Groupon’s Secret Sauce (And How to Get Yourself Some)

Groupon’s Secret Sauce (And How to Get Yourself Some)

Reader Comments (65)

  1. I’m going to have to go with a “heartbreaking work of staggering genius”.

    Big companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Groupon all have things working for them. Figuring out what it is and implementing it can be a very successful strategy for marketing. After all, it works for them.

    Writing is the main aspect of being a blogger. If you can’t write properly and make it entertaining, then chances are you will not go very far.

    The only way to increase your skill is to keep writing, study others and research good techniques.

    You said it best, The writer runs the show!


    • Honestly that’s all Groupon seems to be: a great idea combined with great writing talent. Every email they send out is an example of a sales pitch, they have to make you want to buy the deal.

      I agree that writing is the main aspect of being a blogger, despite what some people might think, and I also like the first part of the post: EMAIL IS NOT DEAD! Far from it!

  2. I think writing is EXTREMELY important for two reasons:

    1) Writing allows you to communication with others. Although I don’t have the statistically data available, there is an enormous amount of power in words.

    2) Writing is a great way to create valuable content. This content helps position an individual or brand as an expert or go-to source in their respective niche

    Two of the most vital part of anyone’s success is the ability to communicate and articulate things effectively; that is their ability to write and speak.

    Looks like Groupon got the memo!

  3. I never considered Groupon something I’d use, but after reading that New York Times article, I have to say I wouldn’t mind working at a place like that. #editingFTW

  4. You just have to read one product description from Groupon to see that they know what they are doing. It’s an excellent blend of humor and sales and makes readers want that deal! There is a sense of urgency in the writing, and it’s not just because you only have 24 hours to decide if you want to buy it.

  5. This is the truth.

    We’re 90% text and images online. So what you write, and more importantly how you write can make up your entire identity.

    What’s interesting about Groupon is that they use only writing and images. There’s no video on the site, there’s no interactive chat with other Groupon users (sure they have comments… but that doesn’t really count) They have really good writing, and an easy way to share with friends…

    Yeah, I think we can learn from that 😉

  6. “I’m not talking about marginal Elance scrubs who think Microsoft Word gives them a license to write.”


  7. I like this Brian. As Bruce said, “a writer writes.” It can’t get any deeper than this. Seriously, any writer who uses Microsoft Word as their weapon of choice has issues. TextEdit or OmmWriter is all you need. 😀

    I’ve got a non-related question for you. You use the <br> element in your titles a lot, and this article is no exception.

    The problem is that the tweet button displays this HTML markup as well. How do you get rid of it? Do you have to manually set the tweet text each time? That’s kind of a pain in the

  8. Yup. I think it’s an excellent example of a successful style guide (and an exercise in molding an army of uniform writers). But those Groupon jobs sound a bit sweatshoppy to me.

    • Correct on all counts.

      1. Groupon gigs ARE sweatshoppy.

      2. The Groupon Style Guide is tight, precise and an excellent reference. Google it if you haven’t seen it — it’s a great read.

      But as funny and cool as the copy is now, the appeal will fade over time. (It’s kind of starting to lose its draw already.) It will be fascinating to see how Groupon adapts to this inevitability. Maybe they should check in with the guys to see how they’re handling it. 🙂

      And don’t forget that the OFFER is still about 90% of the success equation. It’s awesome to see a new online writing paradigm emerge (particularly one that’s so well-executed), but it’s nothing without the offers.

      • I’m not suggesting anyone go work for Groupon. I’m the one who encourages writers to be entrepreneurs, right?

        Andrew, you’re right about the offers being the main thing. But something tells me if they downplayed the importance of the writing and simply made straight pitches (like so many have tried to do) then they never would have gotten so big so fast.

        I’m not really that big a fan of Groupon when it comes down to it, but a success story built on talented writers is the icing on the “death of the content farms” cake.

        • I totally agree — Groupon’s style is about as anti-content farm as you can get. And there’s a profound goodness in that.

