Summary:

Skype’s purchase of GroupMe has largely revolved around the communications side of the deal. But a big component is also GroupMe’s plans to monetize conversations by presenting local offers and discounts that help people make group decisions in real time.

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When GroupMe began as a hackathon project last year, one of the first things founders Steve Martocci and Jared Hecht did was secure an ad from a Brooklyn, N.Y. bowling alley for half-off bowling for people looking to watch the Lost finale. That, they said, was to prove that GroupMe could be a business.

GroupMe subsequently took off like wild-fire by quickly introducing a number of messaging features, which is what helped it get the attention of Skype, who just bought GroupMe for a reported $85 million. But while the deal obviously revolved around messaging and communications, a big motivator for Martocci and Hecht in accepting the sale, and presumably Skype in acquiring GroupMe, was also GroupMe’s shot at going back to its original potential as a tool for making monetized group decisions.

That’s something Skype CEO Tony Bates mentions right off the bat in his description of GroupMe in the official blog post announcing the deal, saying the messaging start-up “helps users stay in touch and make decisions.”

Hecht and Martocci told me this morning that they’re excited about accelerating the work behind helping people make online decisions for offline activities. This could mean things like friends heading out for a night on the town or going specifically to an event like Lollapalooza. As Martocci told me last week, there are a lot of opportunities in monetizing these highly contextual groups. That’s going to be a big push for GroupMe, and something that will get more attention in early 2012. It seems to tie into the growing market for delivering local discounts and offers to consumers via their mobile device, something Groupon, Google, Foursquare and many others are also looking at.

GroupMe founders Jared Hecht and Steve Martocci

“We want people to do things better in the real world. By taking simple everyday tools like a mobile device, we can show them an offer,” Hecht said. “We don’t think of this as an ad but as a feature. We have a unique opportunity to add content through context and people communicating in real time to help them make decisions without getting in the way.”

GroupMe’s founders are mum on details of how this will work. But the company has been moving in this direction, introducing featured groups that allow brands to organize conversations around their products and properties. The Oxygen network, for example, launched a group around Paris Hilton’s show. GroupMe has also worked with Lollapalooza and Showtime’s Dexter  on mobile apps that let people tap GroupMe for messaging. These groups and apps organize around specific themes and products and could be a way for advertisers to target consumers. And if GroupMe can also tie into the conversations people are having about upcoming events, it can help facilitate commerce by bringing in relevant offers.

That’s something GroupMe’s Steve Cheney, who joined the company in January to help lead business development, talked about in a blog post this morning. He said by combining with Skype, GroupMe can not only help disrupt communications but can also drive new use cases for commerce in the emerging peer-to-peer economy:

The peer to peer economy is driving unprecedented intelligence to the edge of the network, and messaging is just the first wedge in helping individuals and groups make decisions and take actions instantaneously. When I talked about Groupon closing the redemption loop a few months ago, I was adamant that a mobile commerce layer and a social / communication layer are being built out that will have unprecedented impacts on how we interact and consume things with friends in our physical environments. At our core, humans are social, and friends drive a lot of our decision-making and actions. Where traditional telecom allowed fairly static connections between people, the mobile internet is driving a new peer to peer economy where people not only instantaneously connect with each other, but take actions to consume, share and enrich their real-world lives.

So it’s not just a communications play for Skype and GroupMe; it’s Skype’s chance to get into the game on real-time local offers, but from a communications perspective. That’s a sensible approach, considering Skype’s core strengths, and represents a sizable opportunity if GroupMe can execute. And if it works, it won’t just work for GroupMe’s audience, but should ultimately help Skype’s 175 million users and potentially benefit Microsoft, which is in the process of buying Skype. 

There’s a lot that needs to happen yet, and I’m curious how intent in conversations can be turned into relevant offers that don’t appear too stalkerish. But it’s a good sign for Skype’s business that the company is thinking not just about communicating, but about how to derive money from those conversations.

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