As new technologies make it easier for everyday customers to pull the spotlight from brands, companies are scrambling to determine the best approach to managing promoters and detractors online.  That’s why, when I met Melody Overton (a popular unofficial Starbucks blogger) in a recent Twitter chat, I wanted to learn more about what made her tick---and what brands can learn from someone like her.

If you check out Melody’s Blog, you’ll find a high-quality site, full of great conversation and insight into the Starbucks brand.  She appears to have a large and loyal following that is highly participative. I sat down to talk with Melody about her passionate blogging for the Starbucks brand.  As a follow up to this article, I also plan to post a companion article with some Tips for Managing Unofficial bloggers on my site after our discussion.

Here is the transcript of my chat with Melody:

Melody Overton

Melody, tell me a bit about yourself.

Well, I'm an ordinary person who lives in Seattle!  Since 2006, I've been working downtown as a lawyer for a non-profit.  I hang out with friends, enjoy my city, and work a lot.  I usually blog on the weekends and late at night.

How did you become a Starbucks brand evangelist?

I have always enjoyed a good cup of coffee, and I’m a regular Starbucks patron. I got into a pretty strong and enjoyable habit of going almost twice a day, Monday through Friday, while working downtown.  It’s a nice break from a courtroom and also a quick way to recharge and re-energize the work day.

Eventually, Starbucks acknowledged my brand habit.  In 2008, I was invited to Starbucks Headquarters for a tour. Later that year, I was invited to a “Gold Card” event at headquarters, for the Thanksgiving Blend coffee.  Stepping foot into Starbucks headquarters really set me on fire. The Thanksgiving Blend event was attended by a large number of passionate Starbucks customers. It was amazing to meet so many like-minded, long-term, hard-core fans.  It’s very energizing in a good way to realize you are part of a much bigger movement, but it’s also very humbling, too.  I’d never call myself “Starbucks’s biggest fan” because I’ve learned that thousands of us feel the same about Starbucks.  All I can say at this point is that I might be slightly more visible than some other fans due to my blog.

Why and how did you start blogging about Starbucks?

In the summer of 2009, I had a strong desire to blog. I knew I had a lot to say and needed an outlet for myself, even if nobody listened.  As a lawyer bound by client confidentiality, however, I can’t blog about my work.

As a die-hard Starbucks fan, however, I had already engaged on several unofficial Starbucks blogs and had even been asked to join as a guest blogger on one of them. My problem with that centered on some of the negativity and monotony on many of these blogs.

After thinking about it, I realized that I had enough to say about Starbucks on my own, having been a customer for a long time and a Seattle resident. I had a ton of passion about Starbucks, and I decided that I’d rather invest my energy in a new site, so I started StarbucksMelody in September 2009.

What did you want to accomplish that the other blogs, at the time, did not?

In part, I did genuinely intend to create some competition for the other sites by creating an alternative community for people to join.  I wanted the site to be clean and visually attractive, diverse in terms of content, and positive and upbeat by nature.  To keep things positive, my policy is to be fair-minded while encouraging open dialog and active participation.  I discourage overly negative content.  Healthy and constructive criticism is fine---slander and name calling are not.  I have worked hard to get other fans and brand evangelists involved and continue to do so today.

I took a glance at a few of the more popular Starbucks blogs out there. You’re among the most popular, it seems. Tell me about your site usage and readership.

It may sound strange, but I pay less attention to how I rank against others than I do to the content I post.  However, based on my stats, I have global readership, which is no surprise because Starbucks operates in 56 countries.  Right now, it is not at all uncommon for me to get about 15,000 unique visitors per month from about 110 to 116 countries.

Recently, I recently received a tweet from a favorite Twitter friend. His name is Sebastian Birr.  Apparently, he was in a Munich Starbucks talking to a barista about my blog.  It turns out she was already a reader!  That was fun!

The blog’s readership slowly grows over time, slipping backwards some months, spiking on others---but pointing to a steady gain.  My readers are also pretty engaged.  Most of my blog posts get about 20 comments. There’s a very active “core group” of folks that come back on a very regular basis. In general, traffic and engagement are very content-driven.  For example, when Starbucks released the new "Trenta" sized cup, traffic went up exponentially.

How has Starbucks responded to the presence of your blog?

The response was mixed at first, but it seems to be increasingly positive. We have exchanged emails where I felt some negative energy initially.  However, I don't really want to go into that because emails are personal and rather one-dimensional.  Hopefully, I misunderstood them.  On the upside, there have also been times where Starbucks has reached out to me in a really positive way, making it clear that they enjoy the visibility and are flattered by it.  Adam Brotman, vice president of Digital Ventures, contacted me to talk about the Starbucks Digital Network, and I was also invited to a Friends and Family event for the opening of the Olive Way Starbucks.  So, I am optimistic about the future.

Have you met Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks?

