Tragedy of the Coupon Commons

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Written by Brook Schaaf

FMTC hosted a fantastic panel on coupon best practices last week with TopCashback’s James Little,’s Coady Joy, and PartnerCentric’s Stephanie Harris. It was chock-full of great data, observations, and anecdotes. (You can watch a replay here.)

While many points are worthy of further commentary, James Little brought up a particular issue that has stayed on my mind — we might call it the “tragedy of the coupon commons.”

To illustrate this reference, think of the classic scenario of a commons area that is overgrazed and spoiled because everyone has access but treats it poorly because it’s not their own personal property. The equivalent in the coupon and reward space is the posting of expired, misrepresented, and outright fake deals, which spoils the common experience of regular customers. People I meet often vent frustration over not being able to find working codes; whether or not their shopping journey terminates, they are likely soured on the experience.

Conventional wisdom holds that sites do this because they want more content for search engines and too-good-to-be-true deals are clickbait, followed by a click-to-reveal button to set the cookie.

A noisome example is a particular merchant on CouponBirds. Spoiler: It’s a fake merchant page for FMTC. None of these deals listed on this page are provided by FMTC, both in the sense that our feed only has approved, working deals and in the sense that … these never even existed; they don’t even make sense. Fake leads coming through here is why we shuttered our affiliate program. (Cobbler’s child — I know, I know.)

Ending the relationship does stop commissioning; unfortunately, it also means the merchant loses just about all leverage for cooperation, short of a cease and desist, which I understand to be an uphill legal battle.

More dishearteningly, there is no pragmatic solution to the problem for our industry, which pollutes what is an otherwise appealing pathway for the consumer. Absent this, the bird is basically flipped to merchants, customers, and compliant affiliates.

We would love to hear from you — let us know how you think we might improve this situation.

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