By Joe Pulizzi published May 12, 2011

The Skinny on Groupon’s Content Strategy

I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic Confab session yesterday featuring Brandon Copple, the managing editor for Groupon.

For those of you not familiar with Groupon, it’s a deal-of-the-day website launched in November of 2008 that now serves over 175 markets in North America.  Most recently, the founder turned down a billion dollar deal from Google.

So, in less than three years, Groupon has a multi-billion dollar valuation, turned its nose up at Google, has over 7,000 employees and over 70 million subscribers, and does more than 500 deals per day around the country.

Groupon Logo

And their competitive advantage is their content.

As the great Don Schultz says, competitors can copy anything and everything you have, except the way you communicate with your customers.  Groupon takes this to heart.  Let me tell you how they do it.

Groupon’s Editorial Goals

  1. Protect the customer experience.
  2. Protect the Groupon brand.
  3. Ensure deals are fair transparent and awesome.

An important note for all our content marketing strategies is that the customer experience goal for Groupon comes first.  Very important to your content mission.

The Goal of Each Piece of Content

Every piece of content that Groupon develops has two objectives:

  1. Describe the feature deal
  2. Entertain

The entertainment part is critical to Groupon’s content strategy.  They entertain with humor and take humor very seriously, but humor is never more than 20% of the overall copy.  Since the first objective is to describe the deal, that takes precedent.

Groupon believes that although the deals are primary, readers keep coming back in many ways to be entertained by the storytelling.  That draws them in, and ultimately gets them interested in the deal.

Groupon Editorial Principles

  • Respect. Assume readers are smart and busy. Never dumb things down. No advertising lingo because the readers will tune that out.
  • Independence. Never collaborate with merchants or sales on content…never.  Groupon’s content is their content and only their content to use.
  • Accuracy. Must verify all details with legions of fact checkers.
  • Transparency. Never oversell the product.  Nothing is ever too good to be true.
  • Editorial not advertising. If it smells like an ad, both Groupon and the deal lose out.

Elements of Groupon’s Style

Active Voice

  • Active creative language.
  • Sentences that jump off the page.
  • Creative verbs and descriptors.

Point of View

  • 3rd person. Minimize the 2nd person.
  • Groupon will never presume they know the reader that well.

Show Don’t Tell

This is key.  Groupon writers work to create pictures with words like…

Plush couches and velvet drapes swaddle patrons beneath Savior Lounge’s 15 foot ceilings.

Research

Only when a writer thoroughly understand the deal does she earn the privilege of writing creatively about it.

Groupon Editorial Staffing

Of Groupon’s 7,000 employees, they have 425 editorial employees. For Brandon’s team specifically, he oversees 101 writers and 43 voice editors.

In addition, Groupon employs:

  • 26 image designers.
  • 49 fact checkers.
  • 39 review researchers.
  • 22 copy editors.
  • 2 full time writer/editor trainers.
  • 4 creative recruiters (writers hiring writers).

Where do writers come from?

Most Groupon writers are young and begin at approximately $37,000 per year.

The majority are journalists, but others are creative writers, fiction writers, poets, artists, actors, musicians, filmmakers and copywriters.

The Groupon Process in Eight Steps (plus 1)

  1. Deal creation
  2. Image design
  3. Reviews
  4. Details
  5. Fact check
  6. Voice edit
  7. Copy edit
  8. Quality assurance
  9. Site edits (if there was anything wrong after publishing)

Groupon Lessons Learned

  1. Recruiting is the most important. Be sure you have writers hiring writers.
  2. Writing is a combination of in-house and freelance writers.
  3. Demystify the content process through rigorous training.
  4. Haters are better than silence.  Brandon’s point was that it is much better to have people saying negative things than nothing at all.  For every negative complaint they review to see if it was a process breakdown or something that can be ignored.
  5. Embrace constraints.  Standards and rules are key to success.
  6. Never use humor at another’s expense.
  7. Hire for potential, not experience.
  8. C-level buy-in is mandatory (their CEO, Andrew Mason, is a true evangelist for content marketing and original editorial creation).

