Heard about Starbuck's "Cheer Chain" phenomenon? It's when someone spontaneously starts a pay-it-forward chain reaction of goodwill, such as buying coffee for the stranger behind them.
Cheer Chain stories are suddenly popping up all over media, including Fox News and Good Morning America, which coincidentally happened at the same time as the company’s “Pass the Cheer” ad campaign. To promote the campaign, Starbucks is handing out “cheer passes” of free coffee or gifts to random customers so they pass on the goodwill to others.
Starbucks claims the sudden spike in media coverage is unsolicited. Just the media doing their job, reporting on holiday goodwill stories this time of year, they argue. The cynics, such as The Consumerist Blog, are challenging that claim, calling it a lame PR stunt.
So I called a friend who works for one of Starbuck’s marketing agencies to get the inside scoop. He said he did partake in a guerilla marketing campaign, handing out cheer passes and other goodwill gestures to strangers in the streets and stores in an effort to ignite a cheer chain. When asked if Starbucks PR was actively pitching these so-called “phenomenon” stories to media, he pleaded the Fifth, but did say Starbuck’s PR agency was involved in the campaign in some undisclosed way.
My take is, what’s the big deal? It’s not like Starbucks is being less than transparent in the intent of the cheer pass campaign. Whether the phenomenon starts organically or is the result of street-level marketing manipulation, who cares? The resulting goodwill is the same. And who would fault Starbucks PR for shopping the story around to media? If it’s true the company is planting stories but denying it, why? What do they have to lose by pretending cheer chain stories are self seeding?
BONUS: To put you in the holiday spirit, check out this parody blog post of celebrity chef Ramsay Clark boasting how he broke the Starbucks cheer chain. (Contains profanity)
The movie business is hooked on the quotes game. Look no further than the Arts section of your daily newspaper, Rotten Tomatoes or TV. It’s the # 1 strategy used to persuade us to see a new film.
The quotes game has a definite stratification system.
The “best” movies attract the strongest testimonials. For example, the ad for critics fave “No country for old men,” is chock full of quotes from A-List film savants like Peter Travers at Rolling Stone and Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun Times. “American Gangster,” one of the few money makers of Fall 07, showcases quotes from Rolling Stone, Ebert & Roeper, The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press.
The second tier movies (per critics) start relying on B-List media sources. “Beowulf,” for example, has to rely on the Salem Radio Network. Fred Claus trumpets how it’s “One of the FUNNIEST COMEDIES OF THE YEAR,” but the source – WDAF-Fox TV - is cited. They also needed The New York Sun. Similarly, “Badland” needed Wolf Entertainment Guide to make their case. Not exactly Elle or Vogue.
Ads for third tier movies crack me up. They play the quotes game but don’t have the ammunition.
When positive media reviews are hard to come by, some media still steps up to the plate. “The Mist,” for example, relies on Wireless Magazine for its one and only quote, calling it “The Scariest movie of the year!” Sometimes the type size is so diminutive you can’t read the source without a magnifying glass. One ad I saw for “August Rush” was like that. “Awake” also features one quote in its ad, and it’s from Wireless Magazine. I’ve never read Wireless Magazine, but I’ve noticed how it’s frequently a refuge for movies orphaned by film critics.
Occasionally, a new movie ad doesn’t play the quotes game at all. “Hitman” is a current example. I’m so programmed to seeing quotes, I’m usually skeptical. I figure it’s so bad even Wireless won’t play ball.
We play the quotes game in the PR and technology industry too. But it’s a little different because there are two levels: customers and the press. Unlike the movie industry where critics watch movies and then share their opinions, the technology industry has to first tee-up customers before (hopefully) getting positive media quotes. Reporters validate story truthfulness and newsworthiness by speaking with satisfied customers - actually using the heralded product. Customers can buy and use whatever product they want, so there’s an implicit truthfulness. It’s a much needed checks-and-balance in news gathering.
If you don’t have any customers (and sometimes industry analysts) to validate your story, then you may not have a story, period. Conversely, if you can deliver excellent customer references, you may just end up with a phenomenal bit of press coverage or a prolific blog conversation.
Another difference we see is that sometimes the best stories don’t elicit the strongest quotes – or any quotes at all. Customers unwilling to publicly validate a product, concept, vision or company may cite a litany of reasons for not getting involved, including proprietary information, competitive advantage, company policies, etc. It’s a real stretch for reporters to make this leap.
The movie industry’s tiered quotes structure exists in tech. The A-List customer validators in our industry are the marquee consumer companies (think Best Buy, Disney, Neiman Marcus, Starbucks, etc.) and premier B2B players (think American Express, GE, Bank of America, Boeing, etc.). We all know the A-List offline media, but some online media – like Salon and Slate are at this level.
B-List customers are the bread-and-butter of our business. Most of these companies aren’t as well known but they’re solid players willing to go public with their story. The B-Listers on the media side can include substantive trade and vertical pubs as well as online properties like CNet and Slashdot.
The C-List validators get you by, but they aren’t as persuasive. On the customer side of the quotes game, technology companies sometimes fall in this category. Even the biggest names may not cut it because many reporters shy away from tech companies endorsing tech products. I guess they figure it’s too incestuous or something, with one hand feeding the other. C-List customers also include companies few – if any - have heard of; they may be great, but their zero star power diminishes persuasion.
Who do you think is the tech industry’s Wireless Magazine?
Nothing particularly remarkable here...except for its transparency, which runs contrary to control-the-message mindset of press conferences. AMD chose to gag their PR handlers, turn the cameras on themselves and wing it relatively unscripted.
The best thing about the Web is that no government, corporation or person controls it. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but hold on tight: social media, with its user-generated content, is sometimes taking this anarchy to the extreme.
Some disturbing examples of antisocial media:
A hater in my town. I registered on Hatebook to research this blog. The site is a spoof of Facebook, the social networking juggernaut. What isn’t so tongue in cheek is the profile I discovered of a guy across town. His blurb would make Hitler smile. It’s too vile to quote. Books he hates: the Koran.
A dead girl. Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself Oct. 16, reportedly after being jerked around online by a cute boy named Josh. He turned out to be a totally virtual MySpace cyber crush allegedly concocted by a family in Megan’s Dardenne Prairie, Mo., neighborhood.
An unpleasant holiday surprise. As detailed by the Washington Post, newlywed Sean Lane of Waltham, Mass., went online and bought his wife a diamond ring for Christmas. Facebook’s new social advertising engine made the news visible to more than 700 of Sean’s friends, co-workers, former classmates and acquaintances – plus his wife. Just to put a fine point on it, the alert said the jewelry was lovingly selected from that Tiffany’s of the tight-fisted, Overstock.com. This incident was unintentional but shows that social media, like a kid hitting puberty at age seven, is maturing rather quickly. (Facebook has tweaked the advertising engine to post notices only when the buyer opts in.)
I have no solutions. Haters, bullies and gossips existed long before the computer. Just something to consider the next time you log on.