          To me, it’s satisfying that someone at Groupon, from the very beginning, must have said, “And we need some really good writing, too. We gotta have that.”

  9. I have to respectfully disagree with this post. I happen to think that Groupon’s email newsletters are really contrived, often don’t make sense and are poor examples of good writing. Take, for instance, today’s Groupon for Kerbey Lane Cafe here in Austin. This is the opening line:

    “Locally sourced ingredients are revered for their fresh flavors and innate knowledge of where to find the nearest T-shirt shop.”

    Passive voice? Anthropomorphizing “ingredients”? What does “T-shirt shop” have to do with anything?

    The fact is that I’ve given up reading the actual text in Groupon newsletters long ago because they were filled with drivel such as this. Great copywriting is important to email newsletters–it’s the heart of them–but there are far better examples to emulate and admire. Such a Copyblogger post that gets right to the heart of the matter without unnecessary fluff and gimmicks!

    • Jen, I find the writing a bit annoying as well. But that’s just me and you — clearly some people are into it enough to keep getting the emails, and keep accepting the deals. I can’t argue with their results, and any company that understands what an asset writers are is worthy of highlighting here.

      Now, if only those 400 writers would wise up and start their own businesses.

      • Hi Brian,

        I like that they value and encourage their writers. I’m just not sure how much the actual writing has to do with the results. I’m sure that the deals themselves bring in the bucks. And I agree: those 400 writers really should start their own businesses!

    • I’m an overall fan of Groupon’s approach to copywriting and actually think that line is pretty funny!

      1) Passive voice is not evil. It’s certainly not recommended for research articles, but it’s sometimes better than a vague alternative: “People revere locally sourced ingredients…” Leading with the best stuff helps.

      2) The t-shirt shop is a joke about people who frequent cafes (and by extension, the ingredients that make up their drinks) being hipsters who dress “ironically” rather than like a socially-accepted member of the community.

      Are the newsletters right on the nose every time? Of course not. But people don’t sign up for Groupon because they love reading the content; they sign up for Groupon because they want awesome deals, and if love the funny content, they’re more likely to spend more time paying attention to Groupon ads and become more frequent buyers with that approach.

      • Hi Jana,

        It’s great that you dig their style, but the fact that you had to explain that line to me is the main reason why it completely turns me off. I’m a writer and a businessperson. I don’t have time for cheeky, winkwink, nudgenudge jokes about hipsters. I want to know if I should buy something right now, and the writing is doing nothing to serve that purpose.

        I don’t hate passive voice. I just think leading with it is a bit jarring, especially when they’ve combined it with other convoluted phrasing that makes the writing dense and hard to get through.

        Also, thanks for supporting my point about the fact that the writing doesn’t drive the sales–the awesome deals do (despite the awful writing, in my opinion).

        • Jen,

          While I happened to enjoy the particular example you included in your post, I think that Groupon is riding a thin line with copy like this.

          On one hand, they could be alienating customers like yourself by using obscure humor that annoys rather than includes and, as a consequence, reduces the likelihood of more active engagement.

          On the other hand, those who feel included (who “get it” or claim to “get it”) feel EXTRA special because they had the prior knowledge to find the copy effective. Is it nice to include people at the exclusion of others? Not really. But pop culture references are frequently used in movies, television, and print media that aren’t universally understood.

          Groupon has likely weighed the inclusion/exclusion ratio and have decided that copy like this is worth the risk of alienating. It may be annoying, but – like you said – it doesn’t drive deals. You said yourself that you just skip the text, but you haven’t been so offended that you’ve opted out of the service entirely (a possibility if Groupon went too far).

          I can definitely see how the combination of the passive voice and the obscure reference makes you want to throw up your hands. Maybe an introductory paragraph that’s casual in tone but less dependent on references could draw more people into the copy and, by extension, the Groupon brand.

