Hey Groupon, Can You Spare Some Culture Change?

While there’s been a lot written about the aftermath of Groupon’s IPO, falling share price and certain investors now leaving, the part of the story that’s getting lost a bit in the shuffle is how important a culture shift can be to a company’s trajectory. It’s no coincidence at all to me that Groupon’s struggles happened around the same time that its culture appeared to go through a fundamental change.

Up until about late last year, every other article about Groupon seemed to be about its loose dress code and vacation policy, its management’s quirky sense of humor, the transparent vibe, the customer service people who spent time at Second City, the actor who was hired to walk through the offices in a ballerina tutu.

So what happened?

In two words: Wild success. And ironically, believe it or not, those uncharted waters beyond the first big milestone can sometimes be a bad thing.

“It seems like the high echelons of upper management have forgotten their fellow employees. People are secretive. Shadow-like. Nobody talks to anyone. It’s like a high school.”

                                                – Glassdoor.com Company Review

We see this all the time in the Advertising world: Small agency with talented people and a cool culture gets outrageously successful, wins lots of new business, wins awards and earns great press. Then they get purchased by a bigger entity, which, of course, says, “We’re not going to change anything. We recognize why the agency we bought was successful and we don’t want to tamper with that success.”

It sounds promising when everyone is all smiles, handshakes and photo opps. Until some time passes and some elements slowly begin to change – not necessarily for the better. The culture that made the small agency great gradually melts away. Key players leave. You start to hear remaining veterans wandering the halls talking about the “good ol’ days” when so-and-so was running things.

 “Some employees who were bumped up to manager status in the hiring blitz have no idea what they’re doing. One is known to have admitted she ‘doesn’t like people’ and avoids most of our her staff, except her favorites.”

– Glassdoor.com Company Review

From an outsider’s point of view, it seems the very same pattern may have emerged here with Groupon.


Integrate Sales More into the Brand

Groupon is not unique in this circumstance – sometimes when I speak to companies, they refer to the Sales team as “those guys” off in some territory doing things that management hopes is the right message. But they’re never quite totally sure that Sales understands the “big picture” of what brand is aiming to achieve. This is where a lack of consistency can be hugely detrimental.

Think about how important this is. In many events, your people in Sales are at the front lines of telling your brand story. How many of them are all about making commission and how many get the bigger picture of what you’re trying to accomplish from a brand standpoint? Do your prospects/customers feel those salespeople are acting on their best interests?

In Groupon’s case, the directive from management seems to have been, “Close, close, close” without trying to customize very much for what their prospective merchants needed. It may be convenient for some to say that these merchants knew what they were getting into but did they?

If we’re to believe the comments of several current and former employees posted on employer rating site GlassDoor.com, it appears much from a Sales perspective at Groupon in the last year has been a mandate from management about the almighty “Bottom Line”: Making as many calls as possible, closing as many deals as possible and caring little about the merchant’s goals or well-being. Think that makes earning repeat business just a little difficult?

Some may make excuses in a “Hey, that’s a salesperson’s mentality for you” way, but I don’t buy it. It takes a special kind of salesperson to be able to speak to what your brand stands for, weaving it into their sales message eloquently. They can still close while delivering a message on point that leaves the prospective customer with a great impression of the brand for the long-term. Not just meeting the month’s quota.

Still, in that salesperson’s defense, it takes strong upper management with clear and constant communication to bring home this larger vision. If the only directive is “Always Be Closing,” a brand can get wrecked in no time.

Hey, where’s that foosball table we used to play with?

We have to give more credit to the role of fun and teamwork in a brand’s success. It starts from within, not from outside perception. I can’t help but wonder if that’s where Groupon has lost its way. If a company preaches the virtue of having a bold, irreverent environment, shouldn’t it see the merchants it sells to as part of a larger community where everyone wins, not just the employees? What about the customers who purchase a Groupon – shouldn’t those coupons be increasingly more personalized so we’re not being bombarded by random stuff that doesn’t apply to our life every day?

It’s not too late for Groupon to turn things around. But it’s going to take a clarified mission from the top, more consistent and attainable goals, transparency on career paths, an openness to employee feedback at all levels as well as working in the long-term interests of the merchant, not just pressuring them into the first deal.

At the end of the day, it’s about getting back to being the fun company that isn’t afraid to let its hair down in the name of team camaraderie – not just the one that’s trying to meet its numbers at all costs. Happy employees can be amazingly productive employees and great advocates. Nurture them. Now.


In Search of the Biggest Brain in E-Couponing

Being the first to launch an idea in the business marketplace often gives you a great head start as a leading authority, but it doesn’t guarantee long-term success. Because one thing is for certain: The minute you think of it, the next minute someone else is going to try to get in the game with something better.

Take the e-coupon market, for example. There’s Groupon. There’s LivingSocial. And now we have Google getting into the action with Google Offers.

