Want to learn from a brand that’s not afraid to experiment with digital media? Then look no further than Groupon.
The deals giant was one of the first eCommerce sites to truly understand the importance of content — pioneering the use of distinct tone and visuals online to sell products. These days the company is pushing the envelope by investing in formats (such as video) and platforms (such as Snapchat) which others remain wary of.
We recently chatted with Mike Niemczyk, Sr. Social Media Content Strategist at Groupon, to better understand how the brand approaches everything from content marketing to social engagement (spoiler: pimped out cats, coconut oil, Grover, and Alexander Hamilton are all involved).
Before joining Groupon, Neimczyk worked for a number of high-profile spots, including mcgarrybowen and Razorfish, giving him a unique perspective from both the agency and brand sides. Check out the Q&A below:
Q: Fill in the blank: The best content ______
A: Elicits an immediate reaction, whether it be love or anger or outrage. If content is middle-of-the-road, it typically doesn’t inspire anyone to do anything.
Q: If it doesn’t elicit a reaction do you think it’s just a waste of time to produce the content?
A: I don’t know if it’s necessarily a complete wast to time, because a lot of times you can come up with something that is well thought out–the best bit of content–and for some reason it just doesn’t hit people.
Social is full of surprises; every time I think I know an audience I’m working with, I’m proven wrong. You can go in with a strategy, but if you see that the approach is not eliciting a reaction then continuing to make that type of content is a waste of time.
Q: Can you talk about the role that content marketing plays at Groupon and why are you creating it? What are the objectives for it?
A: Deals, especially big national deals for things like Starbucks or other brands, have driven a lot of traffic to the site, but over the past year–since Facebook tweaked their algorithm to start prioritizing video content and editorial–we had to rethink our approach.
So we pivoted and upped the amount of video and editorial content. What we like to do with that is hook people in–to teach something or give insight into something you do every single day, and have the audience think about it a little bit differently.
Our editorial team is constantly thinking about trends that affect local markets; so we create pieces to educate consumers about like things about Brazilian waxes, the appropriate way to check hairstylists, what to do with coconut oil; things that are very human interest.
When people read these pieces we try not to beat them over the head with marketing, but within them there will be drivers to a deal. The same thing is true of videos; we use them for a lot for product demonstrations as well as PR drivers.
Q: Is it fair to say that your content marketing is a mix of editorial and performance marketing?
A: Definitely. Much of the deal-based content that we put into news feeds is very much attuned to ROI, so those have to be in there. At the same time we usually get much bigger reach out of the editorial-based content, which then ends up feeding the more deal-based content.
Because people are clicking through on this editorial content, our subsequent deal content performs that much better because Facebook sees the good response, so both feed each other.
Q: Do you have a formula on how you balance editorial versus performance? Have you figured out that a certain amount of editorial will result in a certain amount of performance that will then deliver an objective ROI?
A: We are in the process of reevaluating. When Facebook–and I will continue referencing Facebook a lot because it is our primary driver–when they made those changes to the algorithm, we had to completely rethink our approach.
We were posting things that were geo-targeted and we realized that wasn’t working; we were posting a lot but we were not reaching as many people. We had to rethink that approach and right now we are reevaluating the exact number of posts per day. Our process is very, very formulaic, all the way down to the time of day and the types of posts that we publish.
Q: You wrote this great piece–The Secret to Content Marketing Is Collaboration–can you talk about it a bit? Groupon operates in so many markets, how do you collaborate effectively internally? How do you create good content at that level of volume?
A: It’s tough, that was the problem I came to Groupon to solve when I moved over here.
The really short answer is the way that we collaborate effectively is learning and then teaching.
I had come from an agency where social was much smaller compared with their traditional channels, so I had to teach them about it, because if people are not exposed to it they kind of fear it.
When I came over to Groupon it was kind of a two part process. First, I established a reporting structure tracking the metrics of all the social channels to show the editorial team how they were doing. People that work at a creative outlet don’t necessarily like to be be told that what they are doing is incorrect, so the method I used was to show results–when you post like this we get this kind of response, and if you maybe shorten something, or use a question mark right here, or think about it in this way, this is what ends up happening.
Second, I led a brainstorming sessions that came a couple of days after the reporting. I would start by showing the team a couple of cool ideas, so I had the chance to be the curator for something interesting for them to see, and tell them why this was a good execution, not just because it was subversive or funny. Then we would have a brainstorm on it, and the ideas were that much better because I was showing them things that were out there.
