Lessons from a Starbucks Social Experiment

We often talk about innovative and enterprising uses of mobile tech within faith endeavors, but that’s not the only avenue where someone could get an idea towards doing something a bit different. Take the Jonathan Stark’s Starbuck’s card experiment. Here we had someone who wanted to see how far barcode techologies could be pushed toward enabling the activity we sometimes refer to as “paying it forward.” Radar (O’Reilly Media) recently interviewed Mr. Stark and there are definitily some insights that anyone persuing a mobile-enabled activity that capitalizes on a culture’s behaviors of good will, payments, or activity streams (going to the coffeeshop). Here’s a snippet of that interview:

What surprised you the most about the experiment?
Jonathan Stark: There were a lot of surprises. It’s hard to say what surprised me most. Here’s a list of biggies:

  • That Starbucks let the experiment go on for as long as it did. Sharing the card goes against the company’s terms of use, and it could have been killed right away.
  • I was surprised how many people were perfectly comfortable with the concept of buying things with their phones. It seems to me that the average smartphone user is more willing to accept the “mobile wallet” concept than industry analysts would lead you to believe. I expected more people to have security concerns. I think I only got two questions about that.
  • How fast and huge something gets when it goes viral. I was getting contacted by network TV producers within days once the experiment took on a life of its own.
  • How addictive the Twitter feed was. By the end, @jonathanscard had more than 9,000 followers, many of whom later told me that they were watching it like TV, cheering when someone would make a big donation, booing when someone would spend $100 at a pop.
  • How generous most people are. I was amazed how many people were willing to throw $10, $20, even $50 into the pool to buy a coffee for some anonymous stranger. In one week, more than $19,000 went through the card.
  • How accommodating Starbucks baristas are. We heard stories about people bringing all sorts of wacky stuff up to be scanned: digital cameras, laptops, iPads, and so on. People who didn’t have any mobile devices even took to printing the barcode out and scanning it like a coupon.

So, the lessons from here? There are many, but here are a few just from what we’ve quoted.

First: don’t be afraid to lose control for a little while. As Jonathan states, it could have been very easy for Starbucks to turn away his card as it was against the terms of service. However, this provided cheap and easy research for them towards mobile, loyality cards, and the organic nature of gifting that is very hard to reproduce inside of a testing lab. They let it go for a good while, and from that a service platform is most probably under development for wider use.

Second: people are more tuned to mobile than you think. There really doesn’t need to be a concerted effot to “teach” anyone about mobile. That’s one of the reasons that its as ubuquious as it is. The medium and the media are as close to what we are built to do (communicate) as anything man has ever made. And because of that, activites on a mobile need more of an instigation than they do a teaching. That’s not to say that there aren’t features on a mobile or in using a mobile that don’t need instruction, but that you will be surprised at how much people already know. Now, those folks who don’t know mobile in that respect will have a problem, hence sites like MMM pulling these moments out for experimentation, use, and discussion.

Third: social media isn’t everything, and it could actually be nothing, but there are some for whom Twitter (or any short social media channe) is the best way to get their immediate attention towards an action. Take a look at what Blake Caterbury and BeRemedy have been able to accomplish with simply engaging Twitter and Facebook audiences to simply repeat a message about a need on a local level. There are moments and opportunities for social media to work, and work well. Take advantage of them when possible, don’t push them to hard when they aren’t working as well. When it does work well, the attetnion comes.

Fourth: don’t underestimate the goodnees of others. I mentioned on Twitter some time back that the term “unchurched” was already a setup for failure by ministries who use it because it implies that people want to be in (a) church. That in turn drives the messages from those ministries towards confrontational, divisive, or exclusionary messages which make their job harder. Now, if they started with a different perspective (“disassociated from religious fellowships” would be a long one), then their messages and opportunities become a good deal clearer. Same here, the goodness of others might not come in them walking to your offering basket. That doesn’t mean they aren’t obedient, good, faithful, etc., but that your message needs fine tuning. Be faster to change your perspective than to interpret failure from your message.

Lastly: people are inventive and willing to reward one another towards inventiveness. It didn’t matter that the code came in on a mobile or a print-out, it was left to the baristas serving whether they would take it. And I’m sure presentation of the code had a lot to do with it. Are you limiting the expression of your community’s faith by only receiving them in a manner that is cut from what you can process? Shame if you are. Let go and let your message be redesigned and redeveloped so that the product of creation (you know, that piece that comes with the “image of God”), can come to the front. Your message is important. But, its more important for your message if it can be translated into whatever form that works best for the sender, rather than simply just the form that works for the receiver.

Lessons from buying a cup of coffee? You bet. Why do you think we spend so much time in coffeeshops (understand context, then apply mobile). There’s always something brewing if you are willing to just grab and cup and allow for God to pour something in.