Ms. Handler is working on an offer for Pine River Stables in St. Clair, Mich., a place she has never been to. It is the stables' first deal on Groupon: $18 for a one-hour ride for two people, half the regular price.
It takes Ms. Handler about 50 minutes to assemble the write-up, which is a few straightforward paragraphs explaining the details with the occasional gag as sweetener (The stables are closed "on Wednesdays, in the event of bad weather and on Horse Christmas.") She puts off writing the first sentences, the ones that are supposed to seduce every Groupon subscriber in Detroit -- either to go horseback riding or at least keep reading Groupon's e-mails.
Still stumped, she browses an online thesaurus. She studies the Pine River Web site for the umpteenth time. She wishes she lived in a world without horses.
Her fingers flick on the keyboard. "Without horses," she writes, "Polo shirts would be branded with monkeys and Paul Revere would have been forced to ride on a Segway. Celebrate our hoofed counterparts with today's Groupon. ..."
Good enough. She moves the copy along to the fact-checking department.
Like many others at Groupon, the 23-year-old Ms. Handler comes from an arts background. At the University of Michigan, she studied English and global media studies, wrote TV reviews for the student paper and short stories for fun.
Groupon shuns being thought of as a marketer or, worse, an ad agency, promoting cheap pizza or sushi for anyone who wants to hire it. The hope instead is that its users will eventually perceive it as an impartial guide to a city or a neighborhood, somewhat in the manner of the local paper's weekend section. With more than 400 writers and editors, Groupon's domestic editorial staff is on the verge of eclipsing the big name across the Chicago River, The Chicago Tribune.
Funny or Die: Groupon's Fate Hinges on Words
By DAVID STREITFELD
Published: May 28, 2011
The e-mail marketer hopes that its staff of 400 writers and editors will keep it one step ahead of its discounting competitors on the Web.
uch of the Groupon suite lacks finished ceilings or other signs of permanence. The occupants of offices are indicated not by plaques but slips of paper taped to the wall. Few of the cubicles have personal touches. Everything is anonymous and just about everyone is under 30.
"A lot of professional writers apply here. I've had applicants from Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal," said Keith Griffith, director of recruiting. "But it's really hard to get them to do what we're looking for. It's easier to teach people than unteach them."
In the mythology of Silicon Valley, tech companies hire only the geekiest engineers, weeding out the pretenders with questions that ordinary mortals could never fathom, like this: How many golf balls does it take to fill a 747?
Groupon is trying to reach a different skill set. Here is one of the questions it asks prospective hires:
Q. Which is the most interesting way to describe a 4,700-pound chandelier?
A. Blinged out
B. More brilliant than a studious Christmas tree
C. A death trap
D. Really big and shiny
Not enough people pass the test -- the correct answer is B -- or ace the sample write-up. "My constant fear is that we're going to run out of writers in Chicago," said Mr. Griffith, 27, who in his spare time is a theater critic for The Chicago Reader, an alternative paper.
Another reason the employment skews young is because the pay for new writers is less than extravagant -- about $37,000 a year. This is a touchy subject with Groupon management, which says it is offering the going rate for workers in their early twenties. Also, promotions are plentiful, even for new hires like Ms. Handler, who joined Groupon in January and is now an editor.
About two new editorial workers are being hired every weekday. It is the job of Whitney Holmes, a poet with a fine arts degree from the University of Alabama, to teach them the Voice.
Ms. Holmes began at Groupon last August as a writer, then became an editor, then senior editor. At 27, she says she feels kind of old compared to everyone else. She taught creative writing in Alabama, but the traditional assertion in classrooms that writers are born and not made is here reversed.
"Inspiration is a bunch of hooey," Ms. Holmes says. "You can teach someone how to put together things that are funny."
Addressing a new crop of writers at a training session, she seeks first to reassure. "Achieving Groupon Voice is not about being inherently funny. If it were, 93 percent of our writers would not have jobs," she says.
The writers, who have been on the job less than two weeks, laugh uneasily. Ms. Holmes takes them on a brisk tour of the history and theory of humor. Much humor, she notes, is based on superiority -- laughing at the well-deserved misfortune of idiots. Groupon doesn't do this. Incongruity, however, is fine. Shock is not funny, but surprise is useful.
Some other rules: The passive voice is to be avoided and pop culture references are verboten. A write-up for a teeth-whitening service said it was "equivalent to being punched by God twice." Angry letters followed. The new edict is to substitute Zeus for God, Greek mythology being deemed suitably innocuous.
An example of a successful use of the Groupon Voice is long overdue. Here are two classics:
For a yoga and massage service:
"Today's modern world, with its plethora of countries, panoply of waterways, and constantly changing laws about what is and what isn't mail fraud, is as confusing as it is stressful. Get a clear definition of relaxation with today's Groupon."
For a dentist:
"The Tooth Fairy is a burglarizing fetishist specializing in black-market ivory trade, and she must be stopped. Today's Groupon helps keep teeth in mouths and out of the hands of maniacal, winged phantasms."
The writers in the class do exercises on hair salons and car washes. Excellence is rare. But they'll get plenty of practice, doing as many as seven or eight write-ups a day.
"Every joke has a setup and a payoff," Ms. Holmes says. "If the setup is confusing, the payoff will never land."