Starbucks wants your ideas

Starbucks launched a new 'social networking' site last week that lets customers suggest ideas for ways the company can improve its offerings

Think Starbucks should offer free Wi-Fi in its shops? Want a more comfortable chair to sit in while sipping your latte? Now you can tell the coffee giant exactly what you think, and if enough people agree with you, Starbucks might just do it.

Last week in the US, Starbucks launched a Web site that lets anyone post ideas about how the struggling coffee maker can improve its offerings. Visitors to the site can vote on ideas and also add comments.

The number one idea so far, based on votes and comments, is that Starbucks should offer customers a free coffee after they've purchased a certain number of drinks. On Wednesday, the idea had 394 comments and over 31,000 points (each vote cast counts for 10 points). Second in popularity is free Wi-Fi in the coffee shops.

The launch of the site puts Starbucks at the forefront of a potentially growing trend of companies using social-networking applications to open the lines of communication with customers. While it's more common for companies to use services like blogs and social networking internally for employee communication, some are beginning to use such tools in external applications.

A recent survey conducted by ChangeWave Research found that 24 per cent of companies polled said their company already uses Web 2.0 social software including wikis, blogs and social networking. ChangeWave surveyed 2,081 companies.

Respondents said that the main reasons they're using the tools are for internal employee collaboration and to increase efficiency and productivity. However, when asked how they planned to use Web 2.0 applications in the future, the companies said they would do so in order to improve external customer service and support, increase external brand awareness and loyalty, and increase sales of products and services, ChangeWave said. That indicates that companies expect to deploy more customer-facing Web 2.0 applications in the future.

Starbucks decided to launch its new site as a way to extend the dialog it has with customers in its shops online, said Alexandra Wheeler, director of digital strategy for Starbucks. Her team only began working on the site at the start of this year.

Called My Starbucks Idea, the site is built on a hosted offering called Ideas from Salesforce.com. "In looking at the space, Salesforce is really the technology provider that had the application and on-demand software service that came closest to what we were looking for," she said. Starbucks already uses other Salesforce.com services internally so it was natural to work with the company on this application, Wheeler said.

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