Social media put twist on Groupon's year-long promotional stunt

By Steven Overly
Monday, July 5, 2010; 11

Last year, Australia's Queensland Tourism launched a search for an island caretaker who for six months would travel around the Great Barrier Reef and chronicle his or her adventures on a blog.

To capture some of the World Cup fervor, Budweiser gathered 32 people from the tournament's finalist countries in the same house, put their antics on YouTube and allowed people to vote on which housemates could attend the games.

Now online coupon purveyor Groupon brings you Josh Stevens, who has forgone money and a stable home to live for a year exclusively on electronic coupons, putting his every move on Twitter, Facebook and a personal blog.

Underpinning these three stunts is a marketing strategy that a growing number of companies want to leverage: using social media to attract attention and give brands a personal touch.

Stevens made his way to D.C. last week as part of a campaign by online coupon purveyor Groupon.

Armed with an endless wad of Groupons, laptop computer, and cellphone, Stevens must make his way to 15 cities throughout the year without ever touching actual money. He can barter, bribe and take handouts, but cash isn't allowed. At the end, he gets $100,000.

Stevens spent last week and the Fourth of July holiday exploring the District, stopping at several restaurants, the Grooming Lounge spa for a predicure and Madame Tussauds wax museum.

"There's people willing to make offers well before I get to their cities," said Stevens, a 28-year-old Chicago native. "As soon as they hear what I'm doing, immediately they're entertained by the whole notion and want to find some way to be involved."

Rohit Bhargava, author of "Personality Not Included" and senior vice president of marketing at Washington-based Ogilvy Public Relations, said the campaign makes for a good case study in social media.

"The idea that someone is living off Groupon for a year not only gets me to come back ... it also gives me a story that I can share with a friend when I tell them about Groupon," Bhargava wrote in an e-mail. "When you combine a real product or service benefit with a human connection, that's where the real magic of social media happens."

While Stevens has more than 7,000 Facebook friends and 1,350 followers on Twitter, the ultimate measure of the success of the campaign may well be whether the company can translate the stunt into sales or Web site views, Bhargava said

For that to happen, Joel Rubinson, the chief research officer at New York's Advertising Research Foundation, said companies need to be aware of where social media falls into the "path to purchase," a timeline of consumer decisions before buying a product.

"Typically the conversation you're having in Facebook doesn't immediately lead to a purchase," Rubinson said. "What social media does, it's all part of this process of shaping what's going to be on your radar screen versus what's not going to be on [your] radar screen."

Groupon has seemingly managed to do both through its Living Off Groupons effort. The company has attracted a regular audience on social media networks (and coverage from The Washington Post), and Julie Mossler, Groupon's public relations manager, said the company's Web site gained 30,000 subscriptions within the first two weeks of the campaign.

While subscribing to Groupon simply requires an e-mail address, that audience will receive the site's daily e-mails with coupons from various merchants. The campaign has included no traditional advertising and is now entering its second month, Mossler said.

"In every city, he is marketing Groupon and the merchants who participate," Mossler said. "He's a walking Groupon."

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