All with slight differences but all still functioning from the basic premise that each day you have the opportunity to take advantage of an offer from a local business.

It’s worked well for Groupon up to this point, so well that they had to reject a multibillion-dollar buyout from Google.

But that was then. Now the stakes get raised beyond deal versus deal, the competition really begins and things get interesting.

The problem with couponing sites is that at their very core, they offer no brand loyalty unto themselves. They can offer discounts to a variety of places and, yes, if the coupons of one site appeal to you more regularly than another site, you may wander over to that site more frequently. But even if they have great deals, that’s not enough to keep you going to that one site over another.

And while the three sites mentioned are the predominant players, it’s not terribly difficult to get into the e-offer game.

The true winner in the Groupon/LivingSocial/Google Offers war will be based on four factors:

• Personalization and “learning”

• Sharing

• Mobile integration

• Vendor relationships and control

The coupon site that accomplishes all four will be the brand that wins the greatest loyalty, and that’s no minimal thing.

Personalization and “learning”

The time has passed for offering generalized buckets of coupons for a city or neighborhood or even coupons based on event preferences. The winner here will be the site with the biggest “brain.” In other words, the site that has the greatest capability to learn what you like most and suggest offers that fit your lifestyle preferences.

Much like how StumbleUpon might learn your news preferences or Pandora might learn your music preferences, it’s the offer site that learns your favorite places and connects you with them that will grab the greatest market share and loyalty. You select more, it gets “smarter” in its suggestions. You thumb it up or down (or something similar) to help it “learn.” It’s not a matter of who has this capability first as much as who does it best.

True, some people like being surprised by offers outside of their preferences now and then, giving them options to try something new. But it stands to reason that many more will want to stay within their range of things they like to do.


The ease (and fun) of sharing offers with friends is such a given that I’d almost not mention it, but it is that important. You must have the ability to share coupons with ease on any major social media channel and, assuming you’d like them to, your friends should be able to see the kinds of places/events you like to frequent so they can take advantage of those offers, too. Much like Facebook’s Timeline feature, you should be able to see where your friends went so you can get in on the action, if not this time, then the next.

Mobile integration

Pay-by-smartphone is going to become even bigger in 2012, to where you can use your phone at an establishment or venue to purchase what you need. The coupon site that integrates this functionality into its offer system is going to smoke the competition as more customers in the mainstream adopt this convenient feature and get comfortable with it. It’s not a “nice-to-have.” It’s a “must have.”

At the moment, Google’s ability to merge its Offers with Google Wallet is a strong indication of just how formidable the company could be in this area. When its programs stand alone, Google’s offerings historically can be a hit or miss. When they tie programs together, such as where you can pay with your smartphone and show a coupon, Google becomes a competitor that’s difficult to ignore.

Vendor relationships and control

Of course, when you’re talking about small-business merchants, you can’t relate to them on code alone. If the coupon war is won on the ground, you have to cultivate relationships through sales people. Groupon has a strong head start here in terms of sheer number of sales reps getting small businesses to enroll. That is, unless too many of them are overaggressive reps like the ones described by a former Groupon employee in this TechCrunch article. Yikes.

Who wins? For brand equity, it may be none of them.

I like the potential of Google Offers best in terms of the technology it utilizes. But the one Big Asterisk on all of these e-coupons for businesses to consider: From a brand standpoint, I hate it when price is the lead factor in getting someone to come through the door. The argument may be that e-couponing gets new customers you didn’t have, but I would like to see more businesses go for building loyalty among their best, most frequent customers who can spread word-of-mouth than for mechanisms that aim to get the most bodies through the door at all costs, because I’ll bet a decent number of them aren’t really that loyal as the ones you’ve had already.

Originally printed in: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20120208/BLOGS06/120209804/in-search-of-the-biggest-brain-in-e-couponing#ixzz1qBbg4GXG

I found my Klout on Empire Avenue while staring at the PeerIndex.

The other day, someone bought 200 shares of me. I was flattered, but would’ve been even more excited had it been real money. Still, the virtual game that measures your influence, Empire Avenue, had shown that in my brief period of time on it, my shares were going up and up. Mind you, I’m not really sure what the algorithm was for this other than the fact that I’d participated in several social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, all while doing a blog post.

Hey, driving up your simulated shares is hard work.

Meanwhile, I noticed that my Klout score was similarly going up and up. Normally, I would be very excited by this, except for a few things.

There are people in my industry who I look up to who I can’t imagine having less real “clout” than me yet have less Klout than me. I’ve enjoyed reading Bart Cleveland for years as an AdAge columnist along with his work at McKee Wallwork Cleveland. I’ve admired the work of David Oakley at BooneOakley – frankly, I am looking up at them in a balanced world, not the other way around in a Klout world.

