Free Love: The Influence of Swag + Surprise on Social Engagement

Free Love makes people happy.

Free Love makes people happy.

Be advised: Today I am going to share an opinion that may ruffle your feathers a bit.

If you are looking to increase conversation about and brand loyalty…give people free stuff.

Now that I have your attention…I’ll admit, it’s a little more complex than that.

From what I have observed, there tend to be two schools of thought when it comes to the role of free stuff in marketing. On one side you have the swag-crazy “buy your love” types willing to throw t-shirts and koozies at anyone with a Twitter following. At the other end of the spectrum you have high-and-mighty marketers who believe clever content is all it takes to earn a follow or inspire a love connection. The types who unapologetically snub their noses at the notion that “surprise and delight” might include free swag (and God help you if you dare to utter the phrase “klout score” in their presence…)

Both of these camps are in the wrong. You can’t buy love, and content is simply not enough anymore. Attention spans are short and expectations are high in this vastly over-connected, ever-evolving, socially-saturated landscape. As the power dynamic has shifted and consumers have taken the wheel, their needs and wants have changed. People aren’t just connecting with brands because they value their industry or product (let’s be honest, toilet paper, butter and laundry soap aren’t all that interesting.) They want to establish a one-on-one relationship with a brand and they want the brand to establish a relationship with them. Social engagement between brands and fans has become a lot like dating, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I plan to make a case for the valid and valuable role “free stuff” plays in a sound marketing strategy. I have no intention of advocating on behalf of freebies, rather I intend to explore the way “surprise and delight” is resonating with consumers and elevating brands. I plan to share some tangible examples of surprise and delight from my own experiences, as well as a few case studies from brands I believe are doing it right. More on that to come.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the research that validates the role of “free love” in the minds of marketers vs. the minds of consumers.

CMOs like to think social engagement is a direct result of quality content. They focus their energy on creating content, and see little reason to incentivize loyalty. The overwhelming majority of consumers surveyed, however, say that incentives (free stuff, special offers) are the number one thing that lead them to engage with a brand in the social space.

According to a global study, 67% of people surveyed expressed an expectation that liking or following a brand would result in exclusive offers. When the same question was posed to a group of CMOs, the results were vastly different.

“The CMOs surveyed believed that social engagement is more of a by-product of quality content, and are less concerned with incentivizing loyalty among their followers. According to [the CMOs], customers interact with brands because they want to be heard (41%) or are looking for news or information about products (40%). Only 33% believe their fans are looking for incentives or rewards, and only 27% believe customers are seeking special savings or experiences exclusive for followers.

Fluke findings, perhaps? Not so much. The results have been reaffirmed by several other studies.

Similar findings were uncovered by ExactTarget, which explored what prompted consumers to engage with an email, like a brand on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

“‘Stuff’ remained the main driver for engagement, with the top two motivators being discount promotions (52%) and receiving ‘free stuff or giveaways’ (44%). For Facebook, it’s the same.”

At the end of the day, 67% of consumers are motivated to socially engage by a behavior that only 27% of marketers are willing to recognize. Sounds like a conundrum. It also begs the question are we, as marketers, seeing reality? Or are we choosing to interpret reality as we would like it to be?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT (we want to hear your thoughts in the comments below!)

1) What motivates you to connect and engage with a brand?

2) Have you ever been the recipient of a “surprise and delight”? How did that experience change your relationship with a brand?

3) What is your general sentiment toward brands that make “free stuff” part of their marketing strategy?

4) What are your favorite examples of surprise and delight?

UP NEXT WEEK: Swag vs. Surprise + Delight

  • Jennifer Dillenger

    I don’t necessarily think of myself as an exclusive offer pursuer, or someone easily impressed by free gifts. However, in the case of my Julep Maven subscription, it’s the gifts that keep me coming back. This subscription allows me to receive several nail polishes each month for $20. Every month I have the option to “skip.” I rarely do though because my Maven box arrives with exciting new colors, perfectly wrapped to match the theme for the month, some sort of candy (a chocolate Oscar, Andes mints) and another “surprise” gift. They tell you in the email you’re getting the surprise gift, but still I love it. Even though my husband rags me about that $20, I do it almost every month. AND I tell everyone about my awesome experience with Julep, their products and their sweet, surprise gifts. So, I think CMO’s need to realize when an offer, surprise gift, or swag fits their brand and utilize that truly powerful tool to engage their customers.