Overall, what’s amazing about the Groupon story is that Groupon, more than anything else, is a media company.  All companies can learn a great deal about their model, even if some of us may not like their service.

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi considers himself the poster boy for content marketing. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, Joe evangelizes content marketing around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books, Managing Content Marketing and Get Content Get Customers. Joe's latest book is Epic Content Marketing (McGraw-Hill). If you want to get on his good side, send him something orange. For more on Joe, check out his personal site or follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

Other posts by Joe Pulizzi

  • http://www.brainshark.com Irwin Hipsman

    Joe-I find that “Voice” is one of the least understood elements of content creation. Your readers may be interesetd in a 6-minute presentation by Aviva, a UK insurance company on the topic of Tone of Voice. It was voted the Best Brainshark Presentation of 2010. The blending of the visuals, narration, script and interactivity are fantastic. The link is http://www.brainshark.com/gallery/vu?pi=zBJz3T55mz0z0

  • http://www.zmags.com/blog Christina Pappas

    I do see one problem with Groupon and that’s one sliver of their audience. This is the group that signs-up, receives the daily emails with deals but never buys anything. I think there is a huge opportunity for Groupon to work with the suppliers of the deals published and promoted on their site to encourage this group to buy from the unknown. yes, its great you sent me a deal for a $25 massage but I dont know that massage parlor from a hole in the wall so I probably wont buy and Groupon is not giving me enough information to inspire me to buy right away. Would love them apply all the great things you mentioned here in this post to get the activly subscribed non-buyers to take an action.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/dftanaka Daniel T

    Great write-up Joe, I’ve been a Groupon subscriber for a while now and have always been entertained by their writing. Very interesting to see their approach and process to consistently producing quality content. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.paigeworthy.com Paige Worthy

    Sigh.
    Jury’s out for me on Groupon’s content. Having read their editorial style guide “cover to cover” (as much as you can something online) I really admire the process and acknowledge that they have quite the system going.

    That being said, I find their voice and humor to be so contrived and overwrought that it turns me off and actually makes me give up on the deal 9 times out of 10. I’m pretty convinced that Groupon thinks their audience is made up entirely of post-college boys who can’t get a date and watch Futurama reruns before bed.

  • http://area224.com Dave Van de Walle

    I guess it’s fine that they have this figured out, the whole content strategy stuff, but what happens when the audience becomes really tired of it all.

    What if there’s a tremendous backlash and we all start to suffer from “snark fatigue?” What if, to Ms. Worthy’s point above, the site has the staying power of Futurama – and not The Simpsons?

    Interesting discussion though. They’ll get darts thrown at them, sure, because of who they are. So I’ll applaud them for having a strategy, and a guide.

  • http://www.slice-works.com Meredith Rabil

    Hi Joe,
    I loved this post. I’m a hug fan of groupon and I think my loyalty will stay wit them over Facebook deals. Especially after getting to look at their process and how they take content seriously.

  • jqp

    Not once have I cared about Groupon’s “content”. And I don’t believe I am alone. When I mentioned this post to a couple Groupon cheerleading friends of mine they were a bit surprised by the effort put into the content.

    If the email notification subject isn’t of interest to us, we’re not even going to bother clicking through to the rest of the content. And if it is, we click through because we intend to make a purchase. The rest of the content is irrelevant, and for us a waste of time.

  • http://marsh8.com Jason Marsh

    That’s a fascinating point about Groupon’s use of humor. Or better yet, attempt at using humor. I’ve long though that their attempt at humor in their daily deal emails has been very poorly executed that it is distracting and off putting.

    The approach to entertain as well as inform is a good one. But given all their success, they might consider hiring some decent humor writers to actually realize that goal.

    But ultimately their success, with content and otherwise, boils down to tremendous reach and providing bargains.

  • http://www.gourmetpopsicle.com GourmetPopsicle

    I guess I’d have to say I’m team Groupon. I actually enjoy their content. I think any organization with as much reach as Groupon is going to draw some criticism.

  • http://jeffkorhan.com Jeff Korhan

    Outstanding article Joe. I especially love that haters are better than silence. I was just talking with a client about that yesterday. Always best to have some kind of feedback.

    Jeff