Commentary: Critical discussion of Mystarbucksidea.com

MSI homepage Dec., 2009 Has My Starbucks Idea been a winning innovation for Starbucks? Is it effective?

On Wednesday, March 19, 2008, at the annual shareholder meeting, Starbucks launched a customer-suggestion site called "My Starbucks Idea". This blog post is a discussion and review of mystarbucksidea.com since its inception.  In the nearly two years of the site, it has been through a number of changes. For example, when the site was brand new, there was no way to subscribe to a thread.  About a year after the site was born, the ability to add a thread as a "favorite" was added. Unfortunately, if you subscribe to too many, you tilt the system. I have 539 threads listed as "favorites" and I haven't been able to access them in months - when I click on favorites, it loops me back to the home page. Though I keep adding new favorites, as if one day it will work again!

When the site was new, lots of in-store signage helped promote the site, as well as a floating icon on starbucks.com which said something like, "Got an Idea?" and then if you clicked it, it took you to mystarbucksidea.com.  The floating icon lasted for about six months, as I recall, and even sometimes prompted people to start threads complaining about it.  This was in many ways the best era of MSI, in my opinion.  The driver for many people to come to MSI was that icon, and once Starbucks removed it from the homepage starbucks.com. site traffic seemed to slow down.  Now, in November 2009, MSI seems like a far quieter community than what it once was in 2008.  It's never really picked back up to that 2008 level.

In March 2008, when mystarbucksidea.com was new, I had no idea that I would be writing a blog 15 months later, and so unfortunately I wasn't making any screen captures or somehow otherwise memorializing the important changes and discussions at MSI.  As a result this blog post will just be a ramble of my observations from being a participant in MSI from its very beginning with almost no nice screen caps to illustrate my story.

Let's start at the very beginning of the story: The day that MSI was born to the public. On the morning of the annual shareholders' meeting, friendly Starbucks partners passed around cards to the meeting attendees.  They were cards about 3 x 5 in size (roughly), and basically asked you what's your idea for Starbucks.  The cards were collected, and we shuffled into the meeting.  Howard Schultz announced a "transformation agenda" for Starbucks which included mystarbucksidea.com and describing it as follows in a press release: "Starbucks first online community, that takes the Starbucks Experience outside the store and enables customers to play a role in shaping the company’s future."  That day at the meeting, Chris Bruzzo, Chief Technology Guy (I'm not totally clear on his exact title), got on the stage and demonstrated on a large screen the new cool site mystarbucksidea.com. It had been pre-loaded with customer ideas, and pre-loaded with ideas that came from the cards filled out that day at the meeting. The earliest idea threads all said, "custidea" or something close to that because they were not started by individuals with profiles.

Early on, the site only had the ability to have "up votes" and a person could not vote down a thread. I have heard it said that Chris Bruzzo firmly believed that it was important not to have down-votes, and only up votes, but then in response to the many people who came to the site wanting down votes, MSI gave in.  By late 2008, the site had the ability to vote down.  It would be important to note that this created a strange dynamic that threads that existed before negative voting (and still to this day this is true) always had much higher point totals than threads created after the advent of down votes. A person may only vote once a thread, up or down, and then either adding 10 points to the thread or subtracting 10 points to it.

So what have we seen from mystarbucksidea.com and what is the upshot? Overall, in my humble opinion, sadly, I think there are more "cons" than "pros" with the site.  It pains me to say that, because I enjoy participating on it.

Here is the downside to MSI: (In no particular order)

* Well an obvious problem is that it is an open slate for anyone to write anything about Starbucks.  This means that if Starbucks, or high profile Starbucks figures make the news due to jet planes, Sonics, or store closings, there is sometimes a wave of new threads of people trashing Starbucks for the hot topic of the moment.  When you give your customers a wide open empty page to write on, controlling it becomes difficult.

* It seems that many people have little interest in the merits of the conversation. People would rather listen to how it is said, than what is being said.  Customers who complain about their pet issue, and threaten to leave Starbucks, are met with negative votes. The down votes come from the angry tone of the post. Since many partners (and other customers as well) cannot get past how the message is being said, the result is that people are overlooking often an area where there is genuinely room for improvement in the business.

There are so many of these kinds of threads, it is hard to mention them all!  It's a shame because many baristas respond with similar tone, happy to let the customer go to a competitor.  Of course all those customers add up, and they mean something to the changing character of the business, the demographics of the customer base, and even the brand image. No matter how angry an MSI thread appears, it shouldn't be treated by Starbucks partners or other customers as, "well, he's just a complainer" attitude.

* Point totals mean very little. Great ideas get down votes. Some ideas have very high points because they've lived on the site forever, long before down votes existed.  At times, I think people vote ideas down because people are simply tired of hearing about them, not because there is no merit to them.

* The duplication of ideas causes problems about how meaningful any information on the site is.  As previously mentioned, meritorious threads sometimes receive down votes simply because people are tired of hearing about them.  The moderators attempt to merge threads, which I applaud them for, but this requires a subjective judgment call at times. Is a thread that says, "Please recycle and compost" the same as a thread that says "Why can't a put my glass bottle in a recycle bin?"

