Survey Says…

Can idea-generation software designed to help companies solicit consumer feedback be of use in the political realm? Recently, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vermont gubernatorial candidate Sam Young and the former Republican challenger for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, Jeff Crank, decided to find out.

The software used by all three, IdeaScale, is from Seattle-based Survey Analytics, one of a handful of companies using a crowd-sourced feedback model that mixes social networking and innovation software. It allows marketers to gather feedback and suggestions, and users to vote on which consumer-generated ideas and/or questions they feel most strongly about — much as they do on sites like digg.com. In the best of all worlds, this feedback helps drive innovation and change.

Perhaps the best-known example of this new CRM tool is Starbucks’ mystarbucks- idea.force.com Web site, launched last March with software from Salesforce.com. The Web site allows users to contribute ideas and vote on the popularity of other ideas, and then tells them about any changes made as a result of the suggestions. When customers, for instance, asked Starbucks to do something about coffee spilling from the sipping hole on travel lids, in April the company introduced green “splash sticks” (basically, plastic plugs that could be put temporarily into the holes). Users found out about the response by clicking on the site’s “see” link, one of four options, which took them to a page explaining that splash sticks would be rolled out nationally. (The other tabs are “share,” “vote” and “discuss.”)

According to Josh Bernoff, vp and principal analyst at Forrester Research, when politicians use the Internet, the flow of communication tends to be more one way. That’s because candidates often limit the medium to the raising of money, energizing their base and recruiting new supporters, he says. “The question for politicians is, are your supporters just a sounding board to get your ideas out there or are you actually interested in listening ?” Bernoff says. “You have to have the confidence to say, ‘Yes, this is a good idea worth looking into,’ or the confidence to say, ‘Yes, it’s a good idea, but I’m not going to do it.’ Most companies don’t have the confidence to do this, either.”

Some digital experts, such as Andrew Rasiej, founder of personaldemocracyforum.com, a Web site about the intersection of politics and technology, and co-founder of the blog techpresident.com, say it’s only a matter of time before innovations in the commercial world become integrated into how society is governed. “Open-source legislative wiki’s like Politicopia already exist. It’s only natural crowd-sourcing models identifying the best ideas in civic life will follow,” Rasiej says.

While Salesforce.com has yet to have any political groups or politicians try its software, comments on technology blogs and word of mouth led a handful of politicians and groups to IdeaScale, which Survey Analytics launched in April. (The company has also worked with clients including Microsoft, Choice Hotels and Unisource, maker of the packaging for Dell computers.)

The first political group to utilize IdeaScale was Netroots Nation, an online community that focuses on using technology to influence public debate and inspire action. It also sponsors a national offline convention each year for online political activists and bloggers. The group used the software to generate the questions used in a speaking event at its recent convention in July, featuring Pelosi.

Gina Cooper, executive director of Netroots Nation, first contacted IdeaScale earlier that same month. Within a day, a separate url called askthespeaker.org went up online. Netroots asked for questions by sending notices to more than 3,000 members on its mailing list. Also, to engage the public at large, it posted information about the call for questions to sites like DailyKos.com, huffingtonpost.com and Townhall.com.

(In 2007, when the convention featured seven out of the then-eight presidential candidates, all questions were submitted by e-mail. Organizers had considered monitoring blog postings as well, but found it an inefficient way to create queries.)

Users had 10 days to submit queries or vote on the ideas of others. Within three days there were approximately 500 responses. By the end of 10 days, Netroots received a total of 269 specific questions and 527 comments. In the end, Pelosi was asked five of the questions. Three had been voted to the top of the list by users: “Why is impeachment [of George W. Bush] off the table?”; “Why are Karl Rove and others being allowed to ignore subpoenas by House committees?”; and “Would Congress pass a law providing incentives for small donors to give money to political candidates?” Netroots moderators synthesized similar topics into the two remaining questions.

“As opposed to questions being asked by the person closest to the microphone, it provided a more democratic process by having people submit [them] and vote on what they most wanted answers to,” says Karina Newton, Pelosi’s director of new media. “IdeaScale allowed for a direct and transparent interaction. The questions that were ultimately asked came from the concerns and priorities voted upon by anybody who wanted to take part.”