I met him a few times in 2008 and have been to a number of Starbucks events that have given me exposure at the executive level.  I ran into him in late October 2009, when my blog was only about eight weeks old, at 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, which is a coffeehouse operated by Starbucks but without the Starbucks name.  He recognized me and politely said hello.  I told him I'd started a blog, and he looked at me with an expression that seemed to be irritation---an "I've got to get to work and you must be kidding me"  look.   He replied, "What's it called?"  I said, "StarbucksMelody.com."  I asked him if I could interview him for the blog.  He again gave me a facial expression as if I had two heads, but replied, "Maybe." And then said he had to go.

Unfortunately, running into someone like Howard is worse than having a Twitter conversation.  Your brain has essay-length thoughts to express, and you have less than 140 unpremeditated characters worth of time before he moves on or out.  I remember thinking afterward that telling him about the blog was a really dumb thing for me to do on all levels. I thought "What if I fail?  I just alerted Howard to the fact my blog existed!"  So, I'm really thankful the blog didn't tank!

Do you frequently get mistaken as an official Starbucks voice?

Well, first, it is very clear my blog is an unofficial blog written by a fan.  However, it does routinely happen that people email me using the “contact me” form or even sometimes contact me through Twitter, asking me questions because they think I work for Starbucks.

I have gotten emails asking, “When will I get my tickets to the annual shareholder meeting?” Just today, I received an email asking which stores sell the Vancouver BC Suspension Bridge mug.  I have gotten questions about the Starbucks Card, and I’ve been asked about how to open a franchise. I’m happy to forward them to the right official channel for their questions. The problem is, this type of stuff is bound to happen.  People often don’t read, and you just can’t control the Internet.

On the whole, this is probably one of the big downsides of the blog. It can create confusion as readers might think it’s an official site, and there is definitely the possibility that once in a while I have wrong information on the blog.  A barista will tell me something, and later, I find out it is not true.  This came up, for example, when I was writing a blog post about the “largest Starbucks in North America.”  I mistakenly thought it was in Seattle, but later realized that it is Texas.  Everything is bigger in Texas.

I noticed you also tweet under the handle "SbuxMel." So, with potential brand confusion and misinformation, why shouldn’t Starbucks (or any other brand dealing with unofficial bloggers) just try to shut you down?

That’s a great question.  I’ve taken the time to look around on the Internet, and there are a lot of Starbucks blogs out there.  Partners are blogging, there are other fan blogs, and there many Starbucks-related websites.  Starbucks realizes they can’t control the web---or at least, I think they do.  There is no logical reason to go after a small blogger with a positive Starbucks blog.  I’m good for the brand, or at least, I think I am.

Tell me more about that.  How are you good for the brand?

Well, I hope not to overstate any of this, but here are my thoughts.  First, my blog is a fair platform for open discussion about the brand by fans and critics.  Many like-minded Starbucks lovers congregate on my site, and hearing our chatter is a great way for Starbucks to get a pulse on what we think and feel.  We also encourage open, constructive, and respectful criticism, which is also a good way for Starbucks to learn.  In this way, we’re like a 24/7 focus group and another place Starbucks can gain insight, feedback, and ideas.  Furthermore, we’re promoters:  We encourage people to try new products, register their Starbucks Cards, and opt in to promotions all the time---and they do it.  Generally, the blog leaves people with a positive feeling about the brand---and that’s never a bad thing!

If you had one thing to tell brands about unofficial bloggers, what would you say?

Well, in a nutshell, it's this:  Know your advocates, and be responsive and transparent.

Thanks, Melody!

As a person who writes, consults, speaks, and teaches about about customer experience for a living, I walked away from my interactions with Melody full of thoughts.  First, I remember thinking how hard it would be to hire someone as bright, passionate, articulate as Melody is.  Just ask any recruiter.  Second, I know from experience that kind of zeal from a brand evangelist can make a company feel uncomfortable---especially at the executive level.  However, what these executives need to embrace is the idea that what folks like Melody are doing is a gift for Starbucks.  It only takes one look  at Melody's blog to see how much of herself she has invested in it, how much she cares about her audience, the content, and the brand.

The truth is, when a customer cares enough to share thoughts, criticisms, and feelings---in any channel---it's a gift.  This is true whether the feedback is positive or negative.  What brands like Starbucks have to decide, therefore, and in light of investments in their own blogs, crowdsourcing sites and partner channels, is how they will receive these gifts.  As they decide, they must consider that we live in a day and age where corporate confidence is at an all-time low---where people statistically trust people much more than brands.  In that light, it's important to consider how powerful unofficial spokespeople can be.  When a brand demonstrates sensitivity, humility, gratitude, and care---just providing great service provided on the local level---it can have a sizable, positive impact on the way people feel about brands.  In the digital era, people with a trusted following can be strong and highly vocal advocates for brands or huge detractors.  In the day and age we live in, it's up to the brand to recognize the voices in the digital divide, and decide how they will respond to them to extract every ounce of value there is.

If you represent a brand, I'd love to hear your thoughts about unofficial bloggers, fans, promoters, and detractors. Or if you want to weigh in and say hi to Melody, leave a comment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (www.livepath.net).