Social design advice for Starbucks

Social design advice for Starbucks

Summary: Starbucks announced today it will begin a daily "Good Sheet" of news about politics, health care and other issues that it will distribute in its stores as a way to start conversations. According to a Starbucks executive quoted by The Motley Fool, the company is looking for "conversation starters.


Starbucks announced today it will begin a daily "Good Sheet" of news about politics, health care and other issues that it will distribute in its stores as a way to start conversations. According to a Starbucks executive quoted by The Motley Fool, the company is looking for "conversation starters." It is also looking at launching "discussion nights" in its stores. The company is ignoring its greatest assets.

Interesting ideas both, but they don't leverage the one thing about a Starbucks store that gets people talking: the staff. Granted, this experiment is paying for itself, as each issue of the sheet produced by Good magazine is paid for by an advertiser, but this is one of those marketing efforts that has the whole picture turned backwards. They are trying to relate information from outside the store to the experience in the store.

By contrast, I know several of the people at the local Starbucks ("my Starbucks" is how I refer to it) and many of them know my name, as well as the fact I need four shots of espresso several times a day. I'm loathe to admit it, but I can't remember most of the staff's names, even though I know about many of their kids, what they are studying in school or their interests, such as concerts we've both been to. If there was a way for these people to share their interests in the store, that would be a fantastic catalyst for conversations.

Starbucks already has one video screen installed in many stores, the iTunes screen that promotes its partnership with Apple, encouraging people to pull out their PC, iPod Touch or iPhone and buy the music that is playing in the store (see above right). When it isn't displaying song information, the one in the store I visit every day has video of happy Latino people picking and drying coffee beans or a Starbucks charity and careers video. None of these things is particularly engaging, but, at least, the iTunes service focuses on what's happening inside the store.

The Good Sheet experiment is aimed at getting people to treat the Starbucks store as a community hub. However, as this blog often demonstrates in spades, when you mix politics or other controversy with what visitors expect, you get a pretty mixed result. Sometimes, you get outright anger. Political issues, alone, could start arguments between people who previously kept to themselves as they got their coffee. I'm personally pretty cranky until after I leave Starbucks with my first four shots of the day.

The Good Sheet will certainly inject subjects into the customers' attention, but does Starbucks want to be the place you go to get riled up? If "yes," that's great, but if not—and it sure seems to me that people are trying to relax at Starbucks, for the most part—this isn't the way to "create community." And if they come to talk, they usually arrive with friends or meet them, and always have their own agendas.

A social network produced by the baristas, where they do the equivalent of what the neighborhood bulletin board that graces every Starbucks I've ever visited (see left), would be a better catalyst for conversation and engagement. In the photo here, you may be able to see that there are cards thanking the Starbucks for contributions to local fund-raising events, pictures of the barista picnic, including pictures of baristas and their dogs, as well as announcements of upcoming community events. Their names appear there—which, for someone with a bad memory for names and who is interested in talking about what people actually care about in their lives, is the opening to lots of conversations. At minimum, it keeps the baristas' names in front of customers, so that they will be more likely to reply with a name when greeted as they enter, which is the closest thing to actual social engagement a company could hope for.

Using something simple, like WordPress or Movable Type, Starbucks could create local digital displays that connect customers and staff, include pictures (imagine a barista taking a picture of their favorite customer and posting it—now you have customers talking among themselves) and local news and announcements that the staff introduce. It's more intimate than a topical issues sheet distributed from headquarters. Seeing "Joe and his dog" pictures on the social screen would remind customers of staff names and encourage meaningful local discussion between staff and customers. It's even better when a store can point to its work in the community with pictures, which Starbucks could easily get of the teams and schools they help with donations. And this is only possible at the local level.

Once this kind of a barista-powered social network is created (and, best of all, it is something that the staff would dive into, knowing the customer-centered people who work at Starbucks), the store could become the local nexus of discussion by including requests from local customers on screen, along the lines of the MeetUp solicitations we get in email: "Interested in talking about academics and fund-raising at St. Francis Cabrini School? Meet at this Starbucks on Saturday morning at 10 AM." This is a much more natural, locally oriented approach to building conversations, which are best started from the bottom up in this context, so that the company is merely facilitator and not seen as sponsor of discussions that some customers may not wish to be exposed to.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Mobility

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  • Daily Discussion Starters

    It's interesting how easy it is for huge organizations to start new activities. I tried to start a current events newsletter to promote discussion in classrooms, for more than a year, and finally I gave up because it didn't get any traction. Somebody at Starbucks wants to do this: it's done.

    Andy Pass
  • RE: Social design advice for Starbucks

    Hi Mitch! My name is Anali and I work on the Online and Interactive team at Starbucks. I loved your advice- thanks for sharing. I have to say great minds think alike because we already launched what you just recommended; a social network by and for the baristas. Check out Starbucks V2V ( It's a new social network we launched about community, volunteerism, and making each Starbucks location across the world the heart of the local neighborhood. We have a small user group right now but we are growing organically each day and actively taking user ideas for the site and improving it as we go. Check it out and let me know what you think! Anali
  • RE: Social design advice for Starbucks

    Anali, thanks for dropping by, and I am glad you took the
    criticism the way it is intended. I have spent some time on
    V2V, which goes after an intriguing angle on engagement.
    That's a topic/theme that requires a greater editorial effort
    than the typical social network, though I think that's how
    social stuff will grow, through focus provided by
    community organizers (ones with responsibility, pun
    intended, to Starbucks' customers in particular). I just
    shared some notes on that with someone else at Starbucks
    earlier today.

    I also have spent time on MyStarbucks. It was good to see
    that added automatically based on my previous login, but now I have three sites, or more,
    that I am supposed to interact with/through to engage with
    Starbucks. The big question is how to weave it all together.
    Mitch Ratcliffe
  • It makes a lot of sense

    It's long been a truism in the retail industry that the longer people stay in the store, the more they're likely to buy. Thus, a coffee shop (or chain thereof) that encourages conversation along with the morning coffee is likely to find itself with increased sales (disclaimer: I'm not a coffee drinker and rarely patronize Starbucks).

    Besides, anything that encourages people with divergent opinions to talk to each other is a good thing in my book (leads to more civility in the long run).
    John L. Ries
    • Lol...well...

      ...I appreciate your intent, but...I'm afraid it would just lead to more fights in the coffee shop! ;)
      • Might just show...

        ...that hopelessly deluded idiots are people too and that some of them are even fun to argue with. Might even show that some of them are people you're already friends with.
        John L. Ries
  • Well said!! Plus a couple ideas for Howie....

    I'm pretty sure Howie's politics and mine are not in synch. And he may find that his tick off over 50% of America...who can find other coffee shops to get their drink at.

    The bottom line: I don't go to SBUX to hear leftist propaganda - I go there to get a decent coffee, a comfortable chair, and use the wireless. Try making people more comfortable and improving that value proposition, rather than putting them off with your poor music selection and then injecting political diatribe into it!

    My suggestions:
    1) More comfy chairs - there are usual several and a couch or two...but then a whole bunch of wooden. If you're not the first one there...sorry, you just have to get a sore bottom...or you leave sooner. More comfy (but not sinkhole) chairs would be a big plus!

    2) the wireless deal with TMobile: ok, I know nothing is free...if I come in and *don't* buy a drink, go ahead and charge me...but if I *do* you have to charge me $6/hr to use TMobile? Your drinks aren't the cheapest. Let me work my email for 40 minutes while I drink my $4 latte - I'll probably come more often and have more lattes if I'm not also paying $6 for the wireless when I come.