social media how toDo you want to build a following? Are you using free stuff to build your brand? Do you want to learn how?

From Lady Gaga to Oreo, brands have been using freebies to build a social media following for years. The details may change, but the approach is still the same—build a following by giving something away.

In this article, I’ll cover five methods to grow your following using freebies.

#1: Work with Popular Apps

Work with existing applications on social networks (like Farmville) to make your own unique mark with a freebie. You get access to their network of users and they market the offer with you.

Look for apps that compliment your product and partner with them. Offer a great prize or exclusive access and promise only users of the app will get it. This exclusivity makes more people curious about the freebie and drives a following for your brand within the app. For example:

Gagaville takes over Farmville

Although it operates inside Facebook, Farmville is actually a social network within a social network. People connect with friends and build bonds by working together. So when Lady Gaga announced she would launch her own farm, Gagaville, it was a chance for her to connect with this large user base and use it to promote the launch of her new album, Born this Way.


For two weeks Lady Gaga practically owned Farmville.

Aside from being able to feel part of Lady Gaga’s universe, the Gagaville farm gave fans the chance to listen to new Lady Gaga songs before the launch of the album. No other channels had these songs, so for diehard fans this was a fantastic free bonus to be unlocked.

The masterstroke was that songs were given out in the days before the album launch. This gave the Lady Gaga PR team another means of promoting the album and getting fans fired up for launch.

It was also another story for the media to run before the launch, and because it was using Farmville, the story was even more appealing for the press. The album sales speak for themselves. reports that this is just the beginning. In an interview with Raquel DiSabatino, Zynga’s director of entertainment and media, they were told “Zynga’s phones have been ‘ringing off the hook’ from various music industry execs looking for ways to work with the company and its games, including labels, managers, and others.” So watch this space for more.

#2: Use Your Facebook Page

If you don’t have a Facebook page already, then make one now. It takes minutes and is a key place to drive people to learn more about your brand.

TOMS Shoes saving the world

TOMS Shoes built a following by giving stuff away, but they don’t actually give it to their customers. Instead they give away one pair of shoes for every pair purchased by a customer. This free pair is sent to the developing world.

TOMS reports on their progress toward this goal via a Facebook fan page—a page with over 900,000 fans. Although the number of fans has no effect on the number of shoes they give away, they’ve still been able to get people interested in their brand by giving stuff away.


The TOMS Shoes' philosophy.

TOMS’ Facebook page is branded with their “One for One” campaign, and they have a PDF available that shows all the good work that they’ve done. Although they would have worked for a good cause without social networks, it has nevertheless proved a very effective way of building a brand following on the network.

TOMS advertises a new shoe via their Facebook page nearly every day, allowing them to capitalize on this audience of fans, even those who only joined to learn about the donations made by the company.

It goes deeper than just Facebook, with finding that “a standing army of social media activists and over 1200 TOMS university clubs use their online and personal networks to broadcast their love of TOMS Shoes.”

#3: Encourage User Content on YouTube

Create a YouTube account and hold a competition where people need to film themselves to enter. You’ll get viral content from other people doing the hard work, and if you include example videos of yourself and your employees, it gives people something to aim for. For example:

Be the Beatles

To promote the launch of his remastered albums, Paul McCartney (known by many for his involvement in the Beatles band) asked fans to create videos of themselves singing his song “Maybe I’m Amazed.” MSN Music reports that fans could then win advance copies of the album, but only if they got the most views.


Just some of the 135 video entries received.

McCartney then added the best videos to his YouTube account, which builds his own YouTube following by giving fans a central place to observe the competition. The landing page of his profile is branded to promote the new albums. It has a call to action for anyone arriving via the competition. It’s an account with 8,977,352 views.

The competition itself has 135 videos, all recorded by fans who want to win, and fans who want to have the most popular video. As they promote their own video, they are in fact pushing the new albums as well by singing a McCartney song—a very clever strategy.

