I’m sitting here sipping my Tango Passion Tea Lemonade bright and early on a Saturday morning, at a time when I’m generally determined not to move further than the couch and my Crunchyroll lineup. After downloading the Starbucks app for the sole purpose of using up the gift card I received recently, those clever souls in their marketing department hooked me. And they did it with an email.

I’m not even sure why I opened a clearly marketing-driven email at 10pm on Friday night other than that I’m a weirdo that critically analyzes text and visuals in email campaigns for fun and profit. The teaser text wasn’t even showing up for me. So when I opened it I only read the teaser before I immediately planned to be at my nearest Starbucks – 15 damn minutes away – at what is, to me, sparrow’s ass o’clock. (I’m typically an early riser and a morning person, but I abhor getting dressed and being places before 10am.) This is all it took to get me out the door at 7:45am on a Saturday on which I have no kids and no plans:

Now, I’m not a Starbucks regular. I didn’t even start drinking coffee or tea until grad school, and I was certain that that’s all they sold until I actually entered the one in the Southern Miss library in 2007. In any case, although I now have favorite drinks and treats, I’m not a frequent patron. So 30 Stars should NOT have had me excited enough to get up and out the door at a time when I can barely will myself to cook my children an actual breakfast. Somehow, they motivated me with something that would have absolutely zero immediate benefit to me outside of drinking my drink. The details show that there was no discount forthcoming, and my app tells me Gold status is a long way away for me.

So why was this successful? How did Starbucks get me up, dressed, out the door – and blogging – before 9am? Research and marketing strategy. Machine learning and gamification, to be more specific.

Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that allows computers to learn without someone specifically programming that knowledge. That is, a computer studies massive amounts of data and responds to the patterns it finds there. For example, at BJs we buy 2 or 3 boxes of French toast sticks per month. Since you must scan your club card to make a purchase, we’re identifiable. And low and behold, when those sweet stems of goodness go on sale, we get a direct mail coupon for it in addition to the regular monthly book of savings. Yay, us – or rather, yay, data! Big Brother watching does have some perks.

Gamification is the act of applying general game play elements to an activity like team building in the office or in my case, marketing to hermitlike otakus. Winning points, competing with others, achieving goals – usually with cute icons – is how gamification works. It’s not a magic fix, but boy, is it compelling when it does work. Points that turn into real (or perceived) value for players/customers is key. Lyft and Delta are showing you how it’s done right now. How many of you flocked to Lyft at the mention of Delta rewards points? That’s because those points actually mean something to you.

What does this mean for your business? As a small business owner (especially you solopreneurs), you may be trying to figure out the best way to get folks in the door and it’s time you understand that data is your friend. If you have customers already, ask them about their habits and preferences around the products you provide – not just whether they like YOUR offerings. This is an important distinction. If you don’t have customers yet, stalk your competition. Sign up for their mailing list and see what they send out. Check out their reviews on Yelp, Google, or even Twitter. Pay particular attention to what their customers love AND hate about them and let that information drive your marketing and product development decisions. There are many ways to find out what your target market is looking for so you can provide it efficiently and profitably. Need help with this? Let’s talk.