A year ago, Starbucks knocked off Coca-Cola as the most popular corporate brand on Facebook, with its page on the social network drawing 3.7 million fans. Now the coffee giant has become the first brand to clear the 10 million-fan mark on Facebook, with its nearest rivals -- Coke and Skittles -- both trailing behind at about 6.5 million.
To put Starbucks' social ascent in perspective, the company is close to catching up to pop icon Lady Gaga in Facebook fans. She's just ahead in the rankings, with about 10.4 million, according to data compiled by the Inside Facebook blog. Only other celebrities (Michael Jackson, Vin Diesel), games ("Texas Hold'em Poker," "Mafia Wars"), "Family Guy," Facebook, and the President himself, stand ahead of Starbucks in the number of Facebook fans.
So what's the secret of the coffee chain's success on the site? Making social media a key part of its marketing mix, a steady stream of promotions, and advertising heavily on Facebook to drive traffic to its page, according to social media marketing experts. "Starbucks has provided Facebook users a reason to become a fan," said Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, which oversees brands' social media efforts.
Indeed, special offers, coupons and discounts distributed via Facebook seem to be at the heart of Starbucks' magnetic appeal on the social network. Last July, it added 200,000 fans in one week through its Free Pastry Day promo, allowing fans to print out coupons for complimentary confections with a beverage purchase.
Last year, it also promoted its launch of branded ice cream by offering coupons for free pints through its Facebook application. More recently, it used Facebook to run a "Taste Challenge" tied to the rollout of its VIA instant coffee, offering participants a free brewed coffee on their next visit and a $1 off a VIA purchase.
Starbucks' success with emphasizing product promotions on Facebook seems to validate the results of a Razorfish study last year that found that traditional direct marketing techniques like offering discounts and deals are the keys to building engagement on social networking sites rather counting on some deeper connection to a brand.
Reggie Bradford, CEO of social media management firm ViTrue, noted that Starbucks has the advantage of owning all of its stores, making it easier to run uniform marketing programs that can be tied into Facebook. "Where if you have a franchise model, you can't do that," he said.
But he and Lazerow also say Starbucks has been active in the conversational aspect of social marketing through posts on their Wall and into fans' news feeds, whether content, questions or updates aimed at stimulating discussion around the brand. On top of that, the company has invested in advertising in Engagement Ads on the home page and elsewhere on Facebook to drive traffic to its page.
"Starbucks got started early, and over the last couple of years has actively used Facebook events, discussions, and notes in conjunction with well-coordinated ad campaigns to drive traffic both to physical stores and online promotions," said Justin Smith, editor of Inside Facebook. He added that just over a year ago, the company had only 1.7 million fans.
Its activity on Facebook is also part of a broader commitment to social media by Starbucks that includes its MyStarbucksIdea site for soliciting and implementing customer suggestions, and push onto popular social location properties like Foursquare and Brightkite. "For the last several years, Starbucks has embraced social media as a core of its strategy," said Bradford. Starbucks declined to comment for this article.
But other retailers don't seem to be following the company's example. According to a study earlier this year by Foresee Results, only a quarter of the top 100 online retailers by sales volume had a formal Facebook presence.