#4: Promote Via Twitter and Set Up an Alert Using TweetDeck

Don’t just consider your own Twitter account. Give people a reason to talk about your brand on their accounts. Set up an alert on TweetDeck to tell you when people mention your brand on Twitter. Then monitor conversations and reward those spreading positive messages. In time you can encourage more positive brand discussions by offering freebies and rewarding loyal tweeters. For example:

Toyota gives away $1 million

Rather than giving someone a product you can also give money back. Toyota employed this strategy in December 2010 by every day giving 250 people the chance to earn $500 for tweeting that they had bought a new Toyota. This flooded Twitter with brand mentions of Toyota from satisfied customers.


Toyota encouraged happy customers to spread the word for cash.

People tweeting that they had purchased a car was a very effective form of promotion. To see people you follow actively promoting a purchase is certain to increase the likelihood you would consider that brand in the future. With the $1 million offer, Toyota dominated Twitter for a solid month, and gave out a good brand message all round. This helped Toyota achieve an 8% rise in sales year over year (source: The Guardian).

#5: Build a Competition Within Your Own Website

Build a competition within your own website and then encourage people to enter through any social network they wish. Although you don’t need to create any social media profile for this to work, it helps if you register accounts with YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. For example:

“Compare the Market” Offers a Dream Job

In a recent Social Media Examiner post, Ben Pickering highlighted how running a sweepstakes is an easy way to increase the number of Likes on your page. For Compare the Market, this sweepstakes focused on a dream job. People were invited to apply for the job of brand ambassador, which would earn them £40,000 ($65,000) for six months’ work. Not a bad payday, and certainly a good freebie.

compare the meerkat

The winner was revealed from 1,000 applicants.

More than 1,000 entrants then had to promote themselves across social media in order to get the most votes to win. With all of these people trying to get heard, it helped drive traffic to the site in large numbers. Once there, people could Like a candidate, which then drove more awareness of the brand and competition.

The winning candidate made his way to victory thanks to a tweet from Davina McCall, one of the biggest celebrities in Britain, who has over 650,000 followers. It generated amazing exposure for the brand, and that’s just one of the tweets for one candidate. When you factor in all of the other candidates’ efforts, the viral impact of the campaign is impressive.

The Process

Free stuff doesn’t just have to be products. We’ve seen charity donations, competitions, free entertainment and dream jobs, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To succeed all you need is:

  • Something that gives people a reason to come together
  • A free price point to the customer and a great prize
  • A social network or networks for them to connect on

What are your thoughts on using free stuff to build brands? Have you seen it work anywhere else, or do you feel brands’ marketing efforts are better spent elsewhere? Please share your comments in the box below.

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  • Thanks for including my post on the site guys, more than happy to answer any questions, so feel free to add them below.

  • Christina Poolie

    Great post! I’m just working on relaunching my site and am going to have a photo contest. I was thinking of creating a flickr account and adding a flickr plugin to my site.


  • Hi Christina,

    That sounds like a great idea. A photo contest is a good way of getting people to engage with your site. If you have a prize for the best photo it’ll go even better too.

  • Shamus

     A few of these seems out of reach for small businesses and non-profits. It would be great to see a similar list of free ways for to promote your brand through free social networking venues. I have something to give away, but no money to promote that, what can I do?

    I really liked a few of these choices. Thanks for the great info!!

  • One issue is to ensure that you match a content creation to your audience. Statistics show very few are content creators. Most of us are content consumers. Video contests can be highly successful, but they can also flop badly.

    I’m not criticizing the inclusion in the article, but I think ultimately we need a better context for identifying how to evaluate promotion opportunities that match the readers’ resources and audience — current and potential.

    Maybe that’s the next article. 🙂 Thanks!

  • Shamus, you could share the info about what you have to give away to your existing followers and link the activation of the contest/freebie to reaching a threshold.

    For example, my business builds sites and performs online marketing. When we started our Facebook Page, we needed to hit that critical 25 follower level so we could get our custom URL. So we offered free deluxe web hosting to the first 25 Likes with a tweet. The response was very fast, and few even redeemed. Some just got exposed to the brand and Liked it.

    We also gave the winners the option to assign their deluxe hosting to a non-profit because we are strong supporters of non-profit organizations.

  • I’d agree with Fregus, all of the platforms above are free to use and get started on and there’s certainly a lot of other great research on SME about how to grow followers on the platforms. If you’ve already got something to give away then that’s half the battle won already.