The second quibble I have is that while it says I am influential about social media and social entrepreneurship (OK, I’ve written about those plenty, I’ll buy that), Klout also says that I’m influential about, of all things, Groupon. I wrote about Groupon in one blog post in my life. Unless that was a hell of a post, I don’t see how that’s possible.

The third issue with Klout is that, unless I’m off, the system can be potentially gamed. If you like someone and are influenced by them, you can give them a “+K” to their Klout rating. Which sounds fine and good until I convince 20 of my closest friends to get together and Klout our scores into the stratosphere.

Meanwhile, over at PeerIndex, I have a similar issue with the influentials as I do with Klout. I’m a humble man and there are some peers that are ranking lower than me that just shouldn’t. My score is fine enough, trending higher and nothing to sneeze at. Kind of like my Klout score. At least here I can tell it’s from a combination of Audience, Authority and Activity. So I know which “A” to work on most.

What to believe? Who to believe? Are these tools helping or hurting?

I think I have the answer – you have to take these “measures of influence” for what they are – the best methods we currently have to measure social media capital that have room for improvement. Better than nothing? Yes. I would not ignore or blindly dismiss them. They do have meaning. They are a fair measure of activity, reach, etc. And like most other tools, they will probably be replaced by something more efficient and accurate, if these tools can’t tweek themselves fast enough.

But don’t get so wrapped up in your score that you can’t stop looking at your Klout, Empire Avenue share price and PeerIndex rating. I’m not proud to admit it, but I was doing just that when I first signed up. The worst thing you can do is say to yourself, “Oh heavens to Betsy, my reach isn’t far enough, what do I do?”

Breathe. Relax. These are algorithms that need work and will get better. Embrace the technological steps forward for what they are and realize there are slight imperfections – hey, Google’s algorithm isn’t perfect, but I’ll bet you still used it to search today, didn’t you?

Meanwhile, focus on what you CAN control:
Creating great content regularly and interacting with people who matter to you most on the channels where they “live.”
I believe when you concentrate on that consistently, the rest will hopefully take care of itself anyway when it comes to influence.

Of course, if this post influenced you and you’d like to throw a few “+K” to DanOnBranding or buy a bunch of shares….ah, never mind.

I liked the Groupon ads. There. I said it.

Yes, we saw a lot of ads yesterday around the Super Bowl, but none have touched off a firestorm of controversy quite like Chicago-based Groupon’s ads. I’ve re-posted one of them here for your viewing pleasure.

My pure, unvarnished reaction to them wasn’t shock or horror or an immediate rush to say that I would never use Groupon again. You know what I did? I chuckled. My mouth dropped open not because I was put off but because I admired Groupon for having the guts to run ads like this.

Many don’t agree with this opinion. But here’s my theory – deep down, some people had the exact same reaction but couldn’t admit it to anyone because it would seem like you don’t care about Tibet or whales or deforestation. So you had your inner laugh and then took to blog and tweet about how offended you were and how these ads were going to bring out the end of Groupon. Others were genuinely offended from the get-go and I can respect those folks for their opinions too.

But if I was to sit here and say how morally wrong I thought those ads were, I wouldn’t be true to what I felt the first time I watched them. Ads are meant to bring about a reaction on the most emotional level and Groupon achieved that with me in a positive way. It didn’t make me dismiss Tibet as an unworthy cause of my attention. Not one bit. I care about all those causes very much and I think everybody should. If you think an ad that isn’t even trying to detract from worthy causes is going to make want to care less about saving the whales or saving a tree in the rainforest, you’re not giving me much credit to think for myself. Or most people watching the ad for that matter.

Come on. Ads don’t instantly brainwash us from our existing principles. They can offer persuasive arguments that cause us to investigate further and in time they can shape behavior as a result. Sure, part of the immediate response that Groupon did get from some folks was to instantly stop using the service. That was their right to do. But there are also those of us who can actually have it both ways – to understand what Groupon was trying to say in its message and appreciating it while understanding the importance of social causes at the same time. It doesn’t make us bad people to have this dual understanding or stay loyal to Groupon.

Brands have a right to try to be provocative when they have only 30 seconds to do so and are spending $3 million each time. Being offensive should not be on the agenda — but right or wrong, I do not believe this was Groupon’s first and foremost goal.

Political commentators on cable networks can say practically anything they wish over the span of several hours, even drawing parallels that push the boundaries of good taste. They do it almost every day. But a company runs an ad lasting a mere 30 seconds that we don’t agree with, so let’s call for their heads? I don’t think so.

These ads aren’t going to bring about the end of anything. Certainly not Groupon. Groupon has a strong product and if anything, it is possibly the most talked-about ad the morning after the Super Bowl. I realize that some of that talk is very negative. But there are other voices in the crowd saying, “Lighten up. It’s just a commercial.”