Is customer voting a great engagement strategy? Or a risky gamble that could lead to a new Mountain Dew flavor called “Diabeetus” or a Slovakian bridge named Chuck Norris?

Marketing campaigns that ask consumers to vote — to name and select products, choose policies, or identify winners — are both powerful and potentially tricky, says Professor Tami Kim at the Darden School of Business. Kim teamed up with researchers from Harvard on eight experiments exploring the risks of voting. “With the rise of digital platforms, companies can get in touch with consumers more frequently, but many companies don’t realize the way [interactions like voting] can backfire and become PR disasters,” Kim says.

Case in point, the $287 million polar research ship, which the British public overwhelmingly voted to name “Boaty McBoatface.” (The government subsequently overruled the choice and christened the vessel the R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough.) Similarly, Mountain Dew’s 2012 “Dub the Dew” campaign was yanked after its voting leaderboard filled with unsavory options. The Slovakian government nixed the action-hero moniker and named its bridge the Freedom Cycling Bridge.

When Customers Weigh In

Increasingly, companies are using voting to engage customers and create buzz. When it goes smoothly, voting can be powerful. It can spark innovation, lower product development costs by clarifying consumer preference, and increase speed to market. Studies have shown that consumers feel more connection and ownership of products they help create or endorse. Through its Ideas program, for instance, LEGO has increased innovation and sales by allowing customer vote to determine which user-created designs will become new kits. Apparel and décor retailer Threadless determines most of its product offering via consumer vote, a move that’s created distinctive brand identity.

Promises Made

Yet voting comes with baggage, Kim says, because being given a vote triggers a “predictable set of beliefs about the way the voting process should unfold.” She identified three implicit beliefs that arise from voting: consumers want their vote to be counted (representation); for companies to honor the outcome even if unexpected (non-suppression); and for companies not to revoke the right to vote once they’ve extended it (consistency.) “Consumers are transferring expectations about the American ideals of the political process into the consumption domain,” Kim notes.

Not only do consumers make these assumptions, they feel strongly about them. Voting “tends to activate a stronger set of expectations” versus soliciting feedback, she notes. Companies need to be aware of these “implicit promises” they might not otherwise realize they’re making — and calculate whether they can reasonably uphold them, Kim observes, since the literature shows that “negative effects of breaking promises are far larger than the positive effects of exceeding promises.”

Rock the Vote

So how can companies use voting effectively, according to Kim? They should uphold three principles:

Representation: Consumers give feedback freely without necessarily expecting companies to act on their suggestions, but they expect their vote to be reflected in the final decision. While it may seem that reducing the weight of consumers’ votes is a smart way to pre-empt undesirable outcomes, Kim’s research shows that consumers don’t see it that way. She conducted experiments on the SuperBowl MVP choice, for which NFL policy is to count fan votes at only 20 percent weight versus professional sportswriters, whose votes carry 80 percent weight. She found that the underweighting may be “generat[ing] more ill will than never offering fans the option to vote for any percentage.” In this case, a nonbinding opinion poll might be a better technique than a vote.

Non-Suppression: Consumers want the results of their votes honored, even if the outcome is unexpected. When the U.K.’s National Environmental Research Council ditched “Boaty” for Attenborough, the British public was irked and vocal. (In a later concession, a yellow research submersible was crowned “Boaty McBoatface.”) However, Kim and colleagues showed that voters would be okay with an organization overruling a grossly out-of-line “unacceptable outcome,” such as naming the research boat after Vladimir Putin. Before they offer a vote, companies should consider how high-stakes the issue is (such as naming a $287 million boat) and whether they are truly willing to listen to consumers no matter what. Structuring a vote as a chance to pick only among multiple, acceptable options — vs. allowing write-in choices — may be a safer way to go.

Consistency: If you give consumers a vote on a significant matter, be prepared to continue to offer that choice in perpetuity — or potentially damage your brand. In this case, empowerment becomes entitlement. In 2012, Facebook revoked its policy of allowing users to vote on company decisions, setting off a wave of resentment. “You care about user democracy? Hardly,” wrote one, while another predicted, “Your choice to ignore the clear will of the users will be your downfall.” According to Kim, the Seattle Sounders — a major league soccer franchise that allows fans to vote on whether or not to fire the general manager — has committed to offering that vote because it would significantly damage the customer relationship to revoke it.

Making consumers feel empowered can be a potent form of engagement, but that empowerment is best served with a healthy dose of expectation-setting. Savvy organizations will take pains to be aware of — and beware — the implicit promises they might not know they’re making.

Tami Kim co-authored “Procedural Justice and the Risks of Consumer Voting,” forthcoming at Management Science, with Leslie K. John of Harvard Business School, Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School.

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About the Expert

Tami Kim

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Kim’s research delves into firm transparency, consumer empowerment and implicit contracts, with special interest in interpersonal relationships in the digital age. Not only has her work been published in leading academic journals, it has also been featured in media outlets including Harvard Business ReviewThe New York TimesThe Washington Post and The Atlantic.

Kim holds an A.B. in government from Harvard College and a doctorate of business administration in marketing from Harvard Business School, where she received the Wyss Award for Excellence in Doctoral Research and the HBS Dean’s Award.

A.B., Harvard College; DBA, Harvard Business School