I’ve marketed my way through enough recessions to recognize the pattern; marketers stop playing games, and start spending their money very, very carefully.

In the past, that meant a lot of my ad budgets were switched to less-glamorous media like inserts, card decks, etc.

Today, the rush is on to find the most effective, affordable online media (hint: online ad buys seem stagnant). And while coupons are regarded by many as a relic of the pre-Internet era, a New York Times Magazine story says coupons are back – especially online coupons:

Its figures show that in 1998 consumers redeemed about 4.7 billion coupons. The number of coupons that manufacturers issued has gone up and down since then, but the redemption number fell steadily every year until last year, when it leveled off at about 2.6 billion. According to the Promotion Marketing Association Coupon Council, less than 1 percent of coupons are distributed digitally — which seems a little surprising given that coupons-on-the-Web companies have been around for years.

Perhaps it was the positive economic mood that held them back, but that’s changing: the online data tracker Hitwise says visits to a variety of thrift-focused sites are up by about a third over the past year, and the likes of Coupons.com and more recent entries like CouponWinner.com are lately reporting big spikes.

Good news? Bad news? Does it matter to you?

A little fiscal reality check is always a good idea (if the supposedly targeted ads on social network sites aren’t working, it’s time we moved them elsewhere). But the take-away here is simple: in the face of a shrinking budget, the smart copywriter offers their client a cost-effective alternative.

And while “everybody else is doing it” is hardly a killer business case for a promotion, it’s the kind of statement that opens a client’s mind (if not their checkbook).

Remember, in a recession, clients are often scared. That means they’re seeking value from their marketing efforts, and while coupons and promos aren’t glamorous, they’re cost-effective – and they work.

And in the case of online coupons – a largely untapped medium – it’s likely your competitors simply aren’t competing.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.