  • Good point Fergus. One of the good things about the Paul McCartney example is that they only include the good videos in their profile. So low quality or offensive videos are hidden.

    To ensure you get the good content initially that’s more a case of finding people active in your niche and inviting them to take part (in this case anyone with good kareoke videos)

  • Christina Poolie

    I do have a prize! I’m using my Air Miles to get a gift card, I just haven’t decided if I want to run it all summer or have a prize for July and one for August. I also have to figure out if I’m going to do a random draw or let people vote for their photos. 

  • Excellent, a gift card is a good gift that appeals to a lot of people. I’d say letting people vote is better as it encourages people to tell their friends to come and get involved. Like the comparethemarket example, that worked well because you needed to get friends involved to win.

  • Silly Me

    No one’s addressing where to promote these free stuff for free when you are just starting out and have say, 10 FB fans and 10 Twitter followers.  Are there sites to pubish your giveaway for free?

  • Daverusin


    Bell’s free-taco offer flops on
    Bell recently
    offered free tacos to its 6 million Facebook fans, but the no-strings-attached
    offer received remarkably few takers. Only
    3% of the earmarked free tacos were ultimately given away, prompting the
    company’s soul-searching over the future of Facebook commerce.
    “We haven’t even been able to give away the food, never mind figure out how to
    sell it online,” said Jonathan Blum of Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands.
    Social Commerce Today


    Facebook made  money from Taco Bell and any crossover clicks or apps … when Taco
    Bell promoted this ….


  • great ideas but it looks like you would need a pretty large following to begin with for a successful promotion.

  • Great insight. I really enjoyed the thorough examples. I’m also considering a contest and thinking about an attractive prize.

  • Absolutely, deals websites like Hot UK Deals let you list competitions. Just search for “competitions” and your niche / product type in Google to find plenty of places.

  • Only 3% would still be a pretty good return. The idea is never to give everyone something for free but to create enough brand awareness that it filters across all customers. 

  • A lot of places have started small and then used a giveaway to grow their network. Many big twitter accounts today grew their follows by offering iphones / ipads to new followers for example. 

  • Thanks for the kind feedback. Would love to hear how the competition goes. 

  • Definitely some interesting ideas here. I feel like I’m way behind the eight ball on this one – I need to set up a new Facebook page, Twitter account, Youtube account, etc… but the benefits of reaching out to your audience this way are obvious. Thanks for posting this.

  • Robert

    Interesting in this day and age that we give something away (first) to (possibly) get something (after). We really are a society living on kicks. Would you give away some of your salary today, to get (perhaps) something tomorrow?

    I don’t have an issue with the article, it is doing the inevitable/stating the obvious – its the sick society we live in that really gets to me.

  • Allan

     That’s an excellent question… in fact one of the best I have seen here on this topic.  I am the founder of a new social network for businesses ( and I am thinking that I might add a page that says promote your Give Away here.  It would have share buttons etc. so people who like what you are offering could share it with others.

  • Michael_saver

    How often should you hold contests / sweepstakes?

  • No worries Bil, freebies are a great tool if used on Social Media. If you’ve yet to setup profiles just pick one first and master that one (Twitter is best for a first go) then expand.

  • Actually bartering is less manipulative than people who just expect something for nothing. This process is more about trying to engage people by giving something back. It shows you value them and have something to give in return.

  • Ideally once every quarter to allow time for the promotion to go viral and attract a good set of people. 

  • Cherie_says

    SO KEWL!! Thanks!

  • kdearwater

    how long should you hold a contest for?  if you are running one to build followers or a user base, what’s an appropriate length?

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  • Thanks for the article and great ideas on how to use social media to get people to come together-give away free stuff. I didn’t realize there were so many different ways of doing it.

  • Sue Reddel

    Thanks for the great tips. We’ll be trying them out soon.

  • Thanks for the helpful tips and insights. They will definitely come in handy. Mike you seem to be pretty into the social media. What’s your take on this new idea?

  • Guest

    Thanks for the article.  I agree giveaways are a great way for brand building but I do agree with another poster that these types of giveaways are out of reach for small business.  Perhaps you could offer some advice there.  Also, there is culture in social of “free, free, free!” that seems to set customer expectations inappropriately.  As a business owner, I truly believe in giving value to get value but not to the point where your compromise your own business principles.