          You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

          • Hey Jana,

            I don’t care for the extra wording, etc. but I loves me a good deal. I don’t care HOW it gets delivered to me. It comes down to the great looking and user friendly website, up to date content, the great selection of offers and of course the 100,000+ subscribers and growing.
            The style and tone work on many people and for those who could care less about it (like myself) I can simply get right to the offer details.

          • Jana,

            I guess I’m just one of those people who doesn’t “get it.” That’s fine. I’m not offended by the fact that I’m not in on the joke. But I’m also of the opinion that good writing doesn’t make readers feel stupid. It makes them feel smarter for having read it; it finds a way to include them. That’s how you grow an audience. That’s how you make believers out of naysayers. That’s how you make more sales.

            One of my most respected creative writing teachers in college advised me never to rely on pop culture references to make my writing “good” or “popular.” There are a million other ways I can to make the writing sing. That has always stuck with me. And when I read a bad sentence–like my Groupon example sentence–I think about how it could’ve easily been so much better, clearer, more clever, punchier.

            We could probably keep disagreeing on the writing style. Obviously, as the comments on this post show, there are quite a few people who like it. And you’re right: the copy doesn’t stop me from subscribing to their newsletters or purchasing their deals.

            But, my question is why are they spending so much time, effort and money on their writers when people like me (and Nelly and others) don’t even bother to read it?

          • Jen,

            The people who “get it” and “don’t get it” aren’t universally fixed. One of my big knowledge gaps is musicians, so if there’s a reference to the drummer in The Who (whatever his name is) or a specific Bee Gees song title, it’s going to go completely over my head. I did happen to understand this one (or at least think I do – maybe I’m way off base!), but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t confuse me.

            Pop culture and historical references are used frequently in stand-up comedy; people like feeling smart and making the leap on their own. Those who use them excessively – Dennis Miller, for example – do alienate potential fans by using extremely obscure political figures or historical references.

            People like being part of an “inside” joke and feeling smart. However, as you pointed out, Jen, not being “inside” can make you feel dumb or unappreciated and drive you to find a company that treats you more respectfully. For whatever reason, Groupon has done its cost-benefit analysis and is willing to take the risk.

            (I did notice in the Groupon style guide that their general rule is to AVOID pop culture references, but I’m not sure where the hipster thing would fall.)

            I have a feeling that pop culture references to Elvis or Harry Potter wouldn’t cause anyone to blink an eye. Groupon – in this example and likely many others – seems to have allowed for more obscure references and has likely turned off customers like you and Nelly from reading the copy. If the quality/relevance of discounts decreases, losing you two as customers is a very real possibility.

            To answer your question about paying for copy that customers don’t read, Groupon has apparently decided that enough customers do read the copy and the conversion of that engagement to sales is worth whatever salary/benefits the writers get.

            Or maybe they just have money to burn – who knows?

            I have NO idea how they’ve come to this conclusion that the copy is being read by enough people and that the copy is the driving force behind sales – but then, how does any company reliably measure that metric?

            In any case, I’ve really enjoyed this back-and-forth we’ve had. You’ve challenged a lot of things I’ve said (in a good way!) and really made me think through some of my writing beliefs. I always enjoy learning just as much out of a comments section as I have from a post!

            Take care,

        • I actually think the tshirt joke isn’t at all about tshirts. I think it’s simply playing off being “a local” – someone who would know where the nearest *anything* is. You could easily swap hair salon or ice cream shop in place of tshirt shop. The joke is in the idea that ingredients would have such knowledge. Groupon doesn’t allow exclusion jokes (and they’re actually *really* picky on that one), so unless that one snuck past an editor, I think the whole hipster theory is off.

          Which really just proves Jen’s point: if it requires that much explanation…

          That said, while I don’t personally care for Groupon’s style/voice, they clearly have some writers there who do what they do very well. And, per Jen’s example, they have some writers there who don’t (or who, to be kinder, were having an off day).

