Sharing (Some) Secrets of the Starbucks Partner Social Media Team

Every office has the smart, witty person who knows what’s going on and can always make co-workers laugh.

That’s the role a small group of social media strategists has taken on for Starbucks partners (employees) who communicate with each other through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’s rare for a company to encourage employees to publically connect through social media. Starbucks does. Even more unusual, Starbucks wanted to be a part of the conversation, not acting as the watchful company but more like a friend at work.

“We knew early on if we were going to be in the social space with our store partners, we needed to connect in a relevant way,” said Amy Alcala, vice president of Starbucks Partner Communications & Engagement. “We needed to have authentic conversation with partners, we wanted to recognize our partner contributions, laugh with them and give them a platform to tell their story. It was time to drastically change the way we as a company communicate.”

Change began three years ago when Alcala and her team in the Seattle headquarters wanted to connect with partners thousands of miles away, across the Pacific Ocean, after the massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March of 2011. At the time, Starbucks had about 900 stores and 20,000 partners in the country. In a show of support, Alcala’s team created a Starbucks Partners Instagram account for sending encouraging messages to partners in Japan.

Using the hashtag #SupportJapanPartners, the social channel became a place for partners around the world to show concern for those who were devastated by the disaster. Posts quickly evolved into a visible campaign of hope for the people of Japan.

Starbucks created a simple pdf of a cup band that featured a green circle as the “O” in the word “HOPE” along with the message: “Warm thoughts for Japan, in support of my fellow partners in Japan and all those affected by the recent tragedies.” Baristas around the world slipped the band over Starbucks iconic white cups and posted photos on Instagram.

The response affirmed that partners deeply care for one another, were proud to be a partner at Starbucks, and were eager to connect with one another.

‘Something magical is going on’

Many on the Partner Communications & Engagement team worked as Starbucks baristas early in their careers, so the decision about the kind of personality and tone to convey through social media was an easy one. They would have fun, but never joke at a partner's expense. The team would never market to partners or talk down to them - it was all about talking with and listening to store partners.

“This social journey has been a reinvention of the way we communicate. It’s not company-to-partner anymore. It is partner-to-partner conversation,” said Regan Zeebuyth, senior manager of Partner Digital Engagement at Starbucks. “I have a fundamental belief that something magical is going on in the way partners connect with each other through social media on a global scale.”

What started in 2008 as one social platform for partner sharing grew in 2012 when the team took over a Facebook page the company had previously used to post notices about hiring fairs. Starting with 18,000 likes, the official Starbucks Partners Facebook page now has more than 164,000 followers and growing.

The Starbucks Partners Twitter account launched in August 2012 with a simple “hi!” The team continues to expand their social presence, also launching a partner community on Google Plus.

Starbucks partners find each other on social channels to share their experience, exchange coffee knowledge, and celebrate milestones like becoming a Coffee Master or getting promoted. They recognize their Starbucks anniversaries and exciting moments like ”turning a Starbucks store red” for the holidays. They laugh about daily experiences common to all baristas like the countless Sharpies that go missing in stores and madness that ensues when someone spills the mocha.

Too often, they’ve come together to share tears.

In December 2012, the Starbucks partner community honored a partner who was killed in the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre.

"At that moment our partners, customers and community came together in a powerful way," said Kara Larson, senior manager of Partner Communication. "We do not take that responsibility lightly."

Natural disasters have also brought out moments of connection. Partners worked with their communities to recover and rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, tornadoes in Oklahoma, a devastating landslide in Washington State, and now wildfires burning in California.

Starbucks Partner social channels have become a mirror of partners’ lives in cities around the world. That reflection ranges from serious to sometimes silly. Starbucks chief instigator of fun is Dan Jensen, who manages the day-to-day social media posts.

“Fun is our most popular content,” said Jensen. “Whether it’s an authentic moment of partners being excited opening up promotional packages or posting a photo of themselves with Oprah. It makes me happy to see partners engaging with each other.”

Store promotional materials for Starbucks new Teavana® Oprah Chai included a poster of Oprah which partners cozied up to for more than 2,000 lighthearted social posts in two weeks using the hashtag #OprahSelfie.

To Be a Partner

“Stabucks partners bring life to everything in such a unique way - exceeding all expectations,” said Alcala.

This was evident in the #tobeapartner campaign which includes more than 140,000 images on Instagram alone and has resulted in national recognition for the Partner Communications & Engagement team.

The ongoing #tobeapartner social effort includes storytelling, photos and short video vignettes of partners talking about their shared experiences about what it means to be a partner at Starbucks. Ragan, the leading publisher of corporate communications and leadership development, presented Starbucks with this year’s prestigious “Best Use of Social Media” award for employee communications.

“We’re thrilled about this recognition and we share it with all our Starbucks partners. There’s so much more to come! We can’t wait to share the other cool things we’re working on for our partners," said Alcala.

What does “to be a partner” mean to these leaders of the Starbucks Partner Communications & Engagement team?

Amy Alcala

“It means so much. Being a partner means to care, to be curious and to recognize potential.”

Regan Zeebuyth

“The heart of being a partner is about relationships. We are a people-focused company. That’s what drew me here to become a partner and it’s the relationships that I’ve gained – professionally and personally – that will reward me for a lifetime.”

Kara Larson

“What it means to me: the opportunity to be a part of and support a different kind of family.”

Dan Jensen

“To be a partner means to have a family. I get to watch those family members grow, develop, achieve results and ultimately find their own destiny within Starbucks. It’s extremely satisfying to see those journeys unfold.”

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‘By us and for us:’ New Starbucks merch inspired by LGBTQ+ community