Tag Archives: Groupon

Groupon’s Biggest Threats Won’t Come from the Web

Image representing YellowPages as depicted in ...
Image via CrunchBase

Now that Groupon has closed “Like, a Billion Dollars” it’s time for the company to get down to business. Mathew Ingram notes on GigaOm, that “now comes the hard part” for the company. And he’s right, now that you have the money it’s time to go out an execute and build a business that can provide a return on that level of investment. They’ve got competition and more and more wannabe’s are popping up with deal offers left and right. But the threat’s to be worried about won’t come from the Web companies. The threat’s to be wary of come from the yellow page directories themselves.

Ingram writes:

On top of Google presenting a competitive threat, there is also Facebook, which has experimented with Groupon-style discounts via Facebook Places, and could quite easily leverage its 600-million-user reach to compete with the company if it wanted to. And then there are competitors such as LivingSocial, the second-largest group-buying player, which recently got a $175-million investment from Amazon — another company that has the deep pockets and the reach to compete with Groupon — and Tippr, which has a white-label platform that allows merchants and website publishers to run their own Groupon offers, with Tippr handling all of the back-end and support.

And while, sure, Google and Facebook and LivingSocial pose legitimate threats from the online world, the fiercest competition is going to come from companies like AT&T YellowPages and Yellowbook. Because I believe that Groupon is going to go after the SMB business that is the lifeblood to those companies. I wrote earlier, when the $950 million news broke:

Groupon knows that without people pounding the pavement, pounding on doors and pounding the phone, they won’t reach the mass of SMBs who are 1) not actively seeking out new advertising options online and 2) are hounded by traditional SMB advertising providers like the Yellow Pages, who don’t ever let up on closing small business deals. And to put that organization in place is going to take a ton of cash. You need sales agents in each city, you need sales management, you need office space, you need call centers, you need fulfillment, billing and operations teams to handle that size of a customer base. And that takes a ton of money.

That’s where the threats and challenges will come from. Groupon is way out ahead of any of its web competitors; but now, to succeed at capturing a big chunk of the SMB market it has to go head-to-head with these massive companies that have sales teams, offices, infrastructure, relationships (oh, and experience) selling to SMBs. They’re the company that local businesses are comfortable investing with. Now, SMBs may not be happy with them, and their businesses may be dying; but they’re a force to be reckoned with and Groupon is going to have it’s work cut out for them to make their business a legitimate contender for the big chunks of SMB dollars currently being spent with YellowPages and the other directories.

So Ingram is right, “now comes the hard part,” but while they’ll need to keep an eye on their web-brethren currently in the rearview; it’s their brand-new competition that will require the most scrutiny. The directories have lost enough already—they’re going to try to leverage their head start to deploy their own deal offerings, and that’s where the battle really lies for Groupon.

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Why Groupon Needs $950 Million More

Groupon logo.
Image via Wikipedia

The blogosphere is abuzz over tech-darling Groupon’s proposed $950 million Series G round. Many people have asked “Why do they need all that money?” And while expansion is the obvious answer, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Groupon knows that in order to grow at scale in the SMB market you need a big sales organization with feet-on-the-street in the markets you’re hoping to reach. If you look at the successful small business advertising providers—the one’s that own large chunks of the market—they all have large sales forces. And it’s the large sales force that has stood between many a great, local-business-focused business plans and actual success.

Groupon knows that without people pounding the pavement, pounding on doors and pounding the phone, they won’t reach the mass of SMBs who are 1) not actively seeking out new advertising options online and 2) are hounded by traditional SMB advertising providers like the Yellow Pages, who don’t ever let up on closing small business deals. And to put that organization in place is going to take a ton of cash. You need sales agents in each city, you need sales management, you need office space, you need call centers, you need fulfillment, billing and operations teams to handle that size of a customer base. And that takes a ton of money.

What Groupon is doing is something that no other tech company has done in recent memory—made a real run at securing a big chunk of the SMB market. Sure, new local-business-focused companies pop-up all the time. But most of them are either niche providers or they partner with the big existing yellow page providers to get access to their sales organization. They become a B2B channel provider leveraging the existing sales force because few can generate or raise the cash necessary to build a sales organization to go out and reach those SMBs directly.

Even mighty Google has taken this approach until now. They’re either unwilling to, or culturally unable to, commit to the SMB market with a massive sales force. Google has targeted savvy SMBs directly with AdWords solicitations; but has also worked aggressively to partner with yellow page companies to sell AdWords as part of existing yellow page bundled services, and often resold as CPM-based impressions (e.g. spend $2,500/month to get a quarter-page ad in the yellow book, a bolded listing with a photo on the site and a bucket of impressions driven by CPMs). And they’ve supported that initiative with direct mail, SEM (of course) and some print advertising as air cover to increase awareness and trial of AdWords through one channel or another.

