Social design advice for Starbucks

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.