That’s part of how we have been able to dramatically increase our social engagement in North America; in 2014 we increased engagement by something like 260%, clicks nearly 500%, impressions went up by 200% as well; so it’s been really effective.
In terms of other regions, we use Sprinklr across the company, which is a massive platform that we do all of our publishing, measurements, and customer services through. In there we have something that is called the “social asset manager” where Groupon employees can see which posts in other places got good click-through and engagement, and then create their own versions. This has been particularly effective in Latin America; with one country seeing a post that it kills it and then rejiggering it for their channel. That’s one way the technology has allowed us to collaborate without having facetime time necessarily; we can see other cool things that we are doing across the world.
Q: Groupon has a pretty humorous voice throughout its content. How do you maintain that across different markets and social accounts? Does that same voice translate to other markets, or do you take different approach?
A: The humor with Groupon is a legacy from when it started. We had a lot of people from Second City, which is a really popular comedy group, so a lot of those writers were actually people that we employed from the beginning. They established a humor team and they always wanted to keep it interesting; in the addition to the deals being descriptive they wanted to make people laugh and surprise them.
As to how our humor scales, definitely other countries and other regions of the world have had some really great ideas. Australia had this really funny one with Pimp my Cat, where they created a deal game which included promo codes.
We share a lot of our ideas globally that we do in North America–like the catapult video that was pretty popular last year, which spoofed Amazon’s drone delivery idea and was redubbed in other languages.
Sometimes people in other regions take these ideas, sometimes they modify them, and sometimes they just don’t do them at all.
Q: Last year you guys launched on Snapchat… how did you approach creating a presence on Snapchat? What was the objective when you did it and how are you using it today?
A: I’ve been a champion for that platform since a year and a half ago. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ve got the same feeling from Snapchat as I did from Instagram–there was just something to it.
I really wanted to speak to more of a Millennial market. Much of our other content is geared to females ages 25 to 44; but a lot of the organic social content that’s out there, in terms of the stuff of that people are creating about Groupon, is much younger than that. I felt like we were doing ourselves a disservice by only speaking to an older demographic. For example, in colleges what better way could there be to get young people to try new things near their schools than with Groupon?
I found a lot of stats because typically whenever you say the word “Snapchat” people instantly say: “Isn’t that what people send naked pictures on?” So I prepared a whole deck on how often college students are using it, and the fact that they are actually open to be marketed to via the platform and would follow a brand.
We launched it with a deal with Wiz Khalifa, which was great; we had tickets to his album release show in Colorado and we were allowing people to purchase. We think what’s really cool about Snapchat is that things disappear quickly, so it’s perfect for time-sensitive offers.
As for how we sustain it, we don’t want it to be just another marketing channel. We want to use it as a way to speak to people who aren’t checking our other social channels. We use it a lot for giveaways or when we have something like Starbucks deals on the site, because those things go fast. We use it as a way to give some of our fans more insider access to what’s going on at Groupon.
You can’t really use URLs within Snapchat but we can use shortened links that people can type into their browser; we always make a really short link that’s either funny or very easy to remember.
We’ve had a lot of success so far with Snapchat. Sometimes we’ll just use it to showcase our artistry–we did a great partnership with Sesame Street and Mashable involving Grover, which was fantastic.
We sometimes highlight the weirdness that goes on in our office, just to show that we are people at the same time. We like to have fun at work–lots of weird stuff happens here, like we had a tyrannosaurus come through here for this Walking With Dinosaurs deal that we had.
The critical thing is that I don’t want it to be only a marketing channel because that’s not really why Snapchat was created. It’s more of a one-to-one conversation, so I don’t want to go too heavy on marketing because I feel like it will jeopardize our audience on there. It’s a small audience but highly engaged, we get up to 20 times more engagement on Snapchat compared with Twitter posts.
Q: You recently had a huge social media win with the “Banana Bunker”–a risqué product that you brilliantly presented completely straight-faced. What’s the story behind that?
It is actually something we feature regularly, and we had a lighter day in terms of customer service inquiries so our Community Managers had a bit of fun with it. We all agreed it would be funny to reply on social media innocently to as many comments as possible – and it went viral.
I’m curious what it says about us as people that an innocent approach to a phallic joke could turn into 165MM organic impressions and be called “genius” by various trade mags and sites. What a funny business we work in.
Q: You’ve already touched on this, but can you talk a bit more about the goals of broader editorial content, like this Day in the Life of a Dog-Sledder piece?