But it was not until just last week that Google started outbound telesales direct to small business owners. That is a direct response to Groupon spurning their offer, and the realization that if they’re going to get serious about local business they can’t solve it with an algorithm. They need to put people toward the business unit to succeed.

All of this of course sheds quite a bit of light on the Groupon/Google negotiations and why the deal fell apart. I think what Groupon’s board realized (and kudos to them for this insight) is that Google—at its core—is not a sales-driven company. They don’t have the internal buy-in to be a hardcore sales organization and they’ve never committed the resources needed to make small business a booming success. They’ve tried to do it every other way except invest in a massive sales force. And I think Groupon looked at what has worked in reaching SMBs at scale and they realized it’s not arms-length. They realized that SMB advertising is still old school. It’s still knocking and dialing for dollars.

Groupon realized that what they needed is a sales-focused organization, not a technology-focused one. And tying up with Google would be a mistake, because at their core the two companies are fundamentally different in what they know about going to market. Google knows that it’s tech and better and more tech; Groupon knows that it’s how many calls can we make in a day. Groupon’s board knew it wouldn’t thrive under Google.

Additionally, Groupon knew that tying up with a dinosaur of a yellow page business was a bad idea too. The margins are non-existent, advertising dollars are shrinking and moving online, and most observers are waiting for someone to drag those pre-Internet monoliths out behind the wood shed and put a bullet in them. So the only logical step for Groupon, between their options, is to go out and build the sales organization they need that supports the tech organization that they are.

So while everyone oohs and ahhs at $950 million and will continue to talk about bubbles in the tech space; I personally think Groupon has made a very savvy decision to truly be one-of-a-kind, to be the first tech company to go hard after the SMB market—and win.

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Google Gaga for Groupon’s Growth

The rumors started Sunday night with a note from Vator News that Google acquired Groupon for $2.5 billion. Now Kara Swisher over at BoomTown puts the number of the Groupon Google Deal at $5-6 billion. Whatever the number, the reasoning behind it is clear. Google is in a desperate hunt for revenue growth. Groupon is the fastest growing business on record. Google wants to finally crack the local nut after years of battling for SMB dollars with yellow page directories, Groupon is a sensation among small business owners. Those two factors make Groupon a must win for Google, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Google needs Groupon for growth. Google has no doubt been on a tear, but in 2009 they slowed, dramatically. Google advertising revenues grew 59% YOY in 2007, 29% in 2008, and just 8% in an admittedly tough economy in 2009. And in 2010, it looks as if advertising revenue will grow somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% if Q4 revenues are in the ballpark of the rest of the year. And while most companies would love to see this track record of growth, it can’t be satisfying to Google execs who have seen companies like Apple see their revenues and market caps up big. And even private companies like Facebook and Twitter are reporting big gains in users, big gains in advertising revenue (with Facebook’s purported $1 billion in revenue this year) and getting impressive private valuations.

It’s clear. The battle for web dollars is on. Google is turning more into a utility with good but not great growth while the aforementioned high fliers are getting the growth, the spotlight and the valuation. For Google, Groupon is the perfect antidote. An infusion of growth for a company that really has no other answers.

Think about it for a minute. Google’s big acquisitions YouTube and DoubleClick are not growth centers. Heck, YouTube is specutively a break even business unit at best. Their enterprise apps, mail, and other products are seeing user growth; but not revenue growth. And Google’s recent spate of product launches (refinements to search, HotPot, etc.) don’t point to any new revenue champs coming from internal teams. All this leads to Google looking for growth, and there is no better growth story on the Web right now than Groupon.

Groupon is enjoying 50% margins and an estimated $50 million per month in revenue. That’s a shot in the arm for Google’s bottom line. And Groupon isn’t even operating at scale yet. They’re still rolling up knock-offs, hiring sales and copywriting staff like crazy, and innovating on the product side to bring Groupon to everyone. And even if small businesses lament Groupon and even if Groupon’s not a great marketing strategy for business, it’s popular, it’s easy and it works to drive numbers to local businesses. And Google, for all it’s done on AdWords and Places has not been able to capture the imagination of small business like Groupon has.