* The area of the site with the most valuable information receives the least amount of visitor traffic.  The Ideas in Action area of the site is woefully neglected by visitors. When a person signs in to the site, he or she is directed to area of popular ideas. Of course, this is not the most factually useful area of the site.  Ideas in Action has content on everything from Shared Planet, Coffee options, new products, new store design, to Vivannos.

The unfortunate result is that most people happily create new threads, over and over again, on topics that have previously been thoroughly discussed in the Ideas in Action area of the site. I have sometimes thought that there are very few novel ideas that have not been touched upon in Ideas in Action. I wonder if Starbucks could just eliminate "new ideas" and the entire "ideas" area of the site in favor of structured conversation in the blogs.

* The structure of mystarbucksidea.com can actually make customers feel less heard than if there were no MSI at all.  Unfortunately, for some repetitive ideas, when looking at moderator responses, it appears over and over again like as if mods are say, "we're working on it."  After a while, from the customer perspective, it simply appears like no answer at all.  In the end, it leaves the customer or participant the feeling of talking to a brick wall.

* The use of mystarbucksidea.com can blur with the purpose of Customer Relations: Customers come on the site repeatedly to make store specific complaints, only to have moderators tell them that MSI is geared towards finding universal ideas, and not store specific ideas. Of course then to the customer who doesn't understand what MSI is, he or she feels like she has to complain twice, and doesn't understand why the corporation can't take a complaint from the MSI part of their website.

* Starbucks store-level partner participation can great poor customer relations:  It is unfortunate, but sometimes a customer will have a complaint about something, and the comment response will be an angry barista type response.  The "Starbucks experience" is continued from the store, to the online site, and the customer comes to MSI still expecting to receive welcoming, kind, reassuring words. It is not like the image of Starbucks ends with store experiences only, and that MSI is some distinct entity.  Rather, the green siren is proudly displayed on the site, and the psyche of the customer is geared towards have a continuation of the great customer service and legendary experience for which Starbucks is famed.  Once in a while, baristas post hot-headed comments which reflect poorly on the image of Starbucks.

This can work both ways. Sometimes store partners post helpful and knowledgeable answers to threads.

Some of the positive aspects of mystarbucksidea.com are as follows:

* The site can be highly entertaining.  Actually this is one of several reasons I keep coming back to the site. I have to just laugh at times at the ideas that are posted. Take a look at this sampling of ideas:

Catchy name for a bigger size (a customer wants a 40 ounce latte!!)

Star Wars theme day (a customer somehow thinks baristas should dress as Star Wars characters on a given day)

Some people want (a paragraph run on sentence of what people talk about at MSI)

Kissing Booth (customer wants to kiss girls at Starbucks)

Build a Starbucks theme park and rollercoaster (appears to be a serious plea for a Starbucks roller coaster)

* The site is an amazing opportunity to create a community of customers and partners in vibrant discussion. This is a critical part of the site. I admit, I log in to mystarbucksidea and wonder what CranBliss, Pechipy, BetterBefore, Chicagobrocks, and many others have posted.  I look forward to comments in orange, because the moderators give the place a lot of warmth, even when they have no good answers to hard questions.

Mystarbucksidea.com is fundamentally a community.  It allows people to talk about what is happening around the world at Starbucks and compare and contrast experiences.  Sometimes people who leave mystarbucksidea.com are sorely missed by the regulars. I enjoyed getting to know "Breve" on mystarbucksidea.com, and I wish that Momiji would come back and post again too.

Certain moderators are missing.  Though I know that sbux_nric is now at another part of Starbucks, I miss her comments.  And I don't know where sbux_mguiste has gone, but I want him to post again too. He just disappeared, which never really feels good.  If Cecile, Brendan, and Sally stopped posting, I'd think there had been an upheaval at the Starbucks headquarters.

* There is a wealth of information in the site:  If you are one who is clicking on the links found in my blogs, you'll find that many posts have some link back to the Ideas in Action area of MSI.  If I am referencing the Vivanno, I might link back to the original Vivanno launch entry in Ideas in Action. There is simply a wealth of information about everything from store design to products to Shared Planet, all in Ideas in Action.

What might be done to improve the site?

* Eliminate the ability to so easily create a new thread. I realize this is antithetical to the site's purpose, but until there is some control over the million duplicate threads, the site will always be lacking in meaning. This may mean that really, Starbucks should just offer a blog.  Whether it is a blog framed like starbucksmelody.com or other popular blogs, there should be a lot more control over ideas.

* Eliminate down votes: Perhaps Chris Bruzzo was right all along. Customers don't like to see their ideas receive hundreds of negative points, and it discourages future participation when a person starts a thread, and it is met with huge negative points.

* Enhance profile capacity: Since the site is a place where people can connect with each other, a basic private messaging system might be useful.

* Add some formatting to the comments. Having long block comments with no ability to make a new paragraph, bold, or underline, thwarts effective use of the comments.

*Drive more traffic to it: There is no way to get a representative sample of customers on any topic, if the traffic is too small.

I could probably write more about mystarbucksidea.com, but this blog entry is getting quite long. I turn it over to my readers now. What do you think of mystarbucksidea.com?

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