Social couponing: Big idea … but big profits?

Groupon logoThe rise of the Internet has changed the way the couponing business operates. Not only are people logging online to find coupons rather than searching for them in the local paper, so-called “social couponing” has also entered the scene. This is where online coupon offers become active only after a minimum number of registered users sign on to them.

Groupon is probably the best-known of these couponing platforms, although there are others active in the field including MyCityDeal, Half Off Depot, BuyWithMe and LivingSocial. [Interestingly the idea of social couponing originated in the People’s Republic of China.]

The concept, as Groupon does it, is pretty simple. It offers one “Groupon” per day in distinct market segments. If a predetermined specified number of people sign up for the coupon offer, the deal then becomes available to all; otherwise, the offer doesn’t take effect.

Groupon makes its money by getting a percentage of the deal from the participating retailers.

In theory, social couponing reduces the risk for retailers, who can treat the coupons as brand promotion tools in addition to offering discounts or freebies. But research carried out recently by the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University throws a bit of cold water on this hot idea.

The Rice research, which included ~150 businesses, found that the Groupon campaigns were unprofitable ventures for one-third of them. Furthermore, ~40% of the companies studied stated that, based on their experience, they don’t plan to run another social coupon promotion.

The Rice study measured program success based on two criteria: what portion of customers spent more than the coupon amount … and to what degree did customers subsequently make follow-up purchases without the coupon offer. Those companies that reported their campaigns had not been profitable also reported that only ~25% of the coupon redeemers spent more than the face value of the coupon.

Beyond that, fewer than 15% made a subsequent purchase at full price.

In contrast, firms that reported having profitable promotions stated that about half of the coupon redeemers spent more than value of the coupon, and ~30% of them made follow-up purchases at regular prices.

But even some of these firms were wary about conducting another campaign, believing that the Groupon offer did not attract the “right” kind of customers.

What types of offers did well? The Rice study found that foodservice offers performed best in terms of the quantity of offers redeemed. Other categories that scored relatively well were tourism offers, educational services, salons and spas – but each of these drew less than half the response level that restaurants achieved.

Utpal Dholakia, an associate professor of marketing at Rice and leader of the research study, concluded, “There is disillusionment with the extreme price-sensitive nature and transactional orientation of these consumers.” Dr. Dholakia went on to point out that “they are not the relational customers that they had hoped for, or the ones … necessary for their businesses’ long-term success.”

What’s the caveat for businesses thinking about jumping into social couponing? Such a program may well contribute to a surge in business. But many of these new customers will be price-conscious in the extreme, holding a bargain-hunting agenda above everything else.

Hmmm. Just like the real world.

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