By MELISSA ALLISON
Back in the social-media Stone Age, about 2005, customers who yearned to interact with Starbucks could talk to a barista or read quotes on its coffee cups.
''Love wins," read quote No. 257, from television and radio host Tavis Smiley.
''Evolution is beautiful," said No. 35, creating a bit of a stink in anti-evolution circles.
Now fans interact with the world's largest coffee-shop chain without even visiting a cafe. They just log on to their favorite social-media site and there's Starbucks or Frappuccino or Starbucks Indonesia chatting away.
One of the most successful brands using social media, Starbucks wins more than a popularity contest with its vast numbers of online fans. The sites have become an important way to advertise daily and, occasionally, drive huge numbers of customers into stores.
The fifth-largest brand on Facebook, with 34 million fans, Starbucks trails only Coca-Cola, Disney, Red Bull and Converse, according to SocialBakers.com.
Starbucks executives figure that through Facebook fans and their friends alone, they have access to nearly 1 billion people -- one-seventh of the world's population. On Twitter, its 3.6 million followers rank it fourth, behind Samsung Mobile, iTunes Music and NASA.
And that's just for the main Starbucks name. The chain has dozens more pages and handles for Frappuccino, Seattle's Best Coffee, Tazo Tea, other brands and foreign markets.
There are even "Starbucks Partners" pages for the chain's employees, more than half of whom in the United States are 25 years old or younger. A recent Starbucks Partners photo on Instagram and Facebook touted a California store where three workers made 40 drinks in 10 minutes - for a nearby zombie movie shoot, naturally.
Although having followers is important, the real test is interaction and sales, and Starbucks has been winning there as well. "Starbucks was holding Facebook promotions before most restaurants even figured out this was a space they needed to be in," said Alicia Kelso, senior editor at Networld Media Group in Louisville, Ky., parent company of FastCasual.com and other online trade publications that track the restaurant business.
Starbucks' first big social-media promotion came in 2009, about a year after it launched on Facebook and Twitter. It offered a free pastry with drink purchase before 10:30 a.m. (Its current Facebook promotion: Frappuccino Happy Hour, a free frapp from 3 to 5 p.m. through May 12.)
A million people showed up, proving "the channels are not just about engaging and telling a story and connecting, but they can have a material impact on the business," said Alexandra Wheeler, who's in charge of Starbucks' global digital marketing.
It is difficult to quantify a brand's interaction quotient, but the site Klout.com tries by using more than 400 pieces of information from various social-media networks. Klout gives Starbucks a score of 83, better than Peet's Coffee at 77 but below Dunkin' Donuts at 86 and McDonald's at 92.
Not all interaction is welcome, however. A McDonald's campaign backfired last year when it tried to use Twitter to highlight the farmers from whom it buys produce.
Although McDonald's used the "..McDStories" Twitter hashtag just twice, the Twitterverse quickly adopted it to post items denouncing and ridiculing it.
Posting on social-media sites used to be a one-person job at Starbucks. Now five people are on the job, veterans of social media from Microsoft, the Seattle Art Museum and the Phoenix Suns. Their charge is to "be authentic" and "be the best barista online."
That means writing pithy posts like the popular, "Sometimes a good cappuccino and a good book are all you need."
It also means being on top of popular culture. Sometimes, there may be a reference that resonates with an older crowd, like a photograph on Dr. Seuss' birthday of his cat's striped hat drawn on a Starbucks coffee cup. Often it's something for younger people, responding, for example, to singer and actress Demi Lovato's lament that Starbucks baristas do not know her name, with a photograph of a specially decorated cup just for her.
The posts are not always so spontaneous. Starbucks' schedule for social-media topics looks like the departing-flights board at the airport.
Some weeks it focuses on Evolution Fresh juices, other weeks on its global month of (volunteer) service. The whole social-media team takes photos for posts. Paige Dell'Armi, who has posted for Starbucks for about a year, even keeps backdrops tucked under her desk.