes where I live near Berkman and not at my home office in California.)

The first survey page told me the thing would take about ten minutes. That’s a lot, but I thought, “Okay, I’m still game. Let’s see how fast we can make this.”

It was over in one second. Or however long it took for the survey server to send me to a page with the title “Thank You – InsightExpress.com”. Its entire contents were this:

Return to Your Originating Web Page

I hit the back button and it went nowhere. Then I clicked on the address in the email. That timed out. So did I.

This is the point at which one might be tempted to write to Bruce Rogers or the nameless  Privacy Administrator, but Forbes has gone out of its way here to avoid human contact (no email address for Bruce, a surface mail address for ATT:Privacy Administrator — both of which scream “WE ARE AVOIDING YOU. PLEASE COOPERATE.) But that would be weak and supplicating, and I have no interest in being either. I’d rather be the good Forbes subscriber that I’ve been for years and attempt to make constructive human contact instead.

I’ll do that three ways. First is with the headline above, plus links and other bait that might get the attention of Bruce Rogers or one of his factota. [Note: I posted this at 1:12pm, and Bruce responded personally at 1:56. Well done!] Second is with an email to some folks I know at Forbes. Third, and most importantly, I’ll try to explain the VRM angle on this.

VRM is Vendor Relationship Management. It’s how customers manage relationships with vendors. (Or with other individuals, or with organizations of any kind — such as churches or governments.)

Most vendors are familiar with CRM, for Customer Relationship Management. I can’t tell if a CRM system was involved in this little exchange, but a failure of this kind is certainly within the scope of CRM’s concerns. (To visit those, check out the CRM sites for SAP, Oracle, SalesForce, Amdocs and Microsoft, which are the top four companies in an $8+ billion business.)

Right now VRM is a $0 billion business. But in the long run it’ll be big, and it’ll improve the CRM business along with it, because it’ll give CRM something more substantial than mailing addresses to relate to.

A number of development communities are working on VRM solutions right now, but rather than talk about those I’ll just say what I’d like here. Not from Forbes, but from VRM developers. If Forbes or any CRM companies want to help with that, cool.

I would like a simple dashboard that tells me what I’m subscribed to and what I’m not — both for print publications such as Forbes and for email subscriptions of every kind. I would like to have global preferences that would govern how I relate to each of those publishers, and how they relate to me. For example, I would like to throw a switch that says “No” to all third party mailings, both to my font door and to my email addresses. When I establish a relationship with a new publisher, or publication, or supplier of any kind, I would like them all to know, as a matter of policy, that I don’t want them to waste their time, money and server cycles by sending me junk mail of any kind. And that I don’t appreciate having my own bandwidth, cycles, disk space, rods, cones and time wasted dealing with any of it. I might give a global or selective thumbs up to surveys, provided I also have a standard way to send error messages and other feedback to survey sources.

On the positive side, I would also like to open conduits through which productive interaction could take place with the publishers, authors and circulation officials whose “content” I pay to get. (And even those that I don’t pay.) I would like a simple, straightforward, universally understandable way to do this, across all “content providers”, so I don’t have to relate only inside each provider’s silo. (By the way, we’re already working on change-of-address, to pick just one subcategory of subscriber-publisher interaction that can be a pain in the butt for everybody. That last link is a working draft, by the way. More work is happening off-wiki.)

That’s just one part of what we’re doing at ProjectVRM. But it’s one I’d like the “content providers” and CRM folks out there to know about. Because it’s going to happen anyway, and I’d suggest getting interested, and perhaps also involved, sooner rather than later.


  1. Steve Bridger

    Thanks, Doc – this makes a lot of sense to me. I work a lot with not-for-profits (although I’d really rather call them ‘for impact’) and I’ve been encouraging them to be loyal to their donors (or rather lets call them ‘partners’), rather than expect the reverse.

    I’m pre-disposed to the wonderful work nfp’s do, but I’d rather they stopped interrupting me when, frankly, it’s inconvenient, and so therefore a waste of their valuable resources. However, I would welcome an interface where I could flag to causes when the time is right for me, and invite them to approach me with appeals for money, or my time, or influence (my network), or my activism. A piece of direct mail received just after I’ve extended my kitchen is a waste. Then again, if I have received an unexpected windfall, or inheritance… then I’d like them to know.

  2. Crosbie Fitch

    Step 1: Check the URLs that the junk mail wishes you to click on:


    Conclusion: This is not Forbes. This is probably someone else entirely, spamming everyone to harvest gullible Forbes subscribers. If it was Forbes they’d use their own domain (or they’re incompetent in which case that needs rectifying before they issue any surveys).

    Step 2: Do not click the link!

