I first got to know Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in the late ’90s when I produced a virtual live event that featured both Schultz and Mark McGuire speaking on behalf of a social cause. The event took place on Talk City, a consumer-community website that LiveWorld created and managed during that period.
During the run-throughs before the live event, Schultz immediately saw that something special was going on with this social media form—so much so that he arranged a call with me, the CEO of this Internet startup.
“Hello, I’m Howard Schultz, the CEO of a food services chain called Starbucks,” he said when we got on the phone. “You may have heard of it.” He seemed, and would later prove himself to be, very genuine and unassuming.
- Immediate, social connections within a virtual space helps consumers experience a brand within a third environment beyond the home and work.
- Customer surveys conducted by Starbucks revealed that it was the people—not the products—that created an engaging brand resonance.
- “Social media offers the same potential for your brands. But to succeed there, you have to resist the urge to overwhelm customers with an unending flow of product-oriented brand content, or to run the thing just off algorithms and canned responses.
“Let me see … do I know it?” I answered. “Is that the one that sells coffee on every single corner?”
That broke the ice and we’ve been friends ever since. Schultz was taken by the way we were able to create an environment on Talk City for personable social connection in a virtual space. He immediately recognized that it was the exact same thing he was doing in Starbucks physical spaces, where his vision was to create a third space beyond home and work where people could experience a social environment and even connect with other people. Schultz told me that LiveWorld (Talk City’s parent company) was, in fact, the “Starbucks of the Internet,” and, as such, he wanted to be a part of it. Starbucks soon became an investor.
Just as in Talk City’s chats and forums, and in well-managed social media spaces today, Starbucks uses technology, process flow and culture to create a consistently high quality experience for customers. The baristas are considered the key to the entire model, just as moderators and community managers are key in social media. Starbucks calls its baristas partners rather than employees to mark the centrality of their role.
When Starbucks conducted surveys with customers as they left the stores, they asked, “What did you like most about your experience?” Again and again they got the same answer: The people! Customers often gave that answer even on visits when they didn’t talk to anyone else; they simply enjoyed being part of a place with a people-to-people sensibility, a human connection.
What Schultz understands, and what anyone marketing his or her brand in social media needs to understand, is this: Your brand’s social space will be most successful as a people experience, not a product experience. Starbucks stores are successful because they create an emotional connection among customers, which, in turn, enables the brand to create an emotional connection with them: high quality, consistently, and at scale.
Social media offers the same potential for your brands. But to succeed there, you have to resist the urge to overwhelm customers with an unending flow of product-oriented brand content, or to run the thing just off algorithms and canned responses. As a rule of thumb, you can broadcast brand content maybe 20% of the time—if the other 80% of the time, you’re actively using social space to create real human connections between the people who’ve chosen to participate. The environment you’re designing in social may have many functions, but at its heart it needs to put people and relationships first.
You may be thinking that this all sounds too consumer-like for B-to-B marketing. But isn’t B-to-B usually about forming relationships? The fact is, the more you can use your brand to create relationships that in turn create value for people, the more your customers will care. Emotional connection in a B-to-B context isn’t schmaltzy; it’s just as real, and perhaps even more significant. When you help someone do their job better, create opportunities for professional recognition, introduce them to peers, or simply supply information that makes their day a little bit easier, you’re creating an emotional connection.
Relationships are the heart of the brand, evoked every time a cup of coffee is created and served to a customer. That’s why Schultz titled his first book Pour Your Heart Into Every Cup. The corollary in social media is to pour your heart into every post. That means thinking deeply about what your customers truly need, and how you can connect them to a network that will help get them there, quickly and with confidence.
Originally published on the American Marketing Association’s web site