Meaningful social media

The Starbucks strategy in creating meaningful connections through social medias.


Creating connections is fully entwined into Starbucks’ brand promise, which is to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time. Coffee is known to do just that, too. It brings people together. And Starbucks has achieved exactly this in its 21,000 stores in more than 65 countries.

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Following the first rule of thumb, No Promotion Without Emotion, and second, Coffee Is Love, Starbucks promotes and celebrates many types of love (and coffee) in a Valentine’s Day post. PHOTO COURTESY STARBUCKS FACEBOOK PAGE, FEB. 17, 2015.

Not only has Starbucks done this successfully in its retail locations across the globe, it’s also done so in a powerful way via its social media channels. And by powerful, we mean that Starbucks believes it has access to nearly 1 billion people, or a seventh of the world’s population, through its Facebook fans and their friends alone.

In a world that is begging for face-to-face interaction, Starbucks has found a way to engage its diverse audience online. But what we want to find out is how an international company with such a huge reach connects with its customers in a way that they find meaningful and valuable. So who better to ask than the Starbucks authority on social media, Ryan Turner (who also presented at the NACAS West conference in 2014). He happens to be Starbucks’ global director of social media, so to say he knows a thing or two about social media is an understatement. Read on to learn more about the whys behind the Starbucks strategy, how this can be worked into your school’s social media presence, and to get his take on how auxiliary services—and really any brand or company—can create meaningful connections with their audiences.

Bringing the retail 
experience to life

According to Turner, being true to your company’s purpose, following best practices of continuously creating meaningful, valuable conversations, and sharing things that are worthy of attention is something that applies to everyone.

Starbucks actively applies these guidelines to its social media presence by considering its online relationships analogous to the relationships between baristas and customers in stores. Just as someone would have a connection to and would get to know their neighborhood barista, Starbucks uses that same mentality to drive the emotional connections it creates in the digital space.

Starbucks follows principles that guide how it shows up in social media:

  1. No promotion without emotion
  2. Coffee is love
  3. Take a stand
  4. Honor the customer
  5. Personalize it
  6. Gracious host

1. No promotion without emotion

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On social media, Starbucks connects with customers around coffee through emotional language. Here, they’ve related a cup of joe to a “cup of heaven.” PHOTO COURTESY STARBUCKS FACEBOOK PAGE, FEB. 17, 2015.

A core concept in marketing is to create emotional connections with target audiences. But good brand marketing is about eliciting the right emotional response. You can get people to buy a product in many ways, but to get them to love it, you have to tug on their heartstrings.

“For us, it’s partly about not selling in a gauche way, but it’s also about reinforcing and building that sense of connection that customers have with the Starbucks brand,” Turner says.

With students and younger people, especially, Starbucks wants to give them something to which they can relate and connect. This means companies also trying to reach them should strive to create true interactions and a sense of personal investment on behalf of their audience.

2. Coffee is love

If coffee is love, it is definitely emotional. Starbucks listens to its customers and the way they talk about coffee—particularly the way they talk about Starbucks coffee. “Starbucks connects with customers around coffee through emotional language that is native to the emotional conversation that is already happening online around coffee,” Turner says.

Although this example is particular to Starbucks, there’s a message out there that’s applicable for many different companies. “Understand why people care, and connect with them on that basis,” Turner says.

Each company has a distinct voice and identity, so understand it before you tie in the emotional connection around your product or services. The question then becomes, “How can we then take the emotion and translate it into social media and inspire our audience to love more and care more?” Turner asks.

3. Take a stand

In today’s very opinionated world, brands should also take a stand for what they believe in. It doesn’t have to be political or divisive, but it should be inspirational. Taking a stand on different issues comes from an emotional place of supporting human connection—something that Turner, and Starbucks, believes in wholeheartedly.

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Through a meaningful quote printed on a cup, Starbucks is following principle No. 3, Take a Stand, by supporting human connection, which is something the company believes in wholeheartedly. PHOTO COURTESY STARBUCKS.

“Starbucks has a long history of engaging in social issues—from veterans to marriage equality—that are controversial to some extent,” Turner says. “However, this idea also extends to Starbucks’ stance on social responsibility and the environment, the way it treats its workers, and the kinds of personal gestures in some social posts,” he adds.

For example, Starbucks could post, “Smile at someone today.” While it’s uncontroversial, it’s opinionated. “It’s telling Starbucks customers that, ‘Taking the moment to establish that human-to-human connection is valuable and worthwhile, and you should do it,’” Turner says.

