Stark Opportunities For Companies To Help Pay It Forward

Last night, I was given the option of “rounding up” on my bill at Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que as a donation to charity – and I jumped at the opportunity. In addition to being thankful for being given the opportunity to give, I wondered if it is helping from a business perspective as a builder of loyalty.  It seems to play no part in their marketing as an opportunity to draw in new customers, but what if it did?  Looking at this and some other recent opportunities to pay it forward – like Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card – poses the question of whether establishing or promoting simple ways to pay it forward can make a difference to a company’s bottom line in a positive way.

Round It Up America is a program that works with companies to allow customers to effectively and easily donate some change with every purchase.  The program was formed by the chain, The Yard House, in 2009 and has been slowly adding other restaurant partners since then.  They are currently represented through seven restaurant chains in roughly a dozen states.  It seems like a strong program that benefits the local communities where the restaurants are actually located with a reserve kept for national emergencies. I couldn’t find any proof that any of the chains were actively promoting the partnership beyond the mention on the receipt, inclusion in a simple press release or listing on Round It Up America’s site. 

I came upon the opportunity by accident and felt good about giving the money – perhaps forming a stronger loyalty for the restaurant I participated in and looking to sample other participating restaurants.  All of the participants can stand to do more work to spread the word about their involvement.  If only on their site, Facebook page and/or blog, it might not be enough as those visitors are already fans of the establishment.  There are numerous opportunities to reach people who are looking to engage businesses who support their own community. And if you ask most people, the only thing holding them back from donating to organizations is the simple secure opportunity to do so.

In a bit of a different twist where paying it forward becomes a human by-product rather than the actual plan, Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card made the rounds in August of 2011 before being closed due, in part, to its own success.  What supposedly started as an experiment became an opportunity for people to pay it forward in a completely virtual way.  Stark first published the image of his Starbuck’s card app with a $30 balance and the request for people to use it as they wish.

Instead of being quickly depleted, it lasted for weeks with people adding value to the card.  It became a version of leave a penny, take a penny.  Ultimately, it generated enough buzz that there was coverage and that was when things started to go awry.  You can find more information about what happened, but in a nutshell, someone wrote a program that enabled them to transfer the card’s value to their own card – effectively stealing from the general coffers.  Upon discovering this breach, Starbucks closed the account.

What was interesting about this “experiment” is that people took advantage of the free component, but also felt inclined to give more than they received.  The communal fortune and sense of belonging was stronger than the initial joy of receiving something for free.  Again, it was the opportunity to give that made the difference.  It was the equivalent of yelling “Drinks are on me!” in a loaded bar, but in a much more palatable scale.  Though Starbucks was not the sponsor of this event, they truly benefitted from the buzz and its subsequent sampling of both the coffee and the benefits of their app without spending a cent.

If only a company were able to tap into these communal benefit mechanics or something similar and actually leverage them effectively, who knows what kind of growth there can be in loyalty and bottom line.  The major challenge is in pulling it off without seeming to be manipulative or dis-ingenuine.  Customers will sense it instantly. There are many companies that donate money or time to organizations.  There are many that specify that a percentage of a purchase will go to charity, but not many put it in the hands of the customer like the two executions above show.  I imagine that corporate sponsorship of a program like this has been done before, but these just exemplify how they can be done on a simple small scale. If promotions is done properly by the right brands/companies/retailers/restaurants there could be huge upside while also making a considerable difference in the world – or at least the community around us.

In the case of Stark’s Starbucks card, the site and its Twitter account live on sort of in the capacity of showing how people are paying it forward in the way his radical experiment uncovered.  Perhaps the time is right for companies to tap into that sensation and provide the opportunity for everyone to give back and pay it forward…

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