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Starbucks Gets Web 2.0 Religion, but Can It Convert Nonbelievers?

New Blog, Social Networks Will Likely Reignite Debate If Move Is an Attempt to Empower Consumers or Advocate for the Brand

By Published on . 6

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- How many ways can its legion of latte-sipping loafers ask for free Wi-Fi? Starbucks is finding out.

Last week at its annual meeting, Starbucks announced the launch of My Starbucks Idea, a social network where consumers can post ideas for how the company can improve its service and products or comment and vote on others' ideas. Voting will be tallied online, with each idea assigned a point value.

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Consumers will be kept up to speed on what Starbucks is doing with the proposed suggestions on a new blog, Ideas in Action.

Though the program sounds like a smart Web 2.0 move, it has already drawn a dart or two from observers of the company, and is likely to reignite debate over whether brand-created blogs or social networks are a smart attempt to empower consumers or a cynical attempt to advocate for the company.

Jim Romenesko, keeper of the Starbucks Gossip blog, said, "It looks to me that it's very repetitious. How many times do you want to read about people suggesting free Wi-Fi?"

Of course, Mr. Romenesko has something to lose here as the reigning champion of Starbucks blogging. But in terms of the repetition on the site, he has a point. Nearly every other posting was an "idea" for more free drinks, which probably isn't what Starbucks, which has been on a top-down mission to get back some of its customer-service mojo, had in mind. But it's not just clamoring for gratis internet connection and mochaccinos that's leading to criticism. Starbucks, after all, is something of a late convert to the customer-listening game, and there's some indication that it hasn't been paying as much attention as it should have.

Lending an ear
John Moore, a former Starbucks marketer, said this experiment will be interesting to watch because Starbucks has never really listened to online conversations, a charge Starbucks denies.

This sort of online listening post worked for Dell, whose IdeaStorm website resulted in a few concrete product developments and, in turn, helped to turn some of the computer-maker's fiercest critics. One of them, Jeff Jarvis, went from a state of high dudgeon on his blog to praise the company in BusinessWeek.

However, the coffee chain, which made a PR splash when it recently closed down its stores to retrain its baristas, isn't getting the same sort of raves. New York magazine, which called the network "the biggest and possibly worst idea" that came out of the company's annual meeting, said, after checking it out, that it resembled "a virtual suggestion box."

Starbucks Director of Digital Strategy Alexandra Wheeler disagreed in an e-mail response to questions. "This site allows users to engage in other people's ideas and vote those that they like to the top," she wrote. "Also, if you think about it, for years, Starbucks stores have served as the center of vibrant communities, welcoming customers and encouraging creativity and dialogue."

Then there's the other side.

'Corporate propaganda'
"It's simply a corporate propaganda site," Mr. Romenesko wrote on starbucksgossip.com, the site he launched three years ago to bring the barista/customer conversations "taking place in the stores to the web."

Speaking to Ad Age from a Starbucks, Mr. Romenesko said the company has been monitoring his site for years and that it launched My Starbucks Idea because it was growing tired of reading all the negative comments posted on his site. He guesstimates that 75% of the people on his site are Starbucks employees and the remaining 25% are consumers.

On brandautopsy.com, Mr. Moore's blog, one visitor commented: "I see no fun whatsoever in the initial rollout of this, and that's what they needed. ... A blog post from CEO Howard Schultz showing how 'fun' the concept will be. ... Right now, it's just a big Mission Review/Customer Comment tank of the same ideas over and over again."

Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer for TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony, called it an "excellent idea" for Starbucks. "It's a natural extension of their brand. And if they play their cards right they can open channels of communication to their detractors and by listening and responding ... dramatically change the tenor of those conversations."
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