For Starbucks as a brand, taking a stand and being opinionated is about being clear and courageous in bringing forward what the company and brand stands for. “For us, this has to do with standing for civility and dialogue around challenging issues in society,” he says, “and the way we think about showing up in social media is to be respectfully clear about what we stand for, and unflinching in our willingness to present that to our customers,” Turner says.

4. Honor the customer

The very nature of social media is personable, so to treat it as anything but will simply not work. Customers have to feel valued, and on social media, they have to feel like they’re heard.

“As merchants, we’re in the business of building goodwill and good relationships with our customers, and the way we do that becomes challenging—for larger businesses like ours—to scale,” Turner says.

So how do we take care of every customer? According to Turner, we have to respect where they’re coming from, address their needs, and answer concerns when they arise. Brands have to personalize the experience and learn how to sensitively interact with people in a way that feels authentic to them.

“We’ve developed a pretty complex system to be able to dedicate employees’ time to answer people’s questions online,” he says. “Whether there’s a customer complaint, a question about a product, or a recommendation of what other things to try from the menu, we’re respecting the one-to-one nature of the social channel and treating individuals like individuals,” Turner says.

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With more than 176,000 followers on Pinterest, Starbucks connects to customers with everything from coffee DIY and store design, to handcrafted messages and quotes that make us stop and think. PHOTO OF STARBUCKS PINTEREST HOME PAGE, FEB. 17, 2015.

5. Personalize it

As they say, sometimes it’s the imperfections that can make things beautiful—and also really easy to connect to. Starbucks strives to personalize their brand through imperfect creative expression. One of the key qualities of social content is for it to have a hand-crafted feel. So, for example, Starbucks uses a lot more felt-tip markers rather than perfectly cultivated fonts in Photoshop.

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Again playing into the rule of thumb that Coffee is Love, Starbucks creates a sweet poem-like tweet that was retweeted more than 4,000 times. COURTESY STARBUCKS TWITTER FEED, PULLED FEB. 17, 2015.

“In social media—or really across the board in our creative community at Starbucks—we’re not afraid to cultivate imperfection and a made-by-hand sense in our work that makes the expression relatable,” Turner says. “So we sometimes don’t fix flaws in a photograph because we want it to reflect the moment in which the idea was created—to make it relatable in that way, to make it feel like it was created by a human being, because it was,” he adds.

6. Gracious host

Just as it does in their stores, Starbucks makes it a point to extend the welcome that customers would receive in the retail environment into the way that it interacts with people online. One of Turner’s favorite examples of doing this is a tweet that was just a smiley face, which created not just a large response, but also a strongly felt response.

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A short, clever tweet is relatable and human—two things that Starbucks wants to constantly evoke via its social media channels. COURTESY STARBUCKS TWITTER FEED, PULLED FEB. 17, 2015.

“There were some on Twitter who saw the tweet and said, ‘This is exactly what I love about Starbucks—so human, authentic, and genuine,’” he says. “And we really learned in that moment, what people are looking for from us as a company is just a tiny moment of human acknowledgement, which is really different from some other big brands.”

Compared to larger brands, Starbucks believes that it shows up online in an entirely different way. “What people really want from us in digital space is exactly what they want to get from us in the store, which is a smile, a moment of eye-contact, and some type of acknowledgement,” Turner says.

Last words

Whatever you do, Turner says, don’t make your customers feel like propaganda or just a spoke in the wheel. “Don’t try to tell them what to do,” Turner says. “If they’re made to feel that they’re serving some marketing purpose or just participating in a campaign—the objective of which is to sell them things—they’re going to recoil.”

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The “smiley face” tweet in 2011 generated more than 1,500 retweets. The tweet was perceived as ‘human,’ which is exactly what customers expect from the brand. PHOTO COURTESY STARBUCKS.

Therefore, as long as we don’t try to tell them what to do, we should be on the right track. The easiest and one of the most important things to do on social media is to play into what customers are doing. “Understand what your customers already want to do in a way that they already find value and want to connect, and figure out how to make that bigger and more fun,” he said.

Even though Starbucks’ social media strategy is scaled for a seventh of the world’s population, we can take numerous things away from how it is presenting itself online. While our audiences in auxiliary may be smaller, we can still have just as much of an impact through the ways we connect with our own audiences—in a way that’s just as meaningful, powerful, and authentic.


Heather Williams
Heather Williams is a writer and editor who works with associations across North America on their communications programs. Heather is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

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