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Free Coffee and the Kindness of Strangers

August 10, 2011

Many of you have probably already heard about Jonathan’s Card, the social experiment currently flying around the Internet as people question whether Jonathan Starks is crazy, philanthropic, shilling for Starbucks or just a dude who stumbled upon a great social experiment. (If you don’t know about the card and the controversy around it, Mashable has a great explanation.)

Basically, Jonathan loaded up a card with $300 and put it on the Internet. He then told people to go buy themselves a coffee. We do love our free stuff, so as you might imagine, the American public quickly took Jonathan up on his offer and started drinking their free lattes. We’ve all been to Starbucks, and $300 isn’t going to last too long if you’re slurping venti Frappucinos, so Jonathan also offered people the opportunity to fill the card coffers. And then he put the balance on Facebook and Twitter. And within a couple of days, Jonathan had accumulated thousands of followers, all of whom are just interested in how much cash is on this card. The amount put on the card is pushing $9,000 as of this writing and according to Mashable, cash has been added to the card more than 500 times.

So what of all of this, aside from the fact that I figured I’d let everyone know there’s caffeine to be had even if you left your wallet at home today. Well, to be honest, at first I just thought it was a refreshing story with a refreshing lesson: Even when no one is looking, people do the right thing. Maybe not even the right thing in this case, because let’s be honest, not being able to get at your free Starbucks because Jonathan’s card is low isn’t exactly the worst problem in the world. But the fact of the matter is that when people took something, in this case a coffee, a lot of them felt like they should give something back. They wanted to give someone else a coffee. They got something of value and they wanted to pass it along. As a human, it’s nice to be reminded that people are inherently responsible if you give them the chance.

But there’s more to this story, because as they say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The way that Jonathan’s Card burst onto the scene should also be a lesson for all of us in both how to get an audience and what to do with them once we’ve got ’em.

Jonathan didn’t really take a huge risk with this experiment. He loaded up $300. When’s the last time you could get 10,000 Twitter followers for $300? Jonathan’s card got picked up by the online press because, quite frankly, we’re all so darned shocked when people just give us stuff. (Not companies. People. Who are giving us cash out of their hard-earned paychecks.) And when they just give us stuff without getting credit or even knowing who they’re giving it to, well, that hits a nerve. Get a little crazy. Next time one of the interns tells you about a nutty idea they have for a promotion, listen. Don’t blow up your brand or violate your base, but ask yourself what the cost of getting a little crazy is, and then, just maybe, go for it.

It’s not just about how Jonathan got those followers, though, it’s the fact that now that he’s got them, he’s providing them with relevant information they care about–namely, the amount of money on the card and whether they can get a free caramel macchiato. Jonathan’s an app developer and now he has a huge platform, but he’s not promoting his app development skills to his audience. He’s just talking about the balance on his Starbucks card because, frankly, that is all they care about. As long as the Starbucks card is active, Jonathan will have engaged Twitter followers who trust the info that he’s giving them. Pretty amazing.

I’m sure I missed something. What do you think of this whole Starbucks experiment? How would you use the platform Jonathan Stark just magically built? And, if you grabbed your free coffee, let us know what you got.

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