[Brad Nelson, the Starbucks principal Tweeter. photo from his file]
Over the past 11 days, I have exchanged 31 emails with Brad Nelson, the principal tweeter for the @starbucks logo Twitter account. I got to know a little about him. For example, he has a good. slightly edgy sense of humor. He's plays trumpet/keyboard for a Seattle-based indie rock group called The Preons . He's designing the site I just linked you to, and it's not finished. he tweets for the band as well. His personal Twitter account is @halfnelson. I found him transparent and open. He convinced me that he has a passion for Starbucks and a love for Twitter, but all things considered, he's probably prefer to be a rock star.
I tell you all this, because Brad does a great job of arguing the case for being a nameless, faceless voice behind the Starbucks logo. Yet, it seems to me that by seeing his face above, and hearing a few details about the person, you might prefer to know Brad, the Starbucks guy more than you might just want to see the Starbucks icon and hear his voice without actually seeing or knowing him.
Please read this through and tell me what you think either here or over in Twitterville. I'm about to write the chapter and your views may impact what I write.
1. You started as counter staff in a Seattle Starbucks. How, when and why did you become the principal Starbucks Tweeter?
I started as a "barista" (espresso drink making expert) when I was in high school and moved to the Starbucks Support Center (headquarters) four years ago to work on the music business. In the summer of 2008, I started working on MyStarbucksIdea.com, helping with the technology upgrades. I started researching what other brands were doing with corporate blogging tools. I noticed a lot of brands were getting into many different social media networks and not just brands interested in business, but government and political brands as well.
Starbucks is really a lifestyle brand, and is very personal to people; it just makes sense for Starbucks to be a part of the conversational world of Twitter. We started with the @mystarbucksidea account, because it was our first real social media tool, and grew to the @starbucks account. Both are still active, but the @starbucks account has grown to be very popular in a short period of time. Howard Schultz (Starbucks ceo) has been talking about the human connection at Starbucks for years; how Starbucks is more about people than it is about coffee. Twitter, lends itself so easily to a casual and conversational tone-- much like what you'd find in a Starbucks -- and it is a natural and obvious way for a brand to participate in the conversation. We found that oftentimes people were already talking about us, so it was easy to join in the conversation. I've been with the company for 10 years, so I've gotten to know the company from both the store level and from the Support Center. This knowledge has made it really easy to be the main tweeter for @starbucks.
2. Who decided that you would tweet as @starbucks and not as @bradnelson?
I don't think that you can underestimate the importance of an easy to find URL or account name. Starbucks would not have built up one of the largest Twitter accounts growing by 160 per day if we had made the account @bradnelson. There's just no way, especially since most people don't know me.
The thing about peoples' relationship with Starbucks is that they don't think of it as a big company they don't know, they tend to think of it as their coffee shop, the place they hang out in their neighborhood, the people they know who work there.
So @starbucks probably means something to them, when @bradnelson doesn't. Since Day 1 on Twitter, it's been important that I join in the conversation, and not just offer press releases, and product announcements. So, yes, the account is Starbucks' account and I am the representative in the community. One of my favorite parts of working as a barista was the opportunity on a daily basis to converse with customers. You got to know the regulars, not just their name and drink, but they almost became friends. This feels the same; I'm kind of the barista on Twitter... without the coffee of course. We still haven't figured that out.
3. What advantages does Starbucks see to you remaining anonymous?
I've never seen myself as being anonymous on the account. I've always written in my own voice, told people who I was, and told them small parts about myself. The thing is, people don't follow @starbucks to hear about me, despite what my mother might say. I'm there to help people with questions about their drinks, their wi-fi accounts, let them know about new beverages or promotions that are coming up. On election day 2008 we gave away a free cup of coffee to everyone that asked. Twitter was an essential component of getting the word out. We did some calculations and found that Starbucks was mentioned in the Twittersphere every 8 seconds that day, and we saw a tremendous amount of people join us in the stores to celebrate our right to vote and of course to enjoy some free coffee.
I've always been concerned with two things on Twitter; getting good content to share with people and responding to customers' questions and complaints. The important part to me was for the account to come from one voice, be human, be consistent, and be humble; whether my name is in the bio or my picture on the page seems secondary. Perhaps I'm wrong, but personally I don't think that's the point. If you have good content, a good personality, you tell people who you are, and you answer questions promptly, in my opinion, you're doing it well.
4. How do you respond when a tweeter asks you who you are? How often does that happen? Don't you think people prefer to speak to real people than to advertising icons?
When someone asks me who I am, I have always been forthcoming with who I am and what group I work in. I've tried to balance the content between being equally informative, relevant, conversational, and fun. Of course people prefer to speak to real people, and I've always been a real person on the site.
Many times I've had to inform people within the company that this isn't a channel for advertising and that they can't just send me 140 characters to post. It needs to come from my voice, and it can't appear too slick. I know that we will get called out because people are smarter than that and I think they deserve better than that. Our followers didn't sign up because they want advertisements; they signed up because they care about Starbucks and want to know what we're up to.
Absolutely. By making ourselves available, we can quickly respond to questions from our customers, and also let them know what's going on in our stores. One of the great things about Twitter, is that it is passive. If someone isn't interested in talking about us or hearing from us, they don't need to follow our tweets. It's not a billboard, a TV ad, or even a pop up ad. I like that a lot, and it makes me feel like I don't need to pitch people. They've already decided that they are interested in our brand enough to hear from us daily.
Twitter isn't the only social network that businesses should be in, either. People spend a lot of time on social networks these days, and you need to open yourself up to engage with your customer wherever they are. You can't expect to build a website anymore and expect for individuals to come to you to learn about your products. But you can talk to them about yourself, and Twitter makes that really easy and fun.
Probably the most fun I've had was when we launched the Starbucks Gold Card. I was able to get about 20 cards to giveaway to customers on the Twitter account. I wanted to do something a little different, so I had a haiku contest. Within an hour, I'd received over 200. The volume of responses was a bit absurd.
7. How has Tweeting for Starbucks changed you? How do you think it has changed Starbucks, if at all.
Tweeting for Starbucks has been a very valuable way for me to keep my ear to the ground. I'm a part of the online team, and we're one of the few departments to have contact with just about every department in the building. That makes it easy to share feedback, ask questions, and get our story out. In 2008, Starbucks discovered some important lessons through building the MyStarbucksIdea community. If you engage with your customer base and have a conversation with them, you get the opportunity to get incredible ideas and feedback from your customers and share your point of view. Sometimes you open yourself up for criticism, and that might make you a little uncomfortable in the short term. In the long term, it's in the company's best interest to hear where customers are frustrated so you can do something about it.
I really give a lot of credit to the director and VP of our online strategy group, Alex Wheeler and Chris Bruzzo. They gave me space and realized the importance of using Twitter. They also evangelized what we were doing around the company. I can see how some big companies could become afraid of engaging on Twitter. It's becoming evident that being conversational and transparent is how companies are going to succeed.
8. Additional comments?
If you think about it, the coffee shop throughout time has been a place where people gather to discuss ideas or meet friends. You could make an argument that the roots of social networking and Twitter come from this same place. Societies inherently need a place to talk. As a business, we just want to make ourselves available, if someone has questions, concerns, or just wants to say hi, we're there. Starbucks is, and has always been a company focused on people.
We didn't know how it would turn out when we started it. At times it was completely overwhelming, but it was always fun and interesting, and I felt like I was helping people. It just makes sense for us to be there. I think, judging from the response we've seen in just a few months, that our customers want us there too. I couldn't be more excited to see where it goes in the future.