  3. Bruce Rogers

    I’m not avoiding you and would be happy to discuss your concern over our research project. You can contact me at brogers@forbes.net.

  4. Frymaster

    Well to start with, where you live and your home office are about 3,000 miles apart. That’s kinda screwed up, but you seem to make it work for you. 😉

    Then there’s the whole “You are important to us” claptrap. That’s like a bank claiming that they value all customers equally, regardless of the size of their account.


    If I had to place a bet, I’d say that your job title – Other: Fellow – was not the C-level identity they were looking to “study”. Cuz, honestly, Forbes doesn’t give a toss about your opinions, they care about your demography and your media consumption and buying habits. And, clearly, your lowly status as a teacher at this community college or whatever won’t generate data impressive enough to sell to freecreditreport.com or other world-class advertisers.

    I can’t remember where, but some website I read a while back said: Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.

    I guess that particular train has yet to stop at 90 5th Ave.

  5. Doc Searls

    Bruce, thanks for responding so fast. I’m emailing you now.

    Crosbie, puresendmail.com redirects to puresend.com, which lists Forbes as a client. Also, the email cleared two spam filters: Gmail’s and my own. I looked at the verbose header and it seemed legit.

    Frymaster, I’m spread thin, not screwed up. (Though our perspectives may differ.) My permanent address, also my office (which I don’t occupy most of the time these days) are in California. My working residence is here in Massachusetts. Linux Journal is another hat that I wear, and its headquarters are in Houston, although we’re a thoroughly virtual company, scattered all over the place. And I doubt Forbes’ survey was bumping me for my title. My guess is that something else went wrong. I don’t think the company or its contractor for this project are interested in alienating subscribers. Publishers can hardly afford to do that these days.

    What we’re dealing with here are a mix of old ways and new ways. Forbes needs our help, not a rebuke. That’s the spirit of this posting, anyway.

  6. Valeska O'Leary

    “You are important to us.” “Dear Subscriber:..”

    Though it’s a common old media approach, how about addressing subscribers by their real name to show how important they really are?

  7. Frymaster

    That was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, not snarky like it came off. No offense intended.

  8. Don Marti

    These surveys will stop when the advertisers stop paying attention to them. (The Mainstream business and IT media is based on doing a survey, putting the respondents’ lying answers in a PowerPoint deck, and then multiplying all the survey answerers by the number of Slashdot trolls who visited their last “Linux is not ready for the Enterprise” story.)

  9. Shava Nerad

    I got the same survey. I answered I was a CEO. I answered that my company had (I think it was) 0-9 employees. I got the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” screen you got.

    Hey, I’m only a *future* captain of industry (or its successors). But it did feel a bit abrupt and rude.

    I mean, geez, we just incorporated and got our first angel funding.

    Guess Forbes just isn’t Entrepreneur and wants us to know it? 🙂

  10. Mei Lin Fung

    YES, please – CRM, VRM vendors – how about getting ideas from the long suffering consumers and businesses who today are the hapless victims of a marketing campaign or event planner or corporate strategist – give us a chance to be constructive, you may be surprised how well we will respond.

    Making a shift to transparency and openness is not just good for democracy, it is good for business.

  11. Doc Searls

    VRM is actually a project started and carried out by long-suffering customers and businesses. Part of it started with The Cluetrain Manifesto, but there were multiple communities involved, in various parts of the world. These have been coming together, and the work is quite exciting. Check out ProjectVRM to find out more.

  12. Doc Searls


    I just got off the phone with Bruce, who is a good and gracious guy. In respect to the problems I experienced (Shava too), what we did was uncover a bug in the survey system, which they are fixing.

    While it’s true that Forbes was looking for responses from large companies, it’s also true that there are many ways to slice that interest, and many ways to characterize what’s being looked for.

    In my own case, it should be of interest to Forbes (and some of its surveys) that I play relevant roles at some large companies (and at one or two large universities); but that those roles are not illuminated by questions about title, or even by the number of employees at the organization(s).

    Anyway, Bruce is clearly interested in improving Forbes’ work here.

    And more conversations will ensue.

  13. Cam

    Your VRM dashboard request sounds like an intriguing project. Building a set of universal standards for user preferences that publishers request to capture from the user could be a powerful tool for all parties.

    If full disclosure were offered up front, (and if the data were not used for marketing) do you think it would be sleazy for the the data to be aggregated and sold to the publishers as a revenue model?

  14. Doc Searls


    I think anything is fine provided it’s opted for clearly and consciously by the individual, and at his or her discretion.

    The problem with selling data to publishers is the common motivation on the publishers’ side, which is to sell that data to advertisers who in turn spam the users. We want to get past that cycle.

    All suggestions welcome, however. 🙂

  15. Ruhbir

    no offense but its dashboard environment is not that cool..

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