    • Amy

      Great example, Jennifer. I think this is key: “…need to realize WHEN an offer, surprise gift, or swag fits their brand and utilize that truly powerful tool to engage their customers.” Timing is so important. I think we’ll see that continue to come up again and again as we dig deeper into this topic.

  • Monica Johnson

    I just experienced this type of swag love yesterday. I ordered some products recommended by a friend from MooGoo. They came all the way from Australia. In the box, which I should mention had hilarious branding, MooGoo had included a note thanking me for ordering from so far away. As if that wasn’t enough acknowledgment, they also included free gifts and samples of other products I hadn’t ordered. I was so elated and it felt like Christmas. They didn’t have to do any of that, but it was so very awesome that they did. It spawned immediate social media action from me as I was motivated to go ‘like’ their FB page, gush on their wall about my experience, and thank my friend for recommending MooGoo. I was so impressed with my order and filled with joy from receiving free stuff! Small touches like that go a long way. They earned me as a customer for life just by being thoughtful.

    • Amy


      What an awesome experience! I LOVE that they took the time to recognize (and write to you!) that you were ordering from far away. And I LOVE that you took the time to give a little love back by hopping on your social channels and sharing your experience. A small investment of time and attention from the brand converted into a big reward and celebration from their customer. Awesome!

  • Mack Collier

    Hi Amy, great post and I look forward to the rest of this series. I think an important clarification needs to be made in the discussion of giving customers free stuff. WHEN they receive the free stuff can be the most important consideration.

    In general, if the gift comes BEFORE the purchase, it’s an incentive to change behavior. IOW, here’s a 20% off coupon if you spend $100 today. Here’s an offer to get a free HDMI cord if you buy a 40″ or larger HDTV today. The brand is giving you something in the hope that it will encourage you to BUY SOMETHING.

    If the gift comes AFTER the purchase, then it is viewed as being a REWARD by the customer, and that helps build loyalty and that’s what turns customers into fans. In researching my book I discovered that this is probably the biggest marketing disconnect between brands and rock stars. Brands, for the most part, target getting business from NEW customers, via incentives, offers and free stuff. Rock stars also offer free stuff, but they target their biggest fans via secret shows, autograph signings, etc. The idea is to target your fans, create something amazing for them, then let them become your marketing channel via WOM.

    So if the free stuff comes BEFORE the purchase, it’s an incentive and likely aimed at NEW customers. If the free stuff comes AFTER the purchase, it’s viewed as a REWARD for EXISTING behavior.

    Note Monica’s comment, this is the perfect example of what I am talking about. First, she placed the order due to a recommendation from a friend. Then, she was surprised and delighted that it included a thank you note and free samples. If she had received an offer to get all those free samples if she first spent $20, I bet the same excitement wouldn’t have been there.

    Rewarding existing behavior usually trumps trying to incentivize new behavior.

    • Steve Woodruff

      Yes, yes, and yes!

    • Amy

      Amen. “Timing is everything” is definitely a tidbit of wisdom that applies here. As I have been going through the (volumes!) written on this topic, I may be able to make a case for “BEFORE” in instances where you are trying to incite conversation in a PR-sense (example: sending bloggers a care package to (hopefully) incite engagement, sharing, etc.), but sustainable marketing, on the other hand, is a whole other beast.

      Based on your thinking, here’s a hypothetical scenario I’d love to hear your thoughts on…

      BrandX makes sprockets, a spaceship part. BrandX has been connected with TweeterY for several months. Though TweeterY has never mentioned BrandX by name, BrandX is aware that TweeterY loves spaceships, and tweets about them regularly. One day TweeterY mentions something about spaceships. BrandX engages in a series of authentic, spaceship-related tweets back and forth with TweeterY. TweeterY even sends BrandX a photo of his spaceship. BrandX wants to show TweeterY some love by sending a surprise + delight package in the mail.

