Very few of us these days would turn down a way to spend less on something we need. Saving money through coupons has become a sport in the past few years, as consumers hit by the tough economy demonstrate a growing willingness to invest time and energy into snagging a good deal – to extreme measures in some cases.

More than ever, those consumers are going online for deals, including discount coupons. In fact, redemption of Internet print-at-home coupons rose an impressive 16% in the first quarter of this year compared with first quarter 2011, according to Inmar, a leading coupon processor. Compare that with steep declines in customers’ redemption of instant redeemable coupons, electronic checkout coupons and shelf-pad coupons.

What does this have to do with selling HVAC equipment and service? A lot, because it tells HVAC contractors where their customers are looking for real savings: online.

Paper coupons still have their place. But for HVAC contractors with smart online marketing strategies, web-based coupons and other deals will reach customers and leads who otherwise would never see their offers.

Adapting the same discounts offered in your newspaper coupons or mailers is one smart move. But HVAC contractors should be getting creative too. They should use social media sites, blogs, email and websites to reach customers in new ways. The results are twofold: First, you grow your business by drawing in new customers. Second, you enhance your presence on the web – key to reaching qualified leads and enhancing your position as an industry leader in your community.

Here are some ways to create tech-savvy deals:

• Email might seem old-fashioned amid the evolving forms of online communication. But email remains a highly effective tool for reaching customers. Don’t abuse the privilege by cramming your customers’ in-boxes. Send periodic special offers to customers who’ve provided their email addresses for your database. Make them worth their time – or customers will learn quickly to hit “delete” without even opening your message. One idea: Include printable coupons with monthly email newsletters that also include seasonal HVAC maintenance tips.

• Reward your Facebook and Twitter followers with “friend-only” deals. Maybe it’s a Facebook post: “Today only: Mention you saw this post and receive 20% off a maintenance plan.” A special offer to a select group – with a time limit, to create a sense of urgency – makes customers feel like they’re getting value.

• Encourage sharing. While it’s important to demonstrate how much you value your online relationships, you can never have too many followers. Your friend-only deals should include invitations to “spread the word” on social networking sites – and additional incentives to extend the deal to friends offline, too (“Refer a friend, get a free air filter”).

• Do a giveaway, and use your social marketing outlets to spread the word. Again, the idea is to make it worth customers’ time to follow your posts and tweets. Maybe you offer a free duct inspection to the first 20 people who email you their contact information. Maybe everyone who responds is entered into a drawing for a gift certificate toward equipment.

• Go multimedia. As an HVAC contractor, you’re a premier source of expert information for homeowners seeking heating and cooling advice. Create a “how-to” video – how to inspect your windows for leaks, for example – and post it on YouTube and on your blog. Include an offer at the end for a discounted energy audit.

• Don’t be afraid to use outside sites such as Craigslist, whose “Services” category is a great spot for a printable coupon for a discounted preventive maintenance plan – or, better yet, an explanation of a discount offer alongside the URL for your business’ website, where the coupon is located. That way, your customers get the coupon – but also the chance to learn more about your business.

• Team up with other local businesses to offer customers a one-stop online spot for discounts and other deals. Start by inquiring with your local Chamber of Commerce – many of them create websites that pool local businesses’ special discounts in one place.

Some tips for creating coupons that get results, whether they’re online or on paper:

• Include an expiration date. You’ll create a sense of urgency among your customers.

• Don’t forget the small print. Consider limiting your offers to one-time use and labeling them “not valid with other offers.”

• Use your coupon as another opportunity to reinforce your brand, even for those who won’t end up using it. Include your logo and the URLs for your website, blog and Facebook page as well as your contact information.

Finally, remember that coupons and other deals – online or on paper – are a means to an end. Nurture the relationships that start with a special offer, and you’ll see your business grow.

Joe Pulizzi is CEO for SocialTract, the leading blogging/social media service for HVACR Contractors. Joe’s new book, Managing Content Marketing, is now available on Amazon and Kindle. Joe can be reached on Twitter @juntajoe or by email joe@socialtract.com.