Alex Steer

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Coffee and elbow grease: social responsibility wins in social media

537 words | ~3 min

This is a presentation on Starbucks' digital strategy by Alexandra Wheeler, their digital strategy director. As you'd expect, it's pretty much the last word on how Starbucks does digital.

Did anyone else read it and think... well, obviously?

As you'll know if you've just read it, Starbucks is the 'most engaged' brand online, but there's absolutely nothing surprising in the presentation. Assuming there's not some secret that they're keeping from the world (and, let's be honest, there's not), Starbucks has built its online presence and reputation purely by doing all the basic stuff that every single social media opinion piece goes on and on about.

Talking to their customers online, responding to comments and queries fast, posting entertaining content and inviting interaction and creativity under their banner.

It doesn't involve Nasa, solid fuel boosters or competition with the Soviet Union. It's not rocket science. So why does it work so well?

Firstly, because it's Starbucks. Despite all the hype, there are pitifully few examples of strong brands being built through digital communications. Starbucks, as well as being a strong business, were already a strong brand with a consistent identity, look and feel, and a meaningful place in people's lives (usually, somewhere between home and the office when a reliable caffeine hit is needed). They found a way to capture that in their online presence, using enthusiasm for the brand to drive enthusiasm for the digital offer, which now feeds back into enthusiasm for the brand.

Secondly, because they actually do it. They do it a lot; they do it everywhere; they put effort and time into it. They treat is as both a broadcast medium and a public relations and customer service channel. They were there before they needed to be (unlike Eurostar or Domino's, for example), and they threw their weight behind being good online citizens, so they soon became part of the crowd, not an interloper. And now they've made it, they don't let up, which suggests that they do what they do for the love of the medium and the benefit of the community. There's clearly no need for Starbucks to work as hard as it does online - it could get away with far less. But the internet is a creative culture that thrives on extra effort that can't entirely be justified economically, so Starbucks' sheer graft wins them respect. It feels like a brand staffed by people that care about making the internet the greatest nation on Earth.

So Starbucks describe their core philosophies in all the usual terms: be about relationships, be authentic, build coalitions, make commitments, provide content, etc. I think they're doing it right, but analysing it wrongly.

If you want to be as good as Starbucks online, it turns out you need to...

  1. make things people like;
  2. provide them efficiently and without hassle; and
  3. work really hard at serving the community.

In other words, online success is driven by social responsibility.


# Alex Steer (26/07/2010)