We’ve been customers of 37signals – users of their fine Basecamp project management system – for almost four years, which is almost as long as it’s been around. One thing I’ve always liked about Basecamp, and a big part of why I’ve been willing to pay fifty bucks a month for so long now, is the fact that they don’t market to my clients. I like using an unbranded URL, in my case needmore.clientsection.com. And I like the fact that nowhere on the screen is a pitch for their product. This is very important to me, because I don’t want my clients to be distracted by anything while getting a project done.

Unfortunately, this all changed out of the blue a few days ago. With no notice, 37signals announced that they were changing their policy, and that over time all plans would use the same branded URL, and as far as I could tell, they were going to advertise their product in my page footer. In fact, until this change, there was a reassuring message in the footer, beside the link to their product, informing me that this footer would not be shown to my clients. That message is now gone.

Here is some of the reasoning behind this change, according to 37signals.

Initially we thought it would be important to hide the Basecamp brand name because, at the time, we (37signals) were still primarily a web design company. Basecamp was just a side project back then. We worried that competing web design firms would hesitate to use our Basecamp product if they thought their clients could easily trace Basecamp back to 37signals — a company that also designed web sites.

Would these web design companies think we’d use Basecamp as a conduit to pitch their clients on our own web design services? We’d never do that, and never did, but we wanted to do everything we could to assure them we weren’t interested in selling their clients on competing web development services. Hiding the “Basecamp” brand name and basecamphq.com domain name was the best way we could think of to shield 37signals from their clients.

They also sneak in a confession of what I had suspected right away:

…the brand name “Basecamp” will appear in a few places it didn’t before. A small Basecamp logo will also be visible to all users at the bottom of the screen.

While I appreciate an explanation, I respectfully disagree. In fact, it had never occurred to me that 37signals would try to steal our clients, not at all. Rather, I appreciated that since I was willing to pay for this service, they were willing to forego advertising to my clients in any way at all. It’s not about their design services, it’s about the impression that our customers were using software that was running on our server (though it wasn’t), provided by and supported by us (which it was). If one of our clients has a problem with Basecamp, they don’t go to 37signals, they come to us.

Over the years, we’ve spent a hell of a lot of time explaining why they couldn’t respond by email to a message, for example, while 37signals insisted that this wasn’t a problem. It was, it was a huge problem (since remedied, after years of pestering by their users), but 37signals didn’t know how bad the situation was because they don’t support the product, as far as our clients are concerned.

That is why we resent this change in policy. Basecamp is the type of system that you invest lots of time and effort in, over time. It runs on someone else’s servers, so you trust them to behave in a reasonable manner, and hopefully keep the general direction and policy of the service intact. This strikes me as a fairly big change in that direction and policy. I understand that things change, but not only were customers provided no advance notice, but none of their blogs nor help forums mention the change. It is only a notice that was shown to me when I logged in one day, and now it’s gone. While writing this post, I had difficulty even finding their original information to reference. I think this betrays the fact that they realize this isn’t a very cool thing to do, and they feel a bit guilty.

If 37signals really did care what their users thought about this change, they would have posted the message on their blog, or on their forum. They would invite discussion, rather than simply provide an email address for comments. They might have suggested the change beforehand, and asked for feedback from their loyal customers. They did none of these things, and I suspect it’s because they know people are going to be unhappy about it.

This is no way to treat your customers.