How Starbucks Builds Meaningful Customer Engagement via Social Media

Comedian Lewis Black jokes about walking out of a Starbucks and seeing another Starbucks right across the street. Yes,…
Contributing Editor for Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur
April 01, 2010

Comedian Lewis Black jokes about walking out of a Starbucks and seeing another Starbucks right across the street. Yes, Starbucks has developed an incredible brand presence wherever it has chosen to set up shop--across the country, around the world, on the web, and in just about every social media venue on the internet, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even via internally "owned" properties such as MyStarbucksIdea.com. Starbucks' ability to engage community and foster customer loyalty is nearly unmatched.

To discover the company's secret, I recently attended a conference in San Diego, where Starbucks' social media team presented the 10 philosophical precepts that drive the company's social media efforts:

1. It's about relationships, not marketing.
Building meaningful relationships is key. Starbucks' marketing efforts focus less on traditional marketing and more on giving texture to the brand in fun, engaging formats:

  • Last year Starbucks took advantage of April Fool's Day by announcing that it had cracked the code for delivering fresh, hot brewed coffee through the internet tubes and a USB plug-and-pour device.
  • With Starbucks Mobile App, customers can enter their Starbucks card number to transform their iPhone into their Starbucks card. They're then able to check their balance, enjoy rewards like free coffee refills and two hours of free Wi-Fi per day, and find the nearest Starbucks. In some markets, you can even use your phone to pay for your order!

2. Social media fits within a larger digital strategy.
At Starbucks, social media is not a separate and distinct entity. Various departments collaborate online and offline to develop and implement plans designed to fully engage the community.

One such effort was Starbucks' Love Project. Starbucks teamed up with several groups--including Playing for Change, Dave Matthews Band, John Legend and U2--to create the "All You Need Is Love CD." With every $15 purchase at participating Starbucks locations, customers received a free CD and an invitation to participate in a mass sing-along by uploading their own video to StarbucksLoveProject.com, which thousands of people did. One dollar from the sale of every CD was donated to the Global Fund to Help Fight AIDS in Africa. Starbucks customers could also create a Love Drawing online and Starbucks would contribute an additional five cents per drawing to the fund for the first 1 million drawings submitted.

Starbucks could have simply offered the CD for sale, but it gave the project more dimension via the website, mass sing-along, Love Drawings, and special Love Drawing cups for sale in the store.

3. Make it clear where to start.
Starbucks believes you need to focus where customers start so people know where to find you on various social media venues. As a result, all of the company's vanity URLs contain the brand name "Starbucks" (Facebook.com/starbucks, Twitter.com/starbucks, www.YouTube.com/starbucks, and so on). For each vertical (jobs, deals and so on), Starbucks launches a separate account, such as Twitter.com/starbucksJobs, which focuses exclusively on generating leads for jobs at Starbucks.

4. Look around the corners.
Starbucks may be full of surprises, but the company does not like to be surprised. Starbucks looks around the corner to attend to all the little details and address any issues that may arise. The company looks ahead to see how customers will reach the page, how they will navigate the site, and how a customer's experience may change five months from now. It also tries to anticipate and plan for incidents in which someone doesn't like a particular product or project and takes them to task for it. In other words, the company plans for all scenarios.

5. Be authentic.
Rule No. 1 in social media is to be genuine and transparent, so this precept is not breaking any new ground. What is crucial here specifically for Starbucks is that they remain true to the brand--they started with a coffeehouse culture, so the social media team is expected to be coffeehouse-like when engaging through social media.

6. Build coalitions.
Internally, collaboration is key in inventing, planning and executing any projects or campaigns. Every department--including legal, the call center, communications, PR, managers and executives--must be on board. Starbucks' digital strategy team couldn't have pulled off the
Help Haiti campaign and leverage it via social media without coalitions in place throughout the company. The magic of social media is that you can recognize the opportunity quickly. The challenge is in responding just as quickly. Without a coordinated effort and buy-in, you quickly lose momentum.

7. If it doesn't matter on Twitter, it doesn't matter.
To see what's going on with your brand in real time, plug in to Twitter, says Starbucks' digital media team, where things tend to go viral fastest. Real-time monitoring increases your response time to what people are saying about your brand, negative or positive. In addition, it provides early notice of any opportunities that arise--any given second, any given day.

8. Focus on the four responses.
Whenever Starbucks identifies a problem or opportunity, it responds in one or more of the following four ways:

  • Amplify: As Starbucks identifies trends or something its customers seem to like, Starbucks amplifies whatever it is to help bring it to the surface and increase visibility and enthusiasm.
  • Context-ify: Back in 2004, an e-mail was going around claiming that Starbucks had refused to supply free product to GIs serving in Iraq. Many people believed it, got pretty angry and forwarded the message to all their friends. Unfortunately, the message was false. By context-ifying the message, Starbucks revealed the other side of the story--check it out yourself on snopes.com.
  • Change: If it's broke, fix it. MyStarbucksIdea.com actively solicits constructive criticism and ideas to improve its business and gather suggestions for products, services and projects.
  • Ignore: You gotta respond? No, sometimes it's best to ignore, especially when it appears you're being provoked into a response or fight. It's easier to ignore things when you can put them into their proper context; for example, if your primary critics are a Facebook Group with 82 members out of the 400 million-plus Facebook accounts, you have little to worry about.

9. Take chances, but "be mostly right."
Starbucks' social media team was scrappy, savvy and confident from the very beginning. It succeeded by asking for forgiveness, not permission, and by "being mostly right." If you're transparent and do mostly right, the social media space is very forgiving, as is senior management within your own company.

10. An economic meltdown is a terrible thing to waste.
When things are going down, appetite for trying something new and different, like social media, grows. In 2008, Starbucks' stock price was headed downhill. Since then, it's on the rebound. The company started its social media campaigning when things were down, and while the social media team cannot take credit for the upswing in the stock price since social media was launched, it certainly hasn't hurt the brand.

Mikal E. Belicove is an Entrepreneur magazine columnist and business strategist specializing in content development, market analysis, and messaging/positioning for individuals and businesses of all sizes. Belicove's latest book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Facebook, will be available in June 2010, while his current title--2009 Internet Directory: Web 2.0 Edition--is available now at fine booksellers everywhere. You can read Belicove's monthly column on social media marketing and website promotion, management, usability, and design in Entrepreneur magazine. When he is not working, Belicove can be found musing about the world on his blog, Belicove.com.

Contributing Editor for Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur