Social Lobbying: How Ratings and Reviews Could Change Politics

Holiday shopping is in full swing and, since I detest malls, I've been checking items off my list by shopping entirely online.  Whether I'm buying baubles or gadgets, one thing is consistent in my shopping habit:  I look for customer reviews.  I sort products by those that have the best ratings.  I want to know how others say items fit or feel.

When it comes to e-commerce and online shopping, ratings and reviews are fairly proven in terms of their widespread use. A study done in 2008 by Forrester Research found that, as of October 2008, almost half of US online adults read ratings and reviews at least once a month, which was doubled from 2007.  A more recent survey done by Brand Reputation in late 2009 found that 84% of consumers said they were more likely to check online for reviews prior to making a purchase compared to twelve months earlier.

This got me thinking about the way we shop, which really is just another way we make decisions.  I then started to wonder about how ratings and reviews could affect one of the most important decisions many of us make in our lives:  who we choose to vote for, based on how we expect them to perform.  The more I thought about it, the more I started to realize how many ways a broken political system could benefit from a concept that retailers bought into long ago.

1. Ratings and Reviews Put the Power in the End-User's Hands
Voting once every two or four years is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ensuring that an elected official will vote on legislation that you support.  If you think that just by voting for someone, your voice is being heard, you're mistaken.  When was the last time you wrote an email to your Congressman on an issue?  When was the last time you called your Senator to leave them a voicemail?  Guess what:  I had no idea you did that.  Odds are also very good that your Senator or Congressman didn't, either, unless one of his or her staffers placed the letter directly in front of them.

There may have been a time when phone calls and letter writing actually influenced Washington, when people stood in the street and talked to their neighbors and had strong ties within their community.  That time ended with the adoption of air conditioning and, later, personal computers, when families retreated indoors, left their front porches and yards, bought 52" plasma screen TVs and iMacs, and began living inside -- and online. In the meantime, someone is getting paid very, very well to be your voice in the Capitol.  That person is called a lobbyist. 

So how do you fight back?  You take your issue public.  Bloggers have been doing it for a few years now.  Our voices are very public and, typically, very extreme but that's usually the way to be noticed.  We may not influence everything an elected official does -- but we do often influence what he or she doesn't do, for the simple reason is that electeds can't get away with everything they used to.
Politicians come and go but one thing is consistent: they all have an ego, and they all want to know what is being said about them.  It's just been the case too often lately that the only people talking about elected officials are a very small slice of the actual voting-age population.  Ratings and reviews would allow Americans to collectively remind their elected officials exactly who they serve: the voters.

2. Ratings and Reviews Have a Low Barrier to Entry
Most people are simply not going to wake up in the morning, drink their coffee, and start a political blog.  And why should they?  I have a passing interest in shoes and clothing, but I have no interest in or authority to be writing a fashion blog.  But that doesn't mean I haven't taken five to ten minutes to review a pair of particularly uncomfortable flats I bought online at Old Navy.  If, while drinking your coffee one morning, you saw in your Facebook feed that a friend wrote a review of a Senator's stance on Don't Ask Don't Tell, you might be moved to do the same.  Then you would finish drinking your coffee and move on with the rest of your life. 

3. Ratings and Reviews Encourage Constructive Feedback and Change
Even though I was unhappy with my aforementioned shoes, it was mostly because they fit smaller than they should have.  Was I annoyed?  Yes.  But I didn't trash the shoes, or tell everyone to stop shopping at Old Navy -- after all, if I didn't like some of their products, I wouldn't shop there to begin with.  Instead, I offered a solution to future shoppers: buy one size larger than you normally would.

Sam Decker, former CMO of Austin-based ratings and reviews company Bazaarvoice and notable godfather of social marketing, wrote an article in 2007 called "Positives About Negative Product Reviews" in which he explained the effect of negative reviews on a product:
"Almost everyone describes looking for the negative comments to make sure they can live with any shortcomings in products they buy. We all know we don't live in a world of five-star products."
Decker goes on to talk about how, while sales of the iPod were wildly popular, most reviews mentioned the screen being easily scratched and recommended that buyers purchase a protective case.  Imagine that: a problem and a solution.  What would this sort of collaborative attitude do to our currently divisive, polarizing national conversation?  Change it entirely, or so we should hope.

That politicians have stopped listening to voters and started listening to lobbyists plays a huge part in the fact that the primary way we communicate our political views is by standing at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, screaming at each other, and hoping we're the loudest one in the room.

4. Ratings and Reviews Foster Authenticity
Voter apathy was rampant in the most recent midterm elections but it wasn't for lack of trying on the part of campaigns from both sides.  In a Politico article about a Women's Monitor poll of female Democratic voters just before the election, Alexander Burns wrote, "The information gap that emerged from the poll is clear: 44 percent of women in the poll agreed that 'it’s hard to get meaningful and accurate information.'"  Additionally, during an election year in which $4.2 billion dollars were spent on political TV advertising meant to deliver a message to voters, the Women's Monitor poll found that 53% of respondents said "they had no impression of their current member of Congress."

Perhaps this sentiment has something to do with what women consider to be "meaningful and accurate" information.  As our ways of consuming information change, so does our view of who is qualified to provide it.  For example, according to a survey of female US Internet users, consumer reviews are nearly 12 times more trusted than descriptions that come from manufacturers.

If we can't change the way we discuss and learn about politics, then nothing will ever change in a political process that everyone, no matter what side you're on, agrees is broken.  Could that be the way lobbyists and special interests want it?  To quote a notable Alaskan, if I may, "You betcha."

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