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

Think Starbucks should offer free Wi-Fi in its shops? Want a more comfortable chair to sit in while sipping your latte? Now you can tell the coffee giant exactly what you think, and if enough people agree with you, Starbucks might just do it.

Last week in the US, Starbucks launched a Web site that lets anyone post ideas about how the struggling coffee maker can improve its offerings. Visitors to the site can vote on ideas and also add comments.

The number one idea so far, based on votes and comments, is that Starbucks should offer customers a free coffee after they've purchased a certain number of drinks. On Wednesday, the idea had 394 comments and over 31,000 points (each vote cast counts for 10 points). Second in popularity is free Wi-Fi in the coffee shops.

The launch of the site puts Starbucks at the forefront of a potentially growing trend of companies using social-networking applications to open the lines of communication with customers. While it's more common for companies to use services like blogs and social networking internally for employee communication, some are beginning to use such tools in external applications.

A recent survey conducted by ChangeWave Research found that 24 per cent of companies polled said their company already uses Web 2.0 social software including wikis, blogs and social networking. ChangeWave surveyed 2,081 companies.

Respondents said that the main reasons they're using the tools are for internal employee collaboration and to increase efficiency and productivity. However, when asked how they planned to use Web 2.0 applications in the future, the companies said they would do so in order to improve external customer service and support, increase external brand awareness and loyalty, and increase sales of products and services, ChangeWave said. That indicates that companies expect to deploy more customer-facing Web 2.0 applications in the future.

Starbucks decided to launch its new site as a way to extend the dialog it has with customers in its shops online, said Alexandra Wheeler, director of digital strategy for Starbucks. Her team only began working on the site at the start of this year.

Called My Starbucks Idea, the site is built on a hosted offering called Ideas from "In looking at the space, Salesforce is really the technology provider that had the application and on-demand software service that came closest to what we were looking for," she said. Starbucks already uses other services internally so it was natural to work with the company on this application, Wheeler said.

Page Break

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."