What Students Can Learn from “Groupon”



I expect the undergraduates in my courses to write interesting, clear, and creative introductions for their critical papers. In the guidelines for a recent writing assignment, I included the following language describing this expectation:

Your essay should have a clear introduction. While this should be located within your first, introductory paragraph, simply having an opening paragraph is not sufficient. The introduction itself is the “hook” — it should set the tone for the paper and begin to establish the audience of the paper. The introduction should transition (usually with a transitional sentence) into your thesis.

This brief paragraph helps to make it clear to my students that the introduction begins to establish the audience for their paper as well as the stakes. While the thesis statement should do the heavy lifting in terms of directly stating and organizing the argument in the paper, the introduction is what directs the reader to the thesis.

The problem is that many of my students have trouble implementing the instruction to include an introduction in their papers, over-using broad statements such as “Since the beginning of time” or launching immediately — and confusingly — into a version of their thesis. Besides advising my students to read the first paragraph of a number of articles in their field, I have also used an in-class workshop to teach about writing introductions. This workshop puts those Groupon e-mails that likely show up in your — and your student’s — e-mail box each day to work for something other than savings. Groupons can be a unique “found object” for teaching students about the mechanics and style of writing an appropriate introduction for all kinds of written work.

The Groupon is useful for two main reasons. The first is that it is something that students are likely to be familiar with. If they don’t already receive these coupons by e-mail or SmartPhone, they have probably heard of them. Additionally, because Groupon subscriptions to any e-mail address are free and can be canceled at any time, it is reasonable to expect students to collect 5-10 Groupons for use in a classroom assignment.

The second reason that Groupons are useful, especially for teaching students how to write introductions, is that each Groupon ad follows a strict set of style guidelines. Groupon, Inc. has stated that this writing formula is what sets them apart from other coupon sites. (Whether this is true might be in doubt, but if you choose to adapt this assignment for classroom use, keep in mind that students must sign up for Groupon and not one of its “Daily Deal Site” competitors, such as ScoutMob.

An aspect of this writing style is the wacky introductory sentence that begins every Groupon description. Examples include:

After breaking through the thermosphere, Neil Armstrong famously proclaimed, “That’s one pretty big step for a man, considering I just learned how to fly yesterday.”

“Getting your family together for a game of laser tag is an easier way to keep track of the kids than ear tagging, which requires tranquilizer guns.”

“Steak is useful for exercising incisors, muffling trumpets, and reducing swelling from black eyes caused by trying to eat steak with one’s eye.”

These sentences are the introductions to Groupons for flying lessons, laser tag, and an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse, respectively. Taken alone, they don’t make a whole lot of sense. However, they are attention-grabbing and each one does telegraph at least one intriguing premise or question.

These first sentences are the first step to creating the “Groupon Voice.” Here’s how Groupon corporate describes the format of the entire first paragraph to their copy writers:

The first [paragraph] includes a one-sentence creative introduction, a transition sentence, and a sentence outlining what you pay and what you get. 

Continuing with the Neil Armstrong/Flying Lessons example, let’s see how those instructions play out. The voice of the first sentence is already playful and fun and that’s the way Groupon wants you to feel (tone) when you read about their discount offer. The first paragraph of the ad continues:

Climb to new altitudinal/attitudinal heights with today’s Groupon: for $61, you get a discovery flight (a $100 value) plus 30 minutes of ground instruction (a $22.50 value) from Washington International Flight Academy in Gaithersburg (a combined value of $122.50). This Groupon is valid for new students only.

This information connects the opening anecdote to what the paragraph is actually about and leads to the main idea: getting you to buy the Groupon.

For a workshop, I would analyze 1-2 Groupons with my students, pointing out how the three criteria of the copy writer’s manual are incorporated into each advertisement.

1)    creative introduction

2)    transition

3)    what you pay and what you get

Then I would ask students to break into groups (I capitalized “groups” the first time through! Groupon is getting to me!) and analyze several more Groupons. Finally, I would also ask them to create their own “Groupon-style” introductions for their chosen paper topics (or, if crunched for time, they might choose one student’s paper topic and brainstorm together.)

Implementing this workshop will help students to think systematically about creating their own introductions and the Groupon connection has the added benefit of reminding students to look to the writing they encounter in their everyday life as a way of informing their own process. It is important to explain to students that the zany examples in actual Groupons may not be appropriate for many academic papers. Instead, they should seek to create a clear tone in their own work that might range from zany to serious to contemplative to mysterious depending on their subject matter and discipline. This is where asking students to read the introductions to a number of papers in their major field (and/or the field of your course) would be a useful lesson supplement.

If you implement a Groupon workshop, make sure to ask your students to request these e-mails far enough ahead of the workshop that they can print several examples. You could also provide Groupon examples to the class, but asking them to read what they receive in their own e-mail will help to prime the class discussion. Additionally, ad targeting means that you will have a wider range of Groupons for classroom use if each student selects a handful. You might ask students to sign up for different cities to widen the field. (In a recent class, I had a business student specializing in marketing who really took to this assignment, and he offered to present a little bit about the theory behind Groupon itself to add to this lesson.)

Finally, I would appreciate it if you would cite this blog post in your syllabus if you choose to use this workshop idea. My references, including the Groupon style guide, are indicated below. I do not work for Groupon or own any aspect of the “Groupon Voice” method. I am simply elaborating on this method in a creative manner as a “found object” for classroom use.

References

Dembowsky, April. “Writers Learn the Groupon Voice.” Financial Times. 28 Jul 2011. Web. 19 Feb 12.

Groupon, Inc. Public Details Guide. 2012. Web. 24 Feb 2011.

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