Political blogger Jeffrey Feldman, author of Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation and Win Elections, who helped summarize some of the queries submitted for the event, sees positive and negative aspects to software like IdeaScale. For instance, he says, political organizers with a large e-mail list of, say, 1,000 people can beat the system by voting an issue to the top.

“A well-organized group of people can manipulate a voting system in order to make something appear popular,” notes Feldman. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. It just doesn’t mean that issue is on the broad range of minds at that particular moment.” One upside, he adds, “is a very immediate feedback that bloggers love.”

Crank, the former Republican primary challenger for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, began using IdeaScale in June after learning about it from his PR firm’s Web-development team. (When Crank lost the Republican primary election in August, the page was taken down.) His former deputy campaign manager, Amber Glus, says IdeaScale was “an easy and cost-effective way to put ideas out there for the public to comment on. … The ideas really shaped our race.”

At the time Crank began using IdeaScale, his campaign, as part of his platform, had launched a plan to cut federal spending by 20 percent over the next 10 years. What Crank wanted was suggestions from Colorado voters on how best to accomplish that task. The Crank team sent e-mails to 6,000 people. Seventy posted responses on his IdeaScale page, which also had a section where voters could ask questions and get responses. The questions and answers were visible to all users.

Political wannabe Sam Young, a 30-year-old Web developer running as an independent for governor of Vermont, created his IdeaScale site, vermontvotes.net, to not only get new votes, but because he particularly wanted to target like-minded Vermont voters in his age demographic for what he calls “peer-to-peer” politics. “You can think of [the site] as an Internet-based focus group,” Young says. “My generation is used to interacting with the media and what we want to do with our democracy is have it interact with us and have it respond to us. … A number of companies are marketing in this way, so why shouldn’t we be able to market politics this way?”

But while Young thinks younger Vermont voters will find his use of idea-generation software appealing (especially given that in Vermont roughly everyone under 35 is on Facebook, according to Young), so far the response pales in comparison to his enthusiasm for the tool. He launched his IdeaScale page in July and is quick to admit that it has not “gotten a ton of interest so far.” His strong support of “quality, high-speed Internet throughout Vermont,” for example, is an issue just 23 users voted to the top.

Young says his decision to include the need for a public transportation system in Vermont as part of his platform came directly from suggestions voters made on his IdeaScale page. “We can collect and pool these ideas in a coherent way so we can get to the heart of what are the most important ideas to focus on first,” Young says.

Some say idea-generation software can be risky business for politicians. There are those, for instance, who may not find it politically prudent to suggest they’d make changes based on user input. Political blogger Feldman, for one, thinks politicians are likely to take a cautious approach to such software because questions or issues that a politician doesn’t want to deal with could be voted to the top.

“The biggest concern is losing control and being associated politically with that moment when control is lost,” says Feldman. “You’ll see politicians looking for ways to be involved without it being real close to them. [Netroots] had a lot of enthusiasm from Speaker Pelosi’s office, but this was not something that was set up on her Web site. She was distanced from it.”

Dan Burton, svp for global public policy at Salesforce.com, says politicians who view this type of tool as another opportunity for constituents to criticize their policies are missing the point. He sees no harm in software that allows constituents to vote on the best suggestions; if politicians don’t like the suggestions, he says, they can simply tell their constituents why not. The real danger for politicians, Burton adds, is not responding to their constituents at all.

“If you put this up as a public relations effort, and people send you all these ideas and you don’t respond to them, you make your situation worse,” Burton says. “If this is going to be successful, you have to have a thoughtful way to analyze, digest and respond.”

While Salesforce.com currently has no political clients, Burton says it’s just a matter of time before campaigns start paying attention to the software’s potential. “This is a collaborative tool that [can] change the dynamics between a campaign and its constituents,” he notes. “A campaign can’t respond to a million individual e-mails, but a campaign can engage collaboratively with a million people who are sharing ideas.”

Adweek contributing writer Wendy Melillo is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.