Commentary

Ewww...What's That Smell? It's MyStarbucksIdea.com

Granted, it's way too easy to dump on Starbucks these days, but I was taken aback when I started to Google the name of the coffee chain's so-called social networking site on Monday and discovered the glee people seemed to take in dumping on MyStarbucksIdea.com.

"You know social networking has jumped the shark when Starbucks gets into the act," said Elinor Mills at News.com's News Blog. At Jim Romenesko's (yes, that Jim Romenesko) Starbucks Gossip blog, one commenter said that "the new 'site' is just a rebranded Starbucks centric Digg. Just kind of bland."

Said another: "The website is a complete joke. All of us know they already view this site [Starbucks Gossip] to read everyone's opinion. Although I'm sure they will read and maybe even use others' suggestions, it's nothing more then another PR move to let customers know they're here to listen and to be able to monitor something, unlike starbucksgossip.com."

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New Yorkmagazine called it "The biggest (and possibly worst)" idea to come out of Starbucks' annual meeting last week.

So is the Starbucks social-networking site that bad? Well, yeah. At least if it's defined as a social network. New York termed it "a virtual suggestion box" and that description comes closer to fitting the bill, except that visitors can vote on ideas submitted by other Starbucks registrants (yes, you have to register), and comment on their ideas. Not that the most popular ideas will necessarily be implemented, mind you. To me, being able to comment and vote is a big "so what?" That level of interaction is just the baseline cost-of-entry for this kind of site these days. There's nothing particularly special, or all that social network-y, about My Starbucks Idea, though it would have been considered revolutionary three or four years ago.

In fairness to Starbucks, the company itself doesn't seem to be calling it a social networking site. After combing Starbucks' own release about the site and other "Strategic Initiatives To Transform and Innovate the Customer Experience" -- enough of the corporatespeak! -- all I could find was a reference to it as an "online community network," which might be something slightly different... I guess.

But I'm probably splitting hairs with the definitions. Some of those who complained about the site on blogs and news sites can rightly be charged with indulging in gratuitous Starbucks-bashing; Starbucks has been built up, even revered, over the years, so now it's time for the tear-down. But the site -- and the Starbucks brand -- does have deeper problems than a bunch of people who like piling on. Whether it's called a social network or an online community network, My Starbucks Idea doesn't do much to connect Starbucks loyalists -- or even haters -- to each other. In fact, somehow, even though it solicits ideas and feedback from consumers, the site feels like it's much more about Starbucks than the people who go there. It's like the popular kid who wants dozens of friends around her, as long as all they do is talk about her.

Allowing Starbucks consumers to connect with one another is a missed (or maybe future) opportunity. Few brands have the opportunity to build a real-world community into a virtual one, and vice versa. Think of the ways you could expand this virtual community out into the real world of baristas and chai tea lattes, by building communities around individual stores, adding Twitter-style feeds to let consumers weigh in on whether the new Pike Place Roast was any good, and building upon some of the corporate responsibility initiatives the company has in place by further involving customers. Instead, the site is a series of disconnected blog posts, and while some of the posts have garnered hundreds of comments, the site, as it is today, isn't particularly sustainable.

Though one person who responded to a tweet about the site I posted on Twitter said she'd stayed engaged with My Starbucks Idea for 30 minutes, there's only so long that one can read about ideas for in-store coffee tastings and drink-of-the-month specials before the content gets old, and you find yourself thinking it's time to head over to TMZ to catch up on the latest with LiLo and Brit. They are endlessly fascinating; MyStarbucksIdea.com isn't.

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