by Peggy Robin
Yesterday I received an email from one of our Cleveland Park restaurants --I’m reluctant to name it for reasons I will soon make clear-- urging me to vote for it in Washingtonian Magazine’s readers’ poll of the Best of Washington. (To vote, scroll down the page to click on the Survey Monkey box.)
By emailing its customers the link to the survey, along with instructions about how they should vote, you could say that the restaurant was engaged in a form of ballot stuffing. And that’s why I’m not naming the restaurant -- because I like it and don’t really want to accuse the owners of trying to rig the votes. Besides, I’m not really prepared to say that’s what they’re doing by sending out a mass email. I’m going back and forth over this thing in my mind. On the one hand, there the “everybody does it” argument. If a restaurant hopes to win in any category, it’s got to make sure, first of all, that its fans are aware that the Washingtonian is running this poll, and second, get them to realize how important it is to the restaurant for customers to click on the link and vote. I can see that any restaurateur would want its customers to do that much for it. They’re not bribing you to vote for them. And even if they were, it’s just a restaurant poll. This isn’t an election for public office; it’s a vote designed to get magazine readers engaged in a topic and sell more copies of the issue that comes out with the results.
On the other hand…. A) An election’s an election, and the winner shouldn’t be the one that cooks up the best email campaign to produce votes; it should be the restaurant that Washingtonians really like best in each category. And B) You know that any restaurant with the technology and marketing strategy to concoct an email campaign to get its legitimate customers to vote very likely has the technology to create email addresses and set them to vote, too. There’s nothing to prevent fake voters from flooding the survey with votes. (Does this sound like an argument for voter ID? No, but it does make a case for voter registration, and one person, one vote.)
Am I taking this silly survey way too seriously? Possibly …. although I imagine for restaurants, there’s a serious financial bonus to coming out on top, both in terms of a short-term surge in patronage, and over the longer haul, whenever patrons do a Google search in that category. Winning the readers' choice award could be worth more than a Yelp-load of 5-star reviews, or full pages of display advertising.
So here’s my dilemma: Should I vote for that restaurant as the best in its category? I do like it, and I do want to support our neighborhood restaurants. I just don't think it's the best in the city, in all honesty. The restaurant that I consider the best, however, hasn’t called upon me to support it with my vote. I’m thinking of the good that might come of a surge in popularity if this Cleveland Park restaurant tops the list. It could well make the difference between prospering in its current location, or packing up and moving out ... as so many of our restaurant have done in the past few weeks and months. What to do, what to do?
Well, readers…here’s what I decided. I went ahead and voted for it, and then I posted the link to the Washingtonian survey here, without telling you what restaurant it is, so that you, too, can vote for whatever you think is the most deserving in each category, without being influenced by any customer email campaigns or nudges from anyone with a vested interest in the outcome.
I will leave it up to each of you to weigh the various factors --your sense of loyalty to the neighborhood, or to this or that restaurant, the urge to vote your conscience, or your tastebuds -- and then make up your own minds and vote accordingly.
One final note: It may be that different voting categories that come up in the poll depend on when you vote and/or how many times you vote. I discovered this after I first sent the poll link to some friends, one of whom reported that one of the categories that came up was “favorite bookstore” while another said she did not see the bookstore category but did get to vote on “favorite local winery” (which was not on my voting list).