Everyone loves a freebie, which is why giving products away is an excellent tactic for anyone in marketing who wants to create brand advocates. Whether you want to improve the number of online conversations about your brand, or reduce customer complaints, a free product is a great place to start.

Photo via Adrants.com

Look for bloggers

When Pepsi wanted to raise awareness of its new logo, it turned to bloggers to spread the word. Instead of sending out a press release, the company put together a bundle of cans showing the way its design had evolved since its launch. This was delivered by hand to each blogger, and then followed up shortly after with a set of cans in the new design.

It was just the type of PR stunt that Pepsi needed to distract people from a leaked design document and to re-introduce people to the brand. It also helped show Pepsi as a company that is proud of its heritage.

Those bloggers could then write about the new design and might be more inclined to talk about Pepsi in the future. Not bad for a few cans of soda.

To use this concept yourself, search online for bloggers who are already talking in your niche, whether it’s food or complex laser systems, games or ironing board covers. You can use Google Blog Search to search recent topics, and then get coverage from these bloggers by offering products for them to review or feature.

Embrace strong community voices

Twitter is an ideal platform for finding the positive conversations within your industry and building links between your brand and customers. Jet Blue leveraged Twitter with excellent results last year by giving away 1,000 flights to people via the microblogging service. The twist was that only the most proactive fans would get the tickets, as the opportunities were tweeted out at random times.

Not only did fans have to be engaged online, they also had to be prepared to dash to a secret location for a chance of claiming a ticket. A mob of people descended on the location, creating great press exposure and a lot of happy customers.

The excellent Follower Wonk will let you search Twitter profiles for keywords, helping to find people who are passionate about your niche. Take a leaf from Interflora, who gave away free flowers to people who had had a bad day, with similar results to Jet Blue.

Reward loyal customers

In the UK there’s no better example of a brand rewarding its customers than supermarket chain Tesco, which offers a free clubcard to every customer. Tesco rewards customers with vouchers based on how much they spend, in effect giving them free money to spend in store.

This idea isn’t unique – but if you already use a brand regularly and can get free stuff in doing so, it’s a no-brainer to continue with that brand instead of others.

Tesco takes the rewards concept a step further by allowing customers to trade in vouchers for triple their face value on other products – even products not sold by Tesco such as theme park tickets, meals at restaurants, flights and hotel stays.

It’s a clever way of developing the brand, and Tesco is more than aware that giving something away will keep you coming back.

Even without a loyalty scheme, brands can search online for positive customer comments and reward them. To identify brand conversations on forums use Board Tracker.

Reduce unhappy customers

Another British retailer, ASDA, offers a 100-day money-back guarantee on all its clothes. ASDA uses this policy to ensure minimum negative feedback about the brand.

Giving everyone who complains a freebie actually encourages negative conversations, so the ASDA approach of pre-empting criticism with generous guarantees makes sense.

European video game retailer GAME took a similar approach when it offered a higher trade-in value for the Nintendo 3DS than the purchase price. Now it was easier for customers to trade in the product if they didn’t like it than to complain about it.

Photo by Majiscup via Flickr

Free sells

It’s the same old strategy seen at your local farmer’s market  or trade fair, but amplified by the viral power of the Web. Giving away free stuff is a great way to build relationships with bloggers, reward loyal customers and foster positive conversations around your brand.

Even if your product is expensive, trials and product loans can be worth it. Try giving the strongest voices in your niche a free product today and you’ll be surprised by how well free can sell.