  10. Hi Brian

    Practice makes perfect. And if you think you’re perfect – think again, then do some more practice :). I study karate and even the guys who are at the top of the heap are still learning. Same applies to writing.

    I hadn’t seen that 10 point post you did on how to become a better writer – most excellent.


  11. What’s behind every good actor or singer?

    Give up?

    A writer…

    A video needs a script and a song needs words. Writers definitely run the show.

    I’ve read Groupon’s manual. It’s hilarious. Their descriptions are very funny. The best way they market is to make themselves useful to consumers on a daily basis with their writing. I believe this is their secret sauce and I’ve seen it in other companies. This may not be popular, but I love reading my horoscope and receive a daily email from California Psychics with it plus blog post links. I don’t find all of their stuff useful to me, but I’m sure someone does on their email list. They’ve definitely found a way to make themselves useful to their target audience everyday with email and writing, just like Groupon. My emails aren’t quite as frequent, but they’re meant to be useful.

  12. You’re all crazy!!
    Groupon doesn’t work because of good writing! It works despite all that superfluous offer descriptions. I don’t need a humourous anecdote to let me know I can save 50% off upper lip waxing.
    While I agree that intriguing, useful and entertaining content is key, the next phase is websites like, and where they eliminate the need for ‘what groupon does best” (aka great writers) by simply giving you what you actually care about: offer details.
    A great anecdote will never encourage me to take out my wallet, but a great deal definitely will!

    • Ditto! I think Groupon did a great job of empowering people to evangelize on their behalf, but I agree with Nelly– not only because of the writing, but because of the great deals.

  13. I’m sure if Groupon just emailed a daily list of deals the emails wouldn’t get read near as much. Yes, it’s agreeable that the deals are what comprise Groupon’s benefit as a company to their audience, but the way in which they present those deals is equally as important… even the humor they use.

    Where one person may get annoyed of that humor, you’ve got dozens more that appreciate it. Groupon is not in the business of making every single individual accept their writing style; they have secured the largest portion of their audience as possible with it in order to rapidly grow their particular business model as efficiently as possible.

    The point of this post? To showcase how writing effectively can set you and your business endeavors apart, not to tear apart a multi-billion dollar company who is apparently doing things correctly, otherwise they would be floundering instead of flourishing.

    400 writers at $25 billion? That’s $62,500,000 per writer that the company earns. That is staggering to think about, and I’m sure Groupon understands exactly what they are doing which is working amazingly well for them.

  14. I get the point of the article, and I love great writing and Groupon has the best, but honestly? I’m tired of the silly, meaningless “sales pitch” and it’s really getting annoying. Like others have said, it’s the deal that gets me to buy, not the oh-so-cute descriptions. Just sayin…

  15. Hi Brian!

    Great article, thank you.

    Just curious, what are the top 3 sites where you would go to hire top quality writers?

    With gratitude,

  16. Want to know how I taught myself to write? Read. Read everything you can get your hands on.

    Read best-selling non-fiction. Read the best story-tellers. Read CopyBlogger (but of course). Read the best copywriters of the 20th century like David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and Fairfax Cone (just to name a few).Read the best blogs available.

    Enjoy what they’re writing but then go back and dissect what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

    And then steal. Steal with gusto. Steal all of the best tricks and techniques you can find.

    Somewhere along the line you’ll find your voice.

  17. Brian Groupon is however MISSING a very important element that IF the right company comes in could take them. Sort of like AOL to Gmail type of thing.

    That element is “engagement” I am a Groupon person and I have given feedback on some of their Groupons whether it was something I like to buy or wouldn’t purchase. And in most cases seldom did the Groupon employees or fellow Groupon members interact/engage.

    The competitor who can bring the engagement element to a brand in addition to the elements that make Groupon successful “may” out solve them thus out sell them.

    • That is a very very good point. Engagement definitely increases the loyalty of consumers toward a brand. Why would a company disregard feedback anyways? That should help them morph into something their AUDIENCE wants which I think would make more sense overall.

