Digital Coupons - A Love Story

By Marc Mathies, Director Product Management, Digital Coupons/Consumer Experience
Published Monday, Nov 21, 2016

Digital Coupons - A Love Story

What follows is a true love story.

At my workplace we distribute a lot of coupons. Through digital media alone we distribute tens of millions of coupons on behalf of our consumer packaged goods (CPG) clients. These coupons land on the desktops, tablets, printers and mobile devices of hundreds of thousands of consumers each year. Our relationship with these consumers is pretty straightforward: we have coupons; people want coupons; we give them coupons.

As director of this digital coupon product line, I’m mostly concerned with making sure we are providing a constant flow of coupons from manufacturers to consumers. However, recently, I’ve found myself spending a greater amount of time tracking methods by which individuals try to collect more than their allotted share of coupons. And, I’ve learned that the lengths some will go to in order to get a few extra coupons can be quite astonishing. As a result, we find ourselves in a cat-and-mouse game between our software engineers and a flock of rabid coupon seekers.

I’ve spent 100 percent of my professional career in publishing. I’ve certainly seen some creative attempts by consumers to get content they want for free. Usually, this activity is reserved to for-pay content such as editorial features, datasheets, or research papers. But I’ve never experienced a circumstance where a person has sought out (or scammed to get) more advertising. Never. And, coupons at their core are indeed advertising. So, why is this happening?

Coupons do carry a face value, and therefore potentially carry a higher perceived value to consumers than other forms of advertising. But don’t most ads offer some type of savings message? Coupons are bought and paid for by manufacturers and distributed by companies like ours through web and mobile publishers with the intent of driving more product sales. This sounds like advertising to me. And, with the introduction of the digital coupon, consumers don’t have to look further than their personal computer, tablet or smartphone to find them.

There is also strong evidence that coupon users will do more than simply seek. In fact, the 2016 RedPlum Purse Strings Survey revealed what consumers would do to receive 40 percent or more in savings. Seventy percent of people surveyed said they would sign up for an email newsletter. Fifty-four percent said they would like a Facebook page. Forty-five percent would fill out an online form and a surprising 23 percent said they would do “just about anything!”1 So, something is truly different about how coupons are perceived by consumers.

But what is this difference? I believe that we can draw similarities between how consumers react to coupons and how they react to the most primal of human responses - love. Can a coupon evoke the same response as seeing your soulmate for the first time? Maybe.

You see, neuroscientists have identified a part of the human brain that they often call the “reward circuit”.2  Researchers are able to watch and measure activity to the reward circuit as it becomes flooded with the chemical dopamine in response to certain types of external stimuli. A person experiencing an activated reward circuit will respond by feeling happy or euphoric. While in this state they may act in new and unpredictable ways.

What are the causes of reward circuit activation? There are several: Drug use, food consumption and gambling are on the list. But at the top is indeed that powerful four-letter word - love. It’s apparent and well documented that love and attraction to other humans will send the reward circuit into overdrive.3

But our story is a “coupon” love story. So allow me to draw the dashed line between love and coupons: Just as it can be proven that drug use and eating can trigger the brain to react in similar ways to love, it can also be proven that other triggers excite the brain’s reward circuit.  But coupons? Really? I say, yes.

Much like human love, coupon use is associated with reward. Unlike other forms of advertising, consumers know they will receive defined value for their purchase. It’s spelled out right there on the coupon, usually in bold print. They know that if they take the coupon to a store, they will save money. There are no tricks, just raw, unpolished value.

This may not be real love in the classic sense, however, if a coupon can flood the brain with dopamine in a manner like love does, then don’t we have to at least agree there are similarities between the two?

This knowledge of how consumers feel and react to coupons comes with great responsibility. I think that our company and manufacturers have an obligation to shift the needs and wants of consumers to the highest priority.

Coupons are like no other form of advertising. People do seek them. Some people even love them. Sometimes, under the throws of a drunken reward circuit, they will cross lines in an attempt to get more than they are allowed.

As distributors of coupons, those in our industry should embrace this. We should look for ways to reduce barriers between people and their savings. We should seek to deliver coupons to consumers that want them where, when and how they desire to receive them.

Over the next few years, digital channels will evolve and provide even more opportunities to reach consumers in ways that we can only imagine today. So, the love story will go on. And, by putting the consumer first, Valassis will be in a position to enable their passion for coupons… a cupid of sorts.

Valassis 2016 Purse Strings Survey