For small business owners Google is hard and confusing. AdWords is competitive, expensive, requires keen oversight and intensive setup to get right. And even after doing all of that, the search query volume for “Pomona pet store” just isn’t high enough to drive real traffic and business to small business. And as anyone in the directory business can tell you, it’s not about branding, it’s not about being findable, it’s all (and I mean all) about making the register ring. Yellow page companies have been chasing this grail for years, with click to call technology and in-depth customer reporting, all in a desperate effort to tie results back to spend. And while Google has a much clearer ROI path and performance model, they can’t drive foot traffic, phone calls and new customers like Groupon can (and like the Yellow pages used to.)

But the yellow pages are expensive with high monthly minimums, and even with the advent of new performance plans on things like search and click to call, the industry doesn’t have a strong way to drive new business in waves (like Groupon) or have clear ROI reporting in line with Google’s.

Which gets us back to Groupon, because Groupon solves the two problems that Google and the yellow pages don’t solve. They get awareness, and lots of it. The Groupon rushes are famous by now. Google can’t generate demand like that, they can only help to harness existing demand and drive it in your direction. They can’t make more people search for teeth whitening; but Groupon can set off a wave of people who suddenly realize they need to brighten up their incisors. Groupon also has the low cost and the yellow pages can’t compete with that; their monthly minimums come and go every month for the entire year. Groupon, in contrast is pay for performance. You only pay for each person that buys, although, you pay out the nose.

When you put it all together, Groupon is a sexy, sexy target for Google. For all of Groupon’s misgivings, it’s a hot company; a big growth opportunity and a model that small businesses get and like, for the most part. So if Groupon is the right play for the company that wants to be the yellow pages of the Internet, the next question becomes the price tag. At $5 billion, this is no small potatoes, and represents Google’s biggest M&A deal ever. The questions are numerous – will Groupon be able to maintain margins in the face of stiff competition (currently at %50, the answer is NO,) will Groupon be able to scale efficiently, will Groupon be able to continue it’s growth? Not likely and not likely. There are only a handful of companies that have successfully cracked the local nut, their names are AT&T, SuperPages, Local Insight Media, Dex and a handful of others; all have large sales forces, and all have low margin, low growth businesses. Interestingly, most have had to reorganize via some form of bankruptcy or acquisition. Can Groupon buck that trend? Questionable. But they do have things going for them that yellow page companies don’t, like no cost of goods and production of books as massive cost centers.

So is $5-6 billion worth it to Google? Buying growth is expensive and companies will pay a premium for it. Just look at Disney’s acquisition of Marvel for $4 billion, all in the name of growth among tween and teenage boys. For Google and Groupon, time will tell; but I think the answer is yes, because Google needs growth, Google has the resources to scale Groupon and Google can leverage the wonderful world of advertiser bundles to sell things like places, tags, and AdWords to advertisers who make Groupon just part of their advertising/marketing mix. I argued that Groupon is not a marketing strategy; but Groupon, combined with thoughtful search, and other localized online marketing can be a part of a coherent small business marketing strategy. Google has all the pieces to deliver that value.

Let me know what you think.

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Groupon is Not a Marketing Strategy

Groupon logo.

Image via Wikipedia

Groupon‘s UK Managing Director Chris Muhr opined today that the reason Google would want to purchase Groupon was because Groupon has “…something that Google does not have and no one else has and that we have really tapped a new market,” but is it really a new market or have the just tapped into the greed and laziness of businesses who long for days of old media? I think it’s the later, which is why the idea of Groupon is at once appealing and dangerous to small businesses and brands all over. But first a bit of background.

How Groupon Works - Groupon highlights one business in each city every day with a sale that’s too good to pass up. (They also have “side deals” and Groupon Stores, but we’ll focus on the main deal here.) Usually 50% or more off retail price of a service or item. They like to focus on a price range that makes the item easily bought on impulse and guide businesses to try to stay under $50 for the best results. So if you sell wine for $30 a bottle they’ll want you to offer it for $12-$15 on Groupon. Then Groupon takes 50% of every transaction successfully processed through the offer. So to continue the example, if you sell wine for $30 regularly, you’ll put in on Groupon at $12 and you’ll end up with $6 per bottle sold. They’ll also set a tipping point for the deal to be activated (the “group”” in Groupon) and will also let you cap your deal at a certain amount of sales. It’s pretty easy to see that if you don’t have much margin built into your product, you’ll be in the red on every sale, depending on how you structure your Groupon. And if you can give up 75% of revenue and still make a profit, it’s likely going to be a very small one, which means you need to sell a lot of units to make any money.

So, then why does a business use Groupon? Businesses use Groupon because they can drive a large number of visitors to a store location with a single event. They hope that the new customers reached by Groupon will buy additional items above what is advertised (if you’re losing money on your Groupon this is considered a “loss leader” strategy,) and/or you hope that they become loyal customers that come back. But I also think they use Groupon because they’re lazy. That’s right. Lazy. And here’s why.

