Starbucks wants your ideas

Starbucks launched a new 'social networking' site last week that lets customers suggest ideas for ways the company can improve its offerings

In addition, because Ideas is an on-demand service, Starbucks was able to roll out the site quickly. "It was pretty rapid fire," she said.

Starbucks did quite a bit of customization to the offering, mainly around the user interface, Wheeler said. "It was really around infusing [Cascading Style Sheets] into the application itself," she said. "We have pretty specific standards for our online look and feel."

Starbucks has identified 40 internal "Idea Partners" to monitor the site. They can access software tools that let them analyze the comments and ideas on the site by running queries, using filters and running reports, Wheeler said. They can also add, modify and delete content on the site.

The Idea Partners are then tasked with choosing ideas suggested on the site and working internally to recommend ways the company might implement them. Already one of the Idea Partners has posted a note on top of the first idea saying that the company has moved the idea into a review process and will update users on progress in the "Ideas in Action" section of the Web site.

Dell was one of the first customers of the Ideas service, using it to launch Ideastorm. That site uses a "status" bar under individual posts to alert visitors about whether Dell is considering or actually implementing the idea.

Creating such customer facing Web sites can be a way for a company to try to control customer comments online. "What companies are recognizing is that if people are out there blogging about them, they want to be a part of the action so they can see what's going on," said Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst at Nucleus Research.

In Starbucks' case, the new site can help it put a more positive spin on sites like I Hate Starbucks, a forum where customers post negative comments about the coffee company, Wettemann said. Instead of simply ranting on a site like that, a customer can make a positive suggestion on My Starbucks Idea and the company can consider implementing it.

However, companies won't want to simply delete negative comments on their own sites because customers won't be apt to participate if they don't see it as an open environment, she said. In addition, companies that create such sites must be committed to following up on them. "If there's criticism on the site and it's not dealt with effectively, this can be more of a problem than a help," she said. "If you give someone a megaphone and then you turn it off, you haven't done any favors."

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