Want the Best Deals? Check Twitter, Facebook

Companies give out some of their best discounts to online followers and friends.

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Companies have traditionally let their customers know about sales and special discounts through newspaper advertisements, radio spots, and in-store announcements. But now, they are increasingly turning to a more avant-garde form of communication: Social networking sites.

Starbucks, Scottrade, and Zappos are among those using Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to talk to customers—and to hear from them. "All the departments have gotten some sort of feedback from customers online. We benefit and our customers benefit," says Amber Talbot, the online public relations specialist for Scottrade, which has two Twitter accounts, two Facebook accounts, and a YouTube account, where it posts educational videos.

[Slide Show: America's Most Profitable Malls.]

Talbot spends the majority of her day interacting with customers online. Recently, after a customer posted a question, Talbot immediately responded and forwarded it to the customer service center, which also called the customer—all within 10 minutes of his original question.

"It's a great way to connect with customers. It's where the people are," says Bridget Baker, spokeswoman for Starbucks. In addition to its Twitter account, which has over 245,000 followers and occasionally hosts contests for free giveaways, the coffee company has 3 million fans on Facebook, where it is giving away 800 coupons for pints of ice cream each hour through Sunday. On Election Day 2008, the company's coffee ad was the fourth most popular video on YouTube.

"Companies who use social media to communicate with their customers can do a great deal to improve their reputation and their customer service efforts," says Brenda Powell, president of Social Networking Girls, which helps manage social media campaigns. She adds that it costs much less than traditional forms of advertising.

Here are some of the other companies that you might find popping up on your favorite social networking site:

Zappos: Tony Hsieh, chief executive of the online retailer, frequently posts Twitter updates. Recently, he included an inspiring quote from Winnie the Pooh ("You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You've got to go to them sometimes."). He also mentions which prominent people have been visiting Zappos headquarters (Sen. Harry Reid and tennis star Serena Williams are among those who have dropped by). Zappos's discount sister site, www.6pm.com, uses its Twitter feed to post information on temporary discounts and exclusive offers to Twitter users. Recently, rubber boots usually priced at $145 were offered to followers for $49.95.

MasterCard: Spokeswoman Linda Locke says the company recently started using Twitter to listen to what people are saying about the credit card industry and MasterCard itself. "We like the succinct tone and the ability to build a community over time," she says. The company hasn't used the feed for contests or any special offerings for consumers, but it does respond to customers who post complaints on their own Twitter feeds. After a Twitter user wrote that his card had been "compromised" for the second time in a year, MasterCard responded via Twitter, "[Please directly message] me and let me see if I can help you out."

The Gap: The retailer's Facebook page has over 300,000 fans, who talk about new styles as well as customer service complaints. The company also uses the page to post videos, including one featuring Patrick Robinson, head designer of Gap, explaining why fashion doesn't have to be expensive.

[For more, read: Budgeting Finds Its Groove—Online.]

Victoria's Secret: On its Facebook page, the lingerie company explains how to find the perfect bra fit, lets customers design their ideal bikini, and polls visitors on who they think is the sexiest president (President Obama and Harrison Ford from the movie Air Force One are among the choices). The company's page has almost 2 million fans, who it frequently speaks to directly through wall posts. "Okay, ladies. What are you totally rocking right now? A maxi dress? Linen crops? Neons? Gladiators? Dish about your summer wardrobe musts here," one post urged. It received almost 2,000 responses. The page also announces summer sales and other discounts.