It all started with Asa Candler, a “prescriptionist” in Atlanta 112 years ago. A modest pharmacist who dealt in tonics and medicines, he bought an unassuming recipe for a patent medicine called Coca-Cola. When he gave out handwritten slips of paper for customers to try the new drink for free, the coupon was born.
The simple yet brilliant marketing idea Candler conceived has, of course, become a staple of American shopping. During the Depression in the 1930s, grocers fell in love with coupons as a way to attract needy families into their stores. And when the supermarket took over and coupon redemption became easier in the 1960s, half of all Americans used coupons. With the advent of the freestanding insert, or FSI, in the early 1970s, reams of colorful and enticing coupons came with the country’s Sunday newspapers.
As expected, the coupon migrated to the Web and even with technology laying the pavement for better distribution and security – it is still a work in progress. Online coupons are busting out all over but they aren’t as big as you might think. The world of couponing has survived the digital age so far and has made some unique advancements, but there are still challenges ahead.
Coupon distribution continues to prevail. In 2005, U.S. coupons set a new record of 323 billion coupons distributed, the first year to pass the 300 billion mark and a nice jump of 9 percent over 2004, according to CMS, a coupon-processing firm. CMS also states that the redemption rates of Internet coupons rose from .59 percent in 2004 to .96 percent in 2005. That may seem like a small amount but it’s a big jump for a fledgling coupon vehicle. Overall coupon redemption rates hover between 1 and 3 percent year-over-year.
While some analysts have forecasted the death of the paper coupon in as short a span as five years, the trends don’t seem to reflect that. Yes, more people are using the Internet to gather coupon codes to buy from websites instead of clipping an FSI and walking into a store – but those numbers are a very small slice of the coupon pie. A resounding 88 percent of redeemed coupons are FSIs, snipped from the Sunday edition of your newspaper.
Still, some are confident that the paper coupon will disappear sooner than we think and that coupons delivered via email or to our cell phones will dominate. “Young marketers are leading the way toward eliminating the paper coupon,” says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, CEO of The Sausalito Group.
For now though, only a small percentage of redeemed coupons come from online. But the upside is that online couponing – whether via a coupon code, printable coupon or emailed coupon – is able to reach a more precise target than the traditional FSI. In fact, recent redemption studies have borne out that Hispanic coupon users redeem at higher-than-average rates. Therefore, coupon distributors are finding ways to hit the Hispanic market with coupons via cell phone (Hispanic households use more cell phones than the general population). Sealey says the benefit for marketers is that they “can target people who can actually afford to buy a Porsche.”
The efficiency that technology brings is seeing immediate results in the online coupon world. Coupon networks, for example, use technology to help with everything from RSS feeds of coupons to organizing all their expired online coupons. But even then, the technology doesn’t get in the way. “We like to call ourselves a document security company,” says Steven Boal, CEO of Coupons.com, a network enabling printable online coupons. He says that proclamations of the death of the paper coupon are greatly exaggerated “for a very important reason. Because I print paper coupons – a business that has been around a long time. Up until three years ago it hadn’t changed much. Does it change? Yes. Small percentage shifts in this business move huge dollars.”
His Coupon.com platform runs on more than 3,000 affiliate marketers’ coupon websites and some of the most high-profile coupon websites use his company’s back end, including Yahoo, Boodle.com, NBC.com, SmartSource.com and other coupon sites in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.
It’s true that coupon redemption rates dropped 6 percent in 2005, but as mentioned, distribution rose sharply. What’s at issue isn’t that fewer people are using coupons but that products that wouldn’t otherwise be sold are selling, according to Matthew Tilley, director of marketing at CMS. “Consumers just aren’t responding to coupons at the same rate that they used to, but that hasn’t really dampened marketers’ enthusiasm for them.” He affirms that high redemption rates are not the goal, but that “moving more product than you would without promotion – but at an efficient cost – is really the goal.”
While the big online coupon networks can scale for brands, smaller affiliate marketers have also been able to take advantage of the interest in online coupons. Popular sites such as Amazing-Bargains.com, CleverMoms.com, Fabu.com, Shopping- Bargains.com and FlamingoWorld.com have all seen great success with their coupon sites.
Much like product affiliates, coupon affiliates must track the newest offers, post them, bring down expired offers and make sure the link goes to where it is supposed to – but do so on a fairly grand scale every day. Too often the monthly offers inundate the affiliate on the first of the month, so that (if he or she works the website alone) it could be two weeks before a coupon is posted.
