Groupon shuns being thought of as a marketer or, worse, an ad agency, promoting cheap pizza or sushi for anyone who wants to hire it. The hope instead is that its users will eventually perceive it as an impartial guide to a city or a neighborhood, somewhat in the manner of the local paper’s weekend section. With more than 400 writers and editors, Groupon’s domestic editorial staff is on the verge of eclipsing the big name across the Chicago River, The Chicago Tribune.
The big Internet companies owe their dominance to something singular that shut out potential competitors. Google had secret algorithms that gave superior search results. Facebook provided a way to broadcast regular updates to friends and acquaintances that grew ever more compelling as more people signed up, which naturally caused more people to sign up. Twitter introduced a new tool to let people promote themselves.
Groupon has nothing so special. It offers discounts on products and services, something that Internet start-up companies have tried to develop as a business model many times before, with minimal success. Groupon’s breakthrough sprang not just from the deals but from an ingredient that was both unlikely and ephemeral: words.