  18. Groupon’s power is in the deal. I don’t think too many people are analyzing the writing so much as the 90% off they get from that upper lip waxing 🙂 I think a lot of Groupon’s allure will fade in time just like Twitter’s did. People are going to start demanding more targeted deals and less of the cutesy descriptions. Investors are just tripping over themselves to get a piece of the web 2.0 pie. You’d think they’d have learned something during the dot-bomb. #justsayin

    Anyhow – I don’t think there’s any “secret sauce” to it. As you said, the writer runs the show!

  19. It’s a good point very well made. Lots of talk about Groupon’s model all being about social media etc but you are right in saying that email lies at the heart of it. They are azquiring huge amounts of customers via Google Ads and social sites but at the end of the day it’s a straight email sale and they are getting millions per day from it. Will be interesting to see how they expand though and what the local deals start to look like.

  20. Some day writers and poets will rule the world. =) Interesting that Groupon decided to hire all of those creative writers. Even with a coupon business model they saw that content was still king and they needed words that were persuasive and interesting to get the attention of a public that is steadily getting adhd. Would be nice to have 400 writers to listen to my every beckon and call, but for now I will have to birth all of that creativity myself. Great motivation in this post by the way. Love how easy it is to read your content on a regular basis.

  21. Boy, I think Groupon copywriting is just about the worst, most annoying and contrived drivel I’ve laid eyes on in a long time. But hey, cheap yoga classes and bikini waxes. Sign me up.

  22. I totally agree with Jen and Andy B. The OFFER is all I look at when I get a Groupon email (or text, which I look at more frequently now as I get the message faster).

    At first I was intrigued by the ballsiness, now I cringe when I read the text of the ads (which is almost never anymore). I often think that the style of the Groupon copy is completely out sync with the business brand and product being sold. Sure, the pithy, sassy, oftentimes snarky tone is fine for some businesses, but for all businesses? No. Same goes for audience.

    The English major in me loves highly creative writing, but the businessperson/marketer in me has learned to take into account audience, product, brand, and other elements when selling.

    Being a misfit, geek, and (mediocre) poet myself, I love that these gifts can shine and sell. I’m just not sure if this approach will have staying power; or more importantly, is right for every product, target, or brand.

  23. Being in the industry myself. I totally disagree with this blogpost. Groupon has fantastic writers and write a lot of funny stuff. But I actually think the quality of their deals as well as the quantity and the value proposition to local merchants is their “secret sauce”.

    Plenty of competitors are doing just fine and selling a lot of stuff with out the lack of fluff and humor gpon has. gilt, LS, TZoo etc.

    Gpon has reach and deals. Great ones at that. There “salesforce” is the secret sauce.

    But for bloggers absolutely content/style/voice is everything.

    Sidenote- Since when is 37k sweatshoppy? there should be about 9 mil people in america that should apply to that job?

  24. Copywriting is such a key ingredient to this “special sauce.” Reading a good book, you get drawn in with the better style of the writing. Just as you would get drawn in to an advertisement or website by the way the content is written.

  25. I rarely read the deal descriptions. When I do, it’s just for clarification. It’s all about the offer for me.

  26. Great job writing, Brian 😉 You should try this for a living or something.

    Those guys at Groupon are just J. Peterman on steroids, if you will.

    The simple fact is email is still the #1 way to reach the masses, weed out the non-believers and then pump up the volume on those that want to be pumped.

    They found their 1000 true fans and then another million or so.

    Kinda looks like a model to swipe, doesn’t it? Oh, you already wrote that, didn’t you 😉

  27. Personally, I’d rather write for Home Shopping Network than Groupon any day of the week.

    You wanna talk about pitches framed around a highly targeted audience? Their sales model requires at least 10 different demonstrations for any given product, each highlighting a feature geared to make the sale within the minute. And yes, these *are* scripted. The demonstrators are cast to entertain around the pre-planned pitches.