“I don’t know how they do it,” Michael “Mikey” Yack, founder of FabulousSavings and Fabu.com, says. He built his coupon sites from the ground up, too, but now has 30 employees. He doesn’t do code anymore. “I’m on the phone with my merchants all day,” he says. That’s the only way he can up the value of his coupons. “Once [merchants] know you’re legit, they throw you more.”
Fabu.com is also a site that employs rather sophisticated methods to keep it all together. Yack says his team writes original product descriptions and uses automated software to take down expired links. Other technology involves automatic rotating codes to avoid inviting other affiliates to cut and paste Fabu links on to their sites. He says his exclusive link with Toys R Us changes every 18 hours so that a stolen link will no longer be good after a brief window of time. All his expired coupons switch themselves out automatically.
Technology: The Good and the Bad
Link stealing may be the biggest pet peeve of the online coupon affiliate community. And while it does occur, some affiliates and networks work with it as a nuisance. Others complain that merchants aren’t doing enough because for them it just means broader distribution. The other pet peeve is that some merchants tailor coupons just for affiliates and create other deals for all the other channels they sell in. Affiliates fear the better deals may be going to the other channels.
“There are many things low-quality coupon sites do that are deceptive,” wrote Michael Coley, founder of Amazing- Bargains.com, in a Web forum. “While these things may temporarily increase their [clickthrough rates] or sales, the long-term effect is that they lose customers. Who would go back to a site that they knew was deceptive, and what merchant would want to keep working with a site that was deceptive? Their antics backfire in the long run.”
The potential for technology to take more of the sting out of couponing online has generated more than a few companies ready to cash in on new platforms. RSS feeds for coupons have been a boon to companies that do it, such as CouponBar.com, DealoftheDay.com and PhatDeal.com. Couponing from cell phones is the next area of interest for some. Companies such as Cellfire, MoBull and Quickpons are startups that just deliver coupons via cell phones. And they are already getting buzz. Redemption rates for mobile coupons are very high – at about 23 percent – mostly because cell phone users opt in to receive the coupons or must register or download a piece of software to the phone to participate.
Allen thinks this will undoubtedly drive the mom and pop out of business. “Coupon sites,” he says, “have become mainstream businesses. All the major players have recently undergone extensive revisions, technology upgrades and aesthetic enhancements to better compete in what is now a very sophisticated and fast-moving marketplace.” He says that what was once “amateur or hobby categories” are now sites that can be called brands on their own. The larger the main players become the harder it will be for small affiliates to keep up, he says.
Boal of Coupons.com thinks the future is Web services and mobile. “We took our time with mobile,” he says. “We didn’t make it so difficult.” They waited until they figured out a way for everyone to use it instead of only customers with certain cell phone brands.
CMS’ Tilley outlines what keeps coupons hot. The face value of coupons has risen about 9 percent while product price inflation has risen only about 2 percent. Coupons that require multiple purchases are down, but their response rate is up. For nonfood products, shoppers are 30 percent more likely to use a buy-two coupon than a discount on a buy-one. For food, the buy-four is more popular than the discount on one item. And for both categories overall – food and nonfood – shoppers are 49 percent more inclined to use buy-four than a buy-three or a discount on one. And while coupons redeemed has slid from 3.9 billion coupons in 2001 to 3 billion in 2005, traditionally coupon redemption drops in a good economy.
What’s In Store?
The in-store coupon is also becoming very popular. About a third of redemptions now come from the in-store instant savings coupon or offer. Tilley says packaged goods marketers plan to migrate up to 20 percent of their coupon campaigns to online by the end of this year.
While some retail affiliates wouldn’t dream of dealing in coupons, some couponers like Allen simply think it’s harder to be a retail product affiliate. “General coupons are easier to deal with than many specific retail products,” he says. “Why essentially recreate the retailer’s website on your own? It’s not good for organic search and most affiliates don’t have the resources to do all the split tests and so forth needed to optimize product layouts for multiple retailers. Why compete with what they do best?”
Fabu.com’s Yack has a real simple and direct assessment. “We’ve been working on Fabu for nine months. I have ads in 180 newspapers; I have three publicists. A lot of these sites still look the same as if they came from the wayback machine. I built Fabu because times are changing ” and I’m getting paid for having a link on my site – how crazy is that?”