  • Thanks Mike for this awesome post. Giveaways and contests are the best way to build your brand and we are considering to run one for us. Thanks for the share.

    Recently posted:

  • Thanks for sharing such Nice Ideas  that will surely work = )

  • Hey Mike, you nailed it! Insightful, excellent post. 

    Giving your fans/followers something (reward) is a form of “positive reinforcement”,  thus giving such will strengthen or increase the probability of building a large and active followers.

  • 2 months for an initial competition and then a month once you get going.

  • Best of luck, be sure to let me know how you get on.

  • Must admit I’ve never tried it, but will check it out.

  • It doesn’t just have to be products. A small business could give away useful advice (such as a radiator firm teaching people how to build a radiator). Another idea is inviting people in to test your products and including their names in the box. ‘Money can’t buy prizes’, can be just as good. 

  • Best of luck.

  • Absolutely. It’s not about only attracting scroungers, but rather rewarding engagement. Psychology at work.

  • I appreciate not only the work you’ve put into the suggestions, but also the way you continue to engage with people as they comment. I have a book coming out this month and have a website and FB account, and inevitably have to get on Twitter. I have thought of the book giveaway, but it is a How To in a specific industry (wine importing), so how do you go about attracting those individuals who may be interested in vying for this kind of book? It is a tradtionally published book, not self-published, so the publisher will also do promotion, but I’m really trying to be proactive and get the word out.

  • I think YouTube is grossly under-utilized. It’s good you mentioned it.

  • If you can get a PDF version of the book that’s an excellent way to get exposure cheeply by offering it for review without having to pay for a printed version every time. Then I’d use Followerwonk to scan Twitter bios for keywords related to wine importing, or wine lover etc.

    Follow those people on Twitter and offer them the book in return for a review. Use a unique PDF password on each copy, for protection. Keep chasing people to ensure they write a review in the end. I did this for my own book “Free Stuff Everyday”.

  • I though it would take a while to find a good YouTube promotion as it is rarely used. Which makes it ripe for experimenting with! 

  • Thanks very much. I appreciate the suggestions.

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  • CrowdTogether

    That is exactly what we do over at We provide a free marketing tool for businesses to create photo, video and design contests. It’s a great way to reach out to your audience and get them more involved in your brand. 

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  • A social media platform called use competitions really well to create awareness of their community. They team up with brands to obtain product for competitions and use affiliate competition websites to list their competitions which drives traffic. They then reward their members for tweeting and sharing on Facebook with loyalty points. This lets the members do the marketing for them to build there database in exchange for loyalty points that are then redeemable for further product on the site. Very smart move by them.

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  • No question that the focus on Facebook is good for their platform. Are Facebook promotions good for anyone else? I think they can be, but it can also be a colossal waste of time. It’s a question of the potential engagement level of your audience and also how successfully you maximizing it.

    My experience and the survey I read are congruent: Facebook’s audience is substantially larger than Twitter’s, but greatly less motivated and interactive with brands. I don’t think that indicates Facebook lacks value, but it means it is used differently and your approach must respect that.

    Facebook seems to me more of a broadly based awareness driver but less of an immediate interaction point than Twitter. By no means do I intend to suggest you shouldn’t engage strongly with your Facebook audience, but it seems to me they are less strongly engaged with brands and marketing so you work harder for the engagement you get.

    I also think it’s crucial to evaluate your purpose in obtaining new followers. Having a large number of followers doesn’t potentially add very much value to your efforts. You need the right followers, and preferably engaged ones. I think that’s an important consideration in whether to run a contest and how it ought to be constructed.

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  • Socially@

    These are great tips, but what about if your entire brand is based around giving thing? For example, we are launching (or Socially@) which is a free On-line business card for users to manage and promote their social media accounts, plus offering a free web page with contact form for email protection. Your examples in the blog post offer great insights into low-cost marketing using social media, but the main driver for users is that there is something to be WON. Perhaps we will have to think of a competition or similar. You have definitely given us a lot to think about, thank you!