Groupon works a lot like a newspaper ad used to. You find the biggest circulation possible, you make an appealing offer and you hope that you get customers that will come in and like your business. It’s the old “spray and pray” model of marketing that worked so well in the days of mass production and mass consumption. Get it in front of them and they will buy. It takes little thought, little effort. It doesn’t take cultivating relationships, building a brand or finding customers who really need your service. It’s the laziest form of marketing out there.

If you’re a business you have four critical attributes that help drive sales: your brand, your prices, your awareness level and your location. There are of course many more; but let’s look at these four for a moment.

Your Brand – If you have a strong, growing brand, you don’t need Groupon. Your brand drives customers, customer loyalty, word of mouth marketing and strong margins. You can charge more, spend less on advertising and focus on growing your brand through unique experiences and high quality products. It’s a virtuous cycle, but one which few companies get into and fewer still that can maintain it.

Your Prices - If you don’t have a strong brand but you have incredibly low prices then you’ve defined yourself as the low cost leader, you’re first in the race to the bottom and you know you’ll live a life of low margins and need to move a lot of units to make up for it. You also aren’t ideal for Groupon because you probably have a brand associated with being the low cost leader, and Groupon’s pricing structure doesn’t work well in a low margin world (as outlined above.) If you’re priced in the middle of the market you really don’t have a lever for sales on prices because customers can go to the low cost leader.

Your Awareness Level – Among your customer base your awareness level is what drives repeat visits, word of mouth and new customer acquisition. If you have great awareness, if everyone knows that you’re the only 24 hour locksmith or the only tux rental place in town then you’ve got great awareness. If you’re one of 12 women’s clothing stores, like a Chico’s in a strip mall somewhere, you’re awareness level isn’t great. Groupon starts to sound like a good idea here.

Your Location - Unless you’re a virtual retailer with a strong ecommerce presence, you’re really limited to the surrounding area for your customers. How far they’re willing to travel to get to you is a function of all three above. Groupon makes sense here too.

So if you’re a middling business with little or no brand, little or no price differentiation, and a fixed customer base that is more or less only growing with the population in your area, then you have only a few levers to pull to make your business go. You can go about the hard work of building a brand in your community. Connecting with core customers, building word of mouth by creating an amazing experience, or demonstrating expertise above and beyond the competition. Or you can cut your prices, be the unbeatable low cost leader and price match anyone else. People know that they’ll get the lowest price from you and that goes a long way. Or you can increase your awareness by advertising, sponsoring events, etc. Or you can open more locations, a capital intensive process that may or may not work for your business.

Or, you can Groupon. Because with Groupon you don’t need to do any of that. You just spray and pray. Cut the prices on an item and let Groupon do the rest. But is that really it? Do the customers come back? Do the customers care that you exist? Do the customers remember who you are and where to go the next time they need something you provide? There are plenty of Groupon disaster examples on the Web that say “No.” Because without thoughtful marketing in place, Groupon is just a flash in the pan.

In the PR trade they say “Getting on TechCrunch is not a PR strategy.” I say “Getting on Groupon is not a marketing strategy.” And it’s where I think Chris Muhr is wrong. Google provides the savvy, thoughtful marketer a lot more than Groupon ever could. It provides the people willing to invest in their brand, their customer experience and their awareness with an avenue to showcase their business to people actually looking for them, not just people looking for a rock-bottom deal.

This goes for big brands as well as small businesses. If your brand is flagging, and you’re undifferentiated among your competitors Groupon is not going to solve your woes. It doesn’t matter how many gift cards you sell if you can’t convert those customers into repeat customers and advocates of your brand. And if you don’t fundamentally change your brand and the customer experience then Groupon will be nothing more than crack for your marketing department. Because each time you run a Groupon you’re high will be a little less than the last time and your hangover will be a little worse. For every Groupon you run, you dilute your brand a little bit. Do it once and it’s a marketing stunt. Do it over and over and you begin to redefine the value of your product or service. You hurt your brand and any differentiation you had. You’ve chosen the low cost leader, commodity approach. Prepare to accept the consequences.

So can Groupon work? Absolutely. Is it the right answer? Maybe once. Is it a strategy? Absolutely not. Is it easy? Too easy. Small businesses and big brands should focus on reengineering their customer experience from the web site to the warranty service. And when that is done then, maybe, it’ll be time to shout it to the world with Groupon. But more likely, the people that have been blown away by the change in your service will have already told the people you want to reach. Don’t be lazy. Do your job. Your brand and your bottom line will thank you.

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