I've developed a bad habit.  Whenever I'm asked for marketing information and then given one of those checkboxes which allows me to specify that I don't want anybody to contact me, I click it so that nobody will contact me.  It's an understandable reaction, I think, to the overwhelming amount of spam in my inbox and junk mail in my snailmailbox, but I have come to realize, from the other side of the problem, someof the drawbacks.

For instance, we're giving away free VeriTest application testing for ISVs.  If you're thinking of joining the Microsoft Partner Program, or you're just interested in getting and using the .NET Connected logo, this is a terrific deal - up to $1200 in savings, no strings attached.  You don't have to agree to do anything or use anything or pay Microsoft anything.  The test is just out-and-out free, yours for the asking.

So how can I let ISVs know that the offer is available?  Well, we had thousands of ISVs sign up for a Windows Server 2003 readiness program in the last year, and since one of the tests is the “Verified for Windows Server 2003” test, it's a natural match.  You'd think that I could just send them mail saying, “Hey, if you want it, you can have this free test.”  The problem is that the vast majority of them - just as I would have - opted out.  So I can't contact them at all, even though a significant percentage of them would be likely to be interested.  (Microsoft is VERY stringent about protecting customer privacy; we employees are held accountable for adhering absolutely to expressed customer privacy preferences.  Which is just as it should be, IMO.)

Now, we corporate customer-facing folks have created this problem for ourselves, in a number of ways.  First, lazy marketers have sent out gobs of irrelevant information to people who simply don't care about it, making the signal-to-noise ratio a lot worse than it had to be.  Then there are a bunch of companies/people who don't give you any reasonable way to opt out if you've ever acidentally opted in.  (I once closed an email account because it was being regularly maxed out by email I didn't want from TheStreet.com, who were sending it from a variety of email addresses I didn't at the time have a good way to filter, and who didn't give me any way to turn off the flow...)  But as those of us at the receiving end choose to simply turn off the flow, we need to be aware that we are shutting off the signal at the same time we shut down the noise.

Don't you think there'd be a market for an intelligent opt-in filter which sent you information on only things you actually did want to hear about?  We could do collaborative filtering and personalized ratings. (In the corner of every mail could be a scale from 0-10 on aptness, which would affect both the reputation of the sender and which things you got sent in the future.)  It's the next logical step beyond spam filters, in that it also filters legitimate mail, in both a forward-it-to-people-who-are-actually-interested way and a block-it-for-people-who-don't-want-it way.  (I, for instance, definitely want to opt in on any mail Adobe sends out offering free copies of Photoshop.  I'll also happily accept sale notices from Title 9 Sports and Team Estrogen.  But AT&T can take me off of all of their lists, as I'm so turned off by the incessant phone calls and junk mail that I'll never sign up for anything they ever offer me again - even when they called the other night to offer me 30 minutes a month of free long distance, no fees, I said no, just on principle.)

In the short term, that leads to the following question: what kind of communications channel would you want Microsoft to use to let you know of things you'd actually care about?  If there were a newsletter or a program you could sign up for that sent you only stuff you might actually be interested in, would you opt in?  If not, is it because we couldn't offer anything you'd be interested in, or just because you're already so overwhelmed by communication?  (And if that's true, what the heck are you doing reading a blog?)