In Its Latest Mobile Ploy, Starbucks Finds Out How Many Hoops Customers Will Jump Through For $5

Written by Evan Schuman
October 31st, 2013
For years, Starbucks has been the best retailer when dealing with mobile payment. Mostly, that's been because their efforts are barely mobile payment at all, but instead is just the phone displaying a picture of the barcode from the customer's Starbucks plastic card. Low-tech perhaps, but it's worked wonderfully. Now the chain is trying something new, a way to use Twitter to send $5 gift certificates. But it's effort is so needlessly convoluted that it is making itself an excellent example of what not to do in mobile, when the program is designed for customers or employees.

Here's what Starbucks is doing with its Twitter effort dubbed Tweet-A-Coffee, according to a recap of some panel comments reported in Mobile Commerce Daily. "To send a gift card, consumers sync their Starbucks loyalty program account with their Twitter account. Consumers then send a $5 gift card by firing off a tweet to the @tweetacoffee handle and the recipient's Twitter handle. Recipients can then redeem the offer by loading the gift card straight to the Starbucks' mobile app, which is scanned at the point-of-sale by an employee. The offer can also be redeemed by showing the email confirming the gift card on a mobile device or by printing the E-mail."

Let's break that down. Shoppers must first create a account, assuming they don't already have one. Then they must create a Twitter account, assuming they don't have one of those. Then they have to sync that account with their Twitter account, which involves a lot of info-sharing between the two.

The Starbucks Terms and Conditions page for this program is a very fun read. For example, remember that Twitter information-sharing? Here's their oh-so-comforting detail: "You will need to link your Twitter account and your Starbucks account in order to participate in the Program. By linking your accounts, you authorize Starbucks to access your Twitter account and post on Twitter on your behalf. If your Twitter account settings are set to 'protected,' you will need to go to Twitter and change this setting in order to send an eGift using the Program. You cannot send an eGift to a twitter user that has a protected Twitter account."

Really, Starbucks? You actually expect people to "authorize Starbucks to access your Twitter account and post on Twitter on your behalf"? Is that really necessary? Yes, I know that that particularly absurd demand has been used by many retailers doing Twitter partnerships, but the ridiculousness of it never gets old. It also proves that pretty much nobody reads terms and conditions anymore (as though we needed more proof).

So let's back to this "simple" program. It bans use of PayPal or—ironically—the Starbucks card when paying for this $5 certificate. Only a credit card will do. (If we take them literally, that also excludes debit cards.) And if the customer knows Starbucks enough that $5 doesn't buy much, can they opt to pay for a $10 or a $20 certificate? Nope. The rules require $5 exactly, no more and no less. That's to keep it simple for Starbucks. They believe in simplicity, but just not for their customers.

Think this could be a convenient way to pay for your own certificate? Nope. The rules specifically say that "You cannot send an eGift to yourself." Their goal is to gather data on new potential customers, not to make life easy for existing ones.

Back again we go to the easy procedures. After this linking and giving enough information so that Starbucks can make it look as though you are personally promoting them (and maybe selling heroin on the side, if Starbucks is in a particularly mischievous mood one morning), you send off a Tweet. The recipient then needs to download the Starbucks' mobile app. And the recipient must then load the card to that app. It then needs to be scanned at the store. Now that doesn't sound like much of a chore, does it? (I love the "or by printing the E-mail" reference. That's exactly what a mobile program should do.)

The point for all IT execs dealing with mobile programs? Read your requirements and honestly ask yourself if all of that is necessary for a $5 promotion? And then ask yourself, "If I am the consumer, is this simply too much of a hassle to be worth the reward?" If you think customers will ignore an overly time-consuming program, what do you think your employees will do?