SEATTLE – Hundreds of coffee-obsessed consumers chimed in moments after Starbucks Corp. launched a Web site asking customers to pitch changes the company should make to revive its struggling U.S. business.
And they've kept those thoughts coming, by the thousands: Create a punch-card system with a free drink after so many purchases. Give people a free cup of birthday joe or discounts for using their own mugs. Let customers forgo long lines by ordering their usual with the swipe of a card when they walk in the door.
Skeptics have panned MyStarbucksIdea.com, unveiled at the company's heavily attended annual meeting in mid-March, as an online suggestion box that's already grown stale.
But the heavy traffic it's drawn and the message Starbucks is sending — that it's listening, and listening carefully — have impressed corporate marketing experts.
"Most brands do not put out a welcome mat for feedback," said Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of strategic services for the market research firm Nielsen Online. "Generally feedback is viewed as a cost of doing business rather than an opportunity. Starbucks is saying this is an opportunity."
Before it went live, Chris Bruzzo, Starbucks' chief information officer, said he was hoping a few hundred ideas would trickle in the first few days.
About 300 suggestions were posted in the first hour after the shareholders meeting, which drew a crowd of 6,000 and was closely watched by Wall Street analysts hungry for details on the company's turnaround plans.
By the end of the week, more than 100,000 votes had been cast, Bruzzo said. He would not disclose how many people have posted in all.
Starbucks is promoting MyStarbucksIdea on its main corporate home page and with counter cards in stores that say "Have an idea for us?" on one side and the Web address on the back.
But the company has long relied for promotion on word-of-mouth and an avid following of devotees and critics who regularly post their opinions on various Starbucks-related sites.
Part corporate blog, MyStarbucksIdea also has the feel of an online social network.
Though users can't link up over e-mail or post profiles of themselves, the comments they post often read like friendly conversations — with people complimenting one another on their ideas or elaborating when comments about their posts make them feel misunderstood.
The site is powered by Salesforce.com, the same San Francisco customer relations management firm that powers IdeaStorm.com for Dell Inc.
The world's No. 2 personal computer maker launched IdeaStorm early last year in hopes of repairing its battered customer-service credentials.
Both online communities offer three options for weighing in — sharing an idea, voting on it and discussing it — plus a tab with updates on which ideas the company is putting into action.
An algorithm built into MyStarbucksIdea pushes the most popular ideas to the top by factoring in the number of votes, how recently votes are cast and the volume of comments an idea has generated.
The first promises the company put forth in response to customers' pitches turned out to be ones it had already made: to offer free wireless Internet access in stores and rewards through its loyalty card.
Other early pitches that caught Starbucks' attention: offering coffee classes, giving drip coffee drinkers a quicker way to buy their fix, automating orders of customized drinks to speed up service and making seating more comfortable.
Jim Romenesko, a media critic who runs a widely read Starbucks gossip blog on the side, said he hasn't yet seen many original ideas on MyStarbucksIdea.
"I think that's going to be one of their problems ... and something my readers have noticed: It's become redundant after three weeks. There are only so many good ideas," Romenesko said.
About four dozen Starbucks employees monitor MyStarbucksIdea, each about eight hours a week. They're all specialists in segments of the business such as coffee and espresso drinks, food, ordering, payment and pickup.
Some people have proposed fixes to the site itself, complaining they couldn't comment on the company's blog postings. Bruzzo said that feature will be added soon.
The site also will break out the most popular ideas to give others a chance to rise to the top, and users will be prompted to search whether an idea has already been posted before they add their own, a move to keep duplicates to a minimum.
IdeaStorm has helped Dell win back customers' trust, experts said.
"They really are actually responsive on the blog," said Debbie Weil, a corporate blogging consultant and author of "The Corporate Blogging Book."
"More significantly," Weil said of Dell, "they've trained a whole department of customer service reps to be constantly trolling blogs and jumping on and saying, 'I hear you're having trouble with your machine. Here's what to do.'"
Weil characterized Starbucks' site as "corporate blogging 2.0," calling it "a very interactive, fun, interesting community."
Few companies have sought online customer feedback as assertively as Dell and Starbucks, but Blackshaw said more of them should.
"The ultimate form of dignity to the consumer is to ask for their opinion," Blackshaw said.
Online input, offered in real time from legions of customers is beginning to make traditional focus groups seem old-school.
"Is it better to listen to tens of thousands of customers vote on ideas, discuss them and participate with them over a period of a couple months, or get 10 customers in a room, feed them sandwiches and listen to them behind smoked glass?" said Bob Pearson, Dell's vice president of communities and conversations.