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The Starbucks User Experience

I had a meeting at Starbucks this morning.

As is my custom when meeting anyone at a coffee shop, I arrived very early. I like to sit, to people watch, and to use the WiFi to catch up with the happenings online. Today I arrived, got my preferred hot beverage, and found a comfortable seat by the window. I took out my iPad and connected to the free WiFi. Like most public WiFi users, I have become accustomed to getting a splash page and having to acknowledge a set of terms and conditions to get access.

What came next surprised me.

starbucks-wifi-logo-mdInstead of the usual, “Welcome to Starbucks” splash page, I got a video ad for American Express. An ad which, if I did not watch in its entirety, would prevent me from using the WiFi connection. I was mildly annoyed, both with Starbucks, and with American Express. Not a big deal, but it caused a minor frown.

When I finished “watching” the ad, to which I paid rapt attention you may be sure, I fired up Twitter. Coincidentally, the very first thing I saw was this tweet from Steve Jones of Brand Like a Rock Star.

The age of customer ‘service’ is over. We’ve entered the age of customer ‘experience’. http://www.brandlikearockstar.com/blog/?p=1663  #marketing #business

Smart brands know that marketing today is about experiences. About feelings. Smart brands, like Starbucks, look at every aspect of the experience their customers have, and refine it to increase business. Everything from the chairs, to the fireplace, to the ultra-friendly baristas who will customize your beverage to your personal exacting specifications, is planned and designed to engage you. To get you to come back. To get you to remark on what a great experience you had. There’s even a new marketing buzzword, “UX”. People with “UX” on their business card are charged with crafting that experience.

This aspect of the User Experience didn’t seem to fit with the usual Starbucks experience. Indeed, while extremely inconsequential and minor, it had struck me as a negative about the brands. I admire Starbucks for trying to monetize a commodity like WiFi that is usually free, but the execution felt wrong.

If I were advising Starbucks, I would say this: Yes, sell sponsorship of your WiFi. However, do it with in-store signage and the Amex logo on the WiFi splash page. Even mega-site Youtube lets you skip ads. I would also pick the nit that WiFi that requires you to consume advertising is not technically free.  A minor annoyance is still a negative brand impression.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a trial balloon for Starbucks, they will get a few mildly annoyed customers, and they will be back to a sponsored splash page before long.

(PS: Steve Jones is one of the finest marketing minds in the country. Buy his book.)

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