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.
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