Facebook is planning to roll out a new version of its Groupon-style Deals feature over the next few weeks, starting with a number of cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and San Diego, according to the company’s director of local. Not surprisingly, the new version of these digital coupons plays on the social nature of Facebook and its ability to influence a user’s social graph. While the social network may be late to this particular party, doing that is going to focus attention on one big hole in the Groupon model: namely, the fact that it isn’t really social.
Emily White, a former Google ad exec in charge of the effort, describes in an interview with Internet Retailer how the site will highlight in a user’s news feed if they have indicated interest in a particular deal, and also if they have actually purchased one. Presumably, users will also be able to opt out of this feature, given Facebook’s experiences in the past with ventures such as Beacon — which publicized purchases users made at other websites and was eventually shut down after a firestorm of criticism from privacy advocates. According to White:
The fact that every step of the process — from interacting with the deal, booking the deal and experiencing the deal — is tied to friends makes it more likely that you’ll have a positive experience.
Obviously, a lot of that is Facebook’s spin on why its new service is going to be competitive with Groupon, which has become the 800-pound gorilla of email marketing by expanding rapidly over the past two years into more than 500 markets. The company’s revenues are estimated to be in the $2-billion range on an annualized basis, and it’s said to be planning a public share offering that could value the company at more than $25 billion. What Facebook is to social networking, Groupon has become to email discounting.
That clearly poses some challenges for Facebook, as my colleague Ryan noted recently. But Facebook’s view of its strengths compared to Groupon isn’t just spin. It reinforces that deals from Groupon — and even from competitors such as LivingSocial, which is also valued in the billions of dollars on the private market — aren’t that social. I wrote about one of the drivers behind Google’s reported $6-billion offer for Groupon being the fact that advertising is becoming social, and that is true. And when it comes to being social, Facebook is light years ahead of Groupon or LivingSocial.
It’s true that you can see how many other people have signed up for a deal when you go to the website from the email Groupon sends you, and there are some standard web-sharing buttons that let you post to Twitter or say that you “liked” the deal on Facebook. But that’s still not terribly social. What if you could see these deals — and which of your friends signed up for them — right in your Facebook news feed? The immediacy of that, mixed in with the other social signals and activity you are already looking at, could make you more likely to click on a deal, or even to be aware that one is available. Add the ability to comment on a deal, and it becomes something much more social that anything Groupon offers.
The news feed — the same thing that made Beacon so appealing, but at the same time so disturbing to some — is Facebook’s not-so-secret weapon, and the new version of Deals is clearly going to take advantage of that in a way it hasn’t before. Competing with a $2-billion monster is not going to be easy, even for Facebook, and signing deals with retailers is one area where the size and scale of Groupon represents a fairly compelling competitive advantage. But Facebook has the news feed and the social graph, and if advertising really is becoming social, that is a very powerful force indeed.