How Coupons led to Social Commerce

A colleague asked me for my take on Social Commerce. This seemed like a good reason to delve into very a hot area.

I decided to look from a historic perspective – what preceded modern social commerce? A very good case can be made that social commerce had its origin with the first coupons. The story involves both technological changes in how content is presented, as well as how various types of social interactions are enabled. There are fascinating parallels with the rise Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and the interplay between push and pull models of distribution. I’ll likely make several more posts on these topics.

First the historic perspective.

Coupons Appear for Physical Stores

The vast majority of today’s coupons are paper and therefore distributed by print media and mass mailings, typically by manufacturers of consumer packaged goods and by retailers. Asa Griggs Candler who acquired Coca-Cola (Coke) in 1888, is credited with the invention of the modern coupon. In its first year, only nine glasses of Coke were sold on average each day. By 1913, Coca-Cola had redeemed 8.5 million “free drink” coupons.

Coupons are a way for manufacturers and retailers to selectively offer discounts to price sensitive shoppers who might otherwise go elsewhere. Price sensitive shoppers are those most likely to make an extra effort to receive a discount. The distribution of coupons also enables the list price, which will be paid by less price-sensitive shoppers, to be increased! It is sobering to realize that if you don’t use coupons then on average your purchase costs will be higher because you have been identified as someone prepared to pay more!

Coupons also enable various forms of market research and segmentation.

The ubiquity of coupons today is demonstrated by Extreme Couponing, a popular television series that profiles people who manage to pyramid coupons to acquire merchandise with little or no cash outlay.


Initially all coupons were distributed in paper form, typically in periodicals and mass mailings. The Internet created a new distribution channel enabling the downloading and printing of electronic coupons to paper. From that point on though the printed coupon is treated in the same way as any other paper coupon and taken to the physical point of purchase.

With the recent widespread adoption of mobile devices, it has become possible to carry an electronic image of a coupon to the point of sale and have that scanned, obviating the need for paper coupons. For this to be effective, widespread ownership of mobile devices such as smart phones, even among price-sensitive shopper, is obviously required.

Tying Coupons to Commerce Systems in Stores

Whether in paper form or electronic images, coupons to be used in physical stores are tied to electronic commerce systems by scanned bar codes. Products have UPC bar codes, as do the coupons that can provide discounts. Product and coupon UPC bar codes are similar, but not identical. At the time of purchase the point-of-sale (POS) computer decodes a product family code from the coupon bar code and matches it to any item purchased from that product family (identified by the product bar code), derives a value and sends a discount amount to the cash register (details).

Internet Coupons for Online Stores

When the point of sale is not a physical environment, but rather an online store, then an alternate approach is commonly used – Internet coupons. These are typically numeric or text strings entered by the customer in a web form at the time of sale. They are referred to by a variety of names such as “promotional codes”, “discount codes”, “key codes” or something similar. In this case the electronic commerce system is an integral part of the online store.

Once coupons and coupon codes became available online, an opportunity was created to consolidate them on coupon services sites like Coupon Craze (video overview). The top ten coupon services sites have recently been reviewed. Couponers can see a very large variety of available printable coupons and/or online coupon codes from many stores, pick up the necessary coupon code and be redirected to the appropriate online store. These sites are generally centered on individual consumers, but do have limited social support – for example by providing a link to send an offer to friends by traditional email or social networks.


At times there have been attempts to limit the trading of coupons, but these have generally failed. Since coupons have inherent value to those prepared to go to extra effort, and this value can be exchanged or traded, people committed to using coupons (i.e. "couponers") have formed coupon exchange clubs – typically meeting in residences, churches, club facilities, etc. to exchange physical coupons. These coupon clubs are prevalent in geographic regions where coupons are especially heavily distributed and build off existing in-person, social networks. They also have the potential to create new social relationships based on shared goals.

The differences between societies often manifest themselves in online social communities. For example, Tuangou, is a shopping strategy that originated in China. People connect over the Internet in order to haggle with a vendor as a group. They benefit from group leverage to get a larger discount and the vendor increases their volume. Haggling is of course a Chinese shopping tradition. There is no intermediary in the transaction and the social bartering groups have to organize themselves, typically using online forums.

In contrast, in Europe and North America, where consumers expect most prices are fixed (with the notable exception of automobiles and houses) unless a coupon can be used, intermediaries are the norm. The group-buy, or “deal a day” leaders are Groupon, LivingSocial and BuyWithMe. In essence a special price is offered for a limited time on one product or service to an entire group in a given geographic location. While deals are distributed by RSS feeds and email, an essential social element of these sites is the targeted use of online forums which encourage consumers the share their questions, opinions and experiences with the product or service on offer.

 While services like Groupon were preceded by other deal-a-day sites, such as Woot, those only supported online transactions. The newer sites appeal to a much wider range of merchants as they are able to offer deals for any type of product or service (i.e. not just consumer packaged goods), especially tailored to specific geographies. They are of interest to smaller merchants and local services like restaurants, sports activities and spas. It should be noted that group members actually purchase a coupon or voucher that is redeemable with the merchant, typically at a physical location (i.e. not usually online). Deal sharing using email and social media outside the subscribed group is actively encouraged, and there are direct benefits for assisting in recruiting others (i.e. referral rewards).

The success of Groupon has both attracted suitors to buy the company at elevated prices of up to $6 billion (e.g. Yahoo! and Google), as well as motivating existing major Internet players to replicate it – notably Google offers and Facebook Deals.

Parallels to Enterprise Content Management

Content – In many ways coupons have followed the same historical path as more classical content types such as documents, moving from paper form to electronic – first on PCs and later on mobile devices. However, whereas documents are key elements in business-to-business (B2B) commercial transactions, coupons support business-to-consumer (B2C) interactions, where the business party may be a manufacturer or retailer, as already noted.

Collaboration/Social – In a similar fashion, for much of their history, the primary coupon-related interactions were pushes from the vendor or manufacturer to individual consumers - much as business have interacted with employees (B2E - see an earlier post). But consumers have discovered that they can realize greater benefits if they work together using both generic social tools as well as purpose-built tools. Given the flood of coupon and discount opportunities consumers have also started to favour pull instead of push mechanisms - which are increasingly perceived as spam.

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