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How Starbucks is trying to change the media

In partnership with Yahoo, the coffee giant launches a Web media hub that's only accessible from its stores. This may, in fact, have more to do with the media partners than with Starbucks.


Caffeine behemoth Starbucks on Tuesday finally unveiled its revamped Web hub, a landing page that's only accessible from its in-store Wi-Fi networks in the U.S. Teaming with the likes of Yahoo (the main technology partner), The Wall Street Journal, GOOD, The New York Times, iTunes, LinkedIn, and Foursquare, Starbucks has packed the new site full of news both local and mainstream (including content that would normally be behind paywalls), free music download promos, local information like weather and bike trails, and movie trailers.

It's an interesting concept. Starbucks calls this the Starbucks Digital Network, or as senior vice president of digital ventures Adam Brotman called it in an interview with CNET last week, "the digital version of the community corkboard."

But what's almost equally as interesting is what Starbucks isn't calling it: the Starbucks Digital Network could easily have been pitched to consumers as a "digital newspaper." The slick, iPad-optimized news and media site is designed to effectively take the place of the stack of newspapers next to the cash register that many a caramel macchiato buyer has simply stopped noticing. And "digital newspaper" has become a sort of a buzzword of late, mostly because of News Corp.'s current construction of one, but also because of interest on behalf of other brands--not even necessarily news outlets--in seizing upon the mobile-reader craze to revive interest in reading what would otherwise be print content. Case in point: the Virgin Group and its forthcoming "Maverick" publication.

The content on the Starbucks Digital Network is carefully selected to be of interest to coffee-shop-goers: local information, downloadable music, quick bites of news and video. This ties into something that has always been true but conceptually hasn't been feasible for a media company to address until our current age of mobile devices and ubiquitous Wi-Fi: that consumer choice in news consumption may depend not solely on personal interest or geographic location but on a far more immediate notion of when and where. Restricting access to the Starbucks Digital Network to company-operated stores can give them an idea of just who's reading and what they might want to read. They're not at home. They're not at the office. They probably aren't sticking around for more than a few minutes.

To Starbucks, the concept of the hyper-hyper-local--not only are you in a given neighborhood in a given city, but you're in a specific coffee shop--is more than marketing. It's a new, more malleable way to detect what kind of content consumers are more likely to want to pair with their coffee to go.

The Starbucks Digital Network will, quite likely, be visited by many people. Through a new deal with AT&T this summer, Starbucks Wi-Fi has gone from paid to free. Brotman told CNET that there are now about 30 million logins to the chain's Wi-Fi each month and that the majority are on mobile devices like cell phones and iPads.

The challenge for Starbucks is to make sure those customers stick around rather than just hastily click through to their FarmVille homesteads.