    While I’m certainly not one for buying a $69.95 turquoise necklace at 2am, on many more than on occasion, an hour or so of HSN has inspired me to write fantastic content that focuses on one thing:


    Good stuff. 🙂

  28. Forgive the complete and utter misdirection of the following comment, but the word “misfit” did a number on me.

    Calling CB the band of misfits who CAN’T think of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit toys.

    So, here it goes;

    King Moonracer: Brian Clark
    “A Dolly for Sue”: Sonia Simone
    Misfit cowboy who rides an ostrich: Johnny B Truant?
    Charlie-in-the-box: …not sure?
    Spotted Elephant: Sean Jackson

    Who am I missing? 😉

  29. Groupon should put their money where their mouth is and pay the writers what they’re worth. I agree those 400 writers should jump ship and start something new. They deserve to be paid what they’re worth.

  30. Groupon copy is a direct rip-off of the Woot copy, in my opinion. Is it good? Not really. Is it snarky and sometimes humorous? Sure.

    Their formula is quite boring. Take product A, compare it with a play on words item B, repeat.

  31. I subscribe to and read (or rather skim) through lots of different email newsletters. It’s interesting to read people’s styles, judge what I like and don’t like, and apply some new ideas. At the end of the day, practice makes perfect. I look at some of the first emails I’ve ever sent out to my mailing list and some of the one’s I write today. I’ve certainly improved, my open rate has improved and so has my click-thru rate. I’m making progress, but there’s still a long way to go…

  32. wow… $25 billion.. that’s quite a lot, keeping in mind that it’s been launched in november 2008…. but I don’t think that they have this success because of the email writing skills, but because they offer really great deals, compared to other similar service that appear since they launched…

  33. Brian,

    Thank You.

    It is all about writing and writers. However, I feel that many of today best writers tend to have a narrow view.

    In order to be a good copywriter, you have to read deeply and broadly too. Gone are the days when you could get by with just stringing sales pitches or doing the AWAI course or reading brochures and other marketing material.

    You also have to be willing to read serious fiction and non-fiction, especially books which are older and more historical. It helps to have an eye for the classics and literary criticism. Here, Simone is right on the money.

    You should contribute articles like this more often. You are a to-the-point writer and have your finger on the pulse.


  34. Oh yeah – totally agree. I know people who have run offers through groupon and they tell me that the account managers there really know their market – what offers work, how the copy shoudl read, what kind of headlines, etc etc. Seems logical we should learn from them


  35. Great post – thank you. I completely agree with your thoughts. I feel what it boils down to is the art of communication. Real writers are amazing communicators. They can convey any point in any voice. They can make you feel emotions you didn’t know you could. They can get your mind spinning in any direction.

    So very true – I thought email was dead as well?

  36. Dear Brian,
    In the case of Groupon, people buy with their eyes. It’s solely a matter of “picture” (the deal picture) and “price.”
    As a copywriter and marketer, I’d love to give Groupon credit for the writing but it’s not the writing.
    We see the email in our inbox, open it cause if’s from Groupon, check out the picture and the price and decide.
    I bet you two chocolate sundaes, (1) that the copy isn’t read at least 70% of the time and
    (2) that Groupon is going to peak.
    Come clean with me. Who makes new favorite places cause of Groupon that they go back to and pay full price when there are never stopping new deals every single day.
    Groupon rolls into town, makes some deals, is fun and then it’s more OVERWHELM. Brian, please buy me my sundaes in New York.
    Best wishes,


  37. Is it my imagination, or is this discussion a prime example in defiance of the old adage (meme) … you can’t argue with success?

  38. The way Groupon markets their stuff has got a very similar feel to the way Virgin (Richard Branson) works . Cheeky, Playful and Great Offers.

    But the difference is, Groupon makes it work solely though Email which is all the more impressive. Conveying that much excitement and fun in writing is an exceptional skill (a skill that this blog is helping me learn).

    Email Marketing is SOOOO Not Dead!

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