Groupon: Is It the Deals or the Copy?

  |  November 23, 2011   |  Comments

Groupon wasn't the first deals business, so what is fueling its success? Is it the deals, or the way it sells the deals?

I recently came upon a job listing for a Groupon copywriter. Of course, no one who has received a Groupon email can have missed the unusual way the company sells its deals - well, except maybe one kind of person, which I will discuss later.

Groupon has experienced incredible growth in its short lifetime, going public on November 4, just three years after its founding. It raised $700 million and is valued at almost $17 billion at the time of this writing. Groupon wasn't the first deals business, so what is fueling its success? Is it the deals, or the way it sells the deals? Can we duplicate what Groupon does right in our businesses?

Designing the All-Important Email

The key to Groupon's success is the daily email. I've always said that any business can send an email every day if the content is valuable enough. Groupon's deals are occasionally valuable, typically offering half off of the things we buy every month. But, consider that a person may receive dozens of deal emails that they aren't interested in for each deal they purchase.

What keeps them on the list for those irrelevant emails? We get some clues from the Groupon copywriter job description:

Each day's Groupon features a write-up describing the deal with thoroughly researched, informative selling points that range from the straightforward to the whimsical and bizarre. We strive to avoid marketing clichés, shooting instead for vivid description rooted in complete transparency and embellished with well-crafted absurdities.

The New York Times asserts that "Groupon's Fate Hinges on Words." I agree.

Waking Up the Brain

Why are "well-crafted absurdities" powerful? Because they wake up the brain. In his intriguing book "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," David Eagleman makes the point that our minds only notice things that don't fit; that our brain's CEO, consciousness, only wakes up when we sense that something doesn't fit. Case in point: the Groupon email for "Texas Lawn Services" that I received earlier this year provides a pretty standard presentation of a discount offer. But, when you begin to read further, the copy wakes up your mental CEO.

Neglected lawns and gardens quickly overgrow into jungly briars that attract deadly predators such as pumas, tigers, and the Predator riding a tiger. Chop, snip, and mow your way to an orderly and alien-free yard with today's Groupon…

"Jungly briars"? The "Predator riding a tiger"? For a lawn service? Good morning brain!

Roy H. Williams, the "Wizard of Ads," does an amusing and enlightening presentation in which he asks for five absurdities from the audience and pairs these at random with five businesses from the audience. He then creates an ad that starts with the absurdity and ends with an offer for the business. His point is this (and Groupon proves it): that you can begin an ad, landing page, email, or other communication with anything that will wake up the brain and successfully bring it to a rousing call to action.

Designing for Different Kinds of Readers

There is more going on here than interesting copy. Fellow ClickZ author Bryan Eisenberg and his brother Jeffrey defined four "Modes of Persuasion" in their book "Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?" These four modes define the primary ways readers want to get information and the way they research a problem.

Groupon designs its emails and deal pages with these four modes in mind.

groupon-email-example

The Competitive type must see a payoff statement immediately before they will spend any time on the page. The nature of the Groupon deal generally satisfies this need. Similarly, the Spontaneous type is driven by action. They generally scan for "bright shiny objects," looking for something to grab them. The use of images high on the page "Today's Side Deal" are the things that appeal to them.

The copy is written for a Humanist visitor. The whimsical nature of Groupon's copy says, "We wrote this for you. Enjoy." This appeals to Humanist sentiments, which value relationships. Humanists will scroll to discover more about the company, and will consume the page with more patience than the Competitive and Spontaneous readers.

Methodical readers are the fourth mode. They too will scroll, looking for details and information to support the offer. They don't like the "human touch," however, and may chafe at the copy. I believe that Groupon offers enough detail in its copy to satisfy many of these readers.

Sign Up for the Deals, Stay for the Entertainment

All of these elements work well together, and I would argue that without them all, Groupon's growth would not have been so astronomical. These emails and their sister landing pages keep 50 million subscribers on Groupon's list day after day. Subscribers sign up for the deals, and stay on the list to see what these Groupon copywriters are going to come up with next.

Making the Recipe Work for Your Business

We can use these methods as well. We can design our emails, pages, and social network content with these concepts squarely in mind:

  1. Design headlines that answer the question "What's in it for me (WIIFM)?"
  2. Use images and high-contrast calls to action that draw the eyes of scanners.
  3. Wake up the brain with something unexpected in your copy.
  4. Provide enough meaty detail for methodical decision makers.

These principles apply to consumer marketing as well as B2B communications. After all, you can't spell "business person" without "person."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Massey

With 15 years of online marketing experience, Brian has designed the digital strategy and marketing infrastructure for a number of businesses, including his own technology consulting company, Conversion Sciences. He built his company to transform the Internet from a giant digital-brochure stand to a place where people find the answers they seek. His clients use online strategies to engage their visitors and grow their businesses. Brian has created a series of Web strategy workshops and authors the Conversion Scientist blog. Brian works from Austin, Texas, a place where life and the Internet are hopelessly intertwined.

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