Ms. Handler writes for Groupon, the e-mail marketer that was casually founded in the pit of the recession and almost immediately became a sensation worth billions. The musicians, poets, actors and comedians who fill its ranks are in a state of happy disbelief over the company’s success. In the age-old tradition of creative folk, they were just looking for a gig to support their art. Now stock options have made some of them seriously wealthy, at least on paper.
Poets who work here give away copies of their verse in the reception area. One poem begins like this:
closed my eyes and I was nothing
yeah, I was running
I was nothing
and then I was flying
That just about sums up Groupon’s brief history, which has been meteoric even by dot-com standards. Groupon, which is expected to go public within the next year, is either creating a new approach to commerce that will change the way we eat and shop and interact with the physical world, or it is a sure sign that Internet mania is once again skidding out of control. Or both.
The big Internet companies owe their dominance to something singular that shut out potential competitors. Google had secret algorithms that gave superior search results. Facebook provided a way to broadcast regular updates to friends and acquaintances that grew ever more compelling as more people signed up, which naturally caused more people to sign up. Twitter introduced a new tool to let people promote themselves.
Groupon has nothing so special. It offers discounts on products and services, something that Internet start-up companies have tried to develop as a business model many times before, with minimal success. Groupon’s breakthrough sprang not just from the deals but from an ingredient that was both unlikely and ephemeral: words.
Words are not much valued on the Internet, perhaps because it features so many of them. Newspapers and magazines might have gained vast new audiences online but still can’t recoup the costs from their Web operations of producing the material.
Groupon borrowed some tools and terms from journalism, softened the traditional heavy hand of advertising, added some banter and attitude and married the result to a discounted deal. It has managed, at least for the moment, to make words pay.
IN 177 North American cities and neighborhoods, 31 million people see one of the hundreds of daily deals that Ms. Handler and her colleagues write, and so many of them take the horseback ride or splurge on the spa or have dinner at the restaurant or sign up for the kayak tour that Groupon is raking in more than a billion dollars a year from these featured businesses and is already profitable.
There used to be a name for marketing things to clumps of people by blasting messages at them: spam. People despised it so much it nearly killed e-mail. The great achievement of Groupon — a blend of “group” and “coupon” — is to have reformulated spam into something benign, even ingratiating.
Ms. Handler is working on an offer for Pine River Stables in St. Clair, Mich., a place she has never been to. It is the stables’ first deal on Groupon: $18 for a one-hour ride for two people, half the regular price.
It takes Ms. Handler about 50 minutes to assemble the write-up, which is a few straightforward paragraphs explaining the details with the occasional gag as sweetener (The stables are closed “on Wednesdays, in the event of bad weather and on Horse Christmas.”) She puts off writing the first sentences, the ones that are supposed to seduce every Groupon subscriber in Detroit — either to go horseback riding or at least keep reading Groupon’s e-mails. http://registrodemarcas.weebly.com/
Still stumped, she browses an online thesaurus. She studies the Pine River Web site for the umpteenth time. She wishes she lived in a world without horses.