A: When we do the long-form content, one aspect of it is that it really helps is SEO. If we have people that are doing local searches for “Chicago pizza in downtown” we want to be showing up, so we have to have a lot of inbound links; editorial content has been one way that we’ve been able to navigate that. We look at how to incorporate keywords within our editorial content.
On the other side, it’s human interest pieces that people typically find compelling. When you read these pieces it doesn’t seem like we’re trying to beat you over the head with any advertising, but if you look on the side rail there’s deals for you to check out and at the bottom there are other references to deals that you could do in the snow, whether it’s sledding, skiing, or vacations.
It’s definitely helping our conversions, because it’s bringing in people who are interested in certain topics.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of content so far that you guys have developed?
A: Probably the Alexander Hamilton thing we created for President’s Day last year because it was so big for us.
We wanted to have a promo code saving $10 that day so we thought we would make a joke about President Alexander Hamilton being on the $10 bill; essentially 80% of what we were saying was true and 20% was just absolute lies. So we put it in a press release, put it out, and just waited.
It completely delivered. Every news source picked up on it because they thought we made a legitimate mistake. People were calling us idiots and saying that we were revising history incorrectly–but the funny thing is that in all these articles trashing us they included the promo code. The reach was insane, we would have had to pay millions dollars to reach the number of people we did by trolling the news.
Q: Outside of Groupon, which companies do you look to for inspiration? Which companies you think do a great job of creating content?
A: My two favorites are Red Bull and GoPro.
Red Bull has managed to ascribe a whole lifestyle to the drink. Their content is very captivating because it always puts you in the driver’s seat of whatever it is going on. The content really embodies giving you wings–from snowboarding competitions where you get to watch firsthand, to crazy things like the Flugtag they do in Chicago, which launches giant contraptions into the lake.
On the other side is GoPro, which is a beautiful product demonstration. So you are actually getting to visually see all of the benefits of using the product without you being told: “Hey go buy this!” When we can we try to do that with our goods content, so we have a lot of products that we sell on site like drones and video cameras which we try to create content with.
I also think the Weight Watchers ad that likened eating disorders to drug addiction was fantastic. I have never seen a TV ad go straight to the message and beat on it as hard as possible as it did. I want to see more ads like that, taking the gloves off and then speaking directly about an issue that is hurting a lot of people. It’s being confrontational in a way that’s necessarily confrontational, which gets back to that idea that the best kind of content forces an immediate reaction.
Q: What’s the future of content marketing for Groupon and for the space overall? What do you think people will be talking about at Content Marketing World not this year but a couple of couple of years from now?
A: The future of content marketing for Groupon will probably continue down the video path in new and interesting ways, ways that get more interactive. Also, there’ll be more social media plug-ins on the site that give you exclusive access for certain things. I think that’s something that’s worked out pretty well for us in tests we’ve done and that’s an area I would like to continue pushing on.
In general, the future of content marketing is going to continue away from one-to-many and towards one-to-one. People are really into personalized experiences and having direct conversations. They want less content thrown onto their Facebook feed, people aren’t necessarily that excited about having branded content on their page or sharing it.
Snapchat and now Meerkat have kind of opened up a very interesting avenue for content. Snapchat adds a lot of value when it’s used at certain events. People like this exclusive access to something that no one else can get, or for a short amount of time.
Meerkat is opening up a whole different world where people are alway on. Streaming has existed for a while but now it’s now in a way that’s a lot easier and more mobile to do. Jimmy Fallon is on it constantly now, like when rehearsing for the show, and the value is in that little bit of exclusive access.
Social media has already pulled us all together, but things like Snapchat and Meerkat will pull us even closer. This unfiltered look at what’s going on is cool to a lot of people. The great thing is that it doesn’t have to look produced, there’s something beautiful in the stripped down thing.
I think that’s kind of where we are going, we are going to have more exclusive access. I can’t wait to see something like Meerkat come together closer with television. Imagine if you could watch a football game or a baseball game and have a branded announcer. Imagine a world where you could pay $5 or $10 to watch the Super Bowl but instead of the normal announcer you are hearing Will Ferrell talk the the whole time about what’s going on. I think that’s where we could get into some really interesting stuff; things that sort of hack the normal means which we’ve been getting content.
Part of what really drives me is a bit of an aversion to advertising. I like to see ways that technology can enhance advertising or make it feel less like advertising. I’m really a champion for the end user and I think these evolutions will open up new avenues for content.