      Brand behavior? Or Rockstar behavior?

      Glad you chimed in! Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts in the weeks ahead!

      • Mack Collier

        Amy in that situation, I think it’s more likely that TweeterY will become a fan (or that will make them more likely to advocate for the brand) because they had the relationship and BrandX sent some goodes. It might happen BEFORE that first purchase, but even though the customer understands that BrandX wants her to buy from that brand, it is rooted more in reward vs incentive.

        I think it’s also important to consider how the customer perceives the gift. When they receive the gift, do they view it as the brand saying…..

        1 – Thank you

        2 – Help us by buying our stuff!

        ‘Thank you’ is a powerful tool in building loyalty and advocacy. ‘Help us’ feels like a bribe. Here’s some cool stuff, but we are only giving you this cause we want YOU to give us some cool stuff back: Your money.

        I think in general, customers are ok with getting a gift from a brand even IF they understand that the brand is doing so because they want the customer to buy from them. They just don’t want that to be the ONLY reason why they are getting the gift.

        What do you think?

        • amy

          Admittedly, this is a hypothetical based on a real situation I encountered. (Will be sharing that story soon). I think you are right on. :)

          I also think differentiating between “incentive” and “reward” is MAJOR. It could be the same exact object, but when you consider timing and motivation it has the power to enrich or cheapen the brand-consumer exchange. Awesome points!

        • Swag

          Yikes! We give out a metric shit ton of swag. Intimate,authentic,&unexpected #swagworthstealing, we think. That said…the message we are trying to send? “thank you” is almost always the case. Thx for doing That thing you do. Thx for inspiring us to do better work. But that other thing?! Jmj,man!
          I think I just threw up in my mouth. Just a little bit. And never,ever,do we give swag out hoping, as you put it,”2 – Help us by buying our stuff!” Ick!
          If thats really how its perceived, we gotta get outta this giving swag to people we like and think will find useful, or fun, or interesting.

          ~~~~furtively searches soul for inconsistencies ~~~~

          Nope. None. Found.

      • Brian Crouch

        Your article has me thinking about customer experience, customer loyalty, and how the swag/freebies are considered a form of social engagement. Further evidence that as brands move towards a full-journey brand experience and away from a transactional relationship, that social business is inextricable from CX.

  • Geno Church

    Great post… Amy I could riff on this for a while. Here at BOF we’ve worked with teens many a year. And they’re an interesting group to think about regarding swag. Back in the day we gave a lot away and got little in return. Duh… so we engaged teens in the process. A teen told us he would rather work for something then be able to just grab it off a table. So we put teens in charge of swag they decided was an interaction meaning to that person, if so then they we’re empowered to give them something; maybe a button, maybe a shirt. It worked the teens collected the swag and wore it because they believed in it, it had a meaning not just a free shirt.

    Back to surprise and delight… I love hand written notes. I keep all of them I get. I buy often from Frank & Oak an online men’s clothing club. With every purchase a get a little hand written note with a little random nugget, it’s not the typical thank you, it IMO speaks with a personality about the folks at F&O and I find that meaningful and a treasure.

    • Amy


      I would love to use your comment in one of the upcoming posts. It’s a great example. I completely agree on handwritten notes. The fact that any human (let alone a BRAND human!) takes the time to write a thank you note by hand is a major thing this day in age. That will also lend itself to a point we’re going to eventually get to in this conversation…it’s not about stuff…it’s about care, connection, being attentive of the people who know you, love you, support you, talk about you.

      I also love the RAGE point you made. Per our discussion this afternoon, it’s really easy to throw some swag on a table. It takes energy (and commitment and courage) to start a conversation with someone and to share a story. When people can do that, however, the “thing” goes from an object to a keepsake, a memory, a tangible point of connection. And that’s where STUFF (whether it’s a button, an online badge or a handwritten note) becomes a powerful force.

    • Mack Collier

      BTW Geno speaking to your point about surprise and delight, one of the things I *loved* about the 2011 Fire Sessions is the copy of Brains on Fire I got. What y’all did was the entire BoF crew went through the book and marked it up, wrote notes, signed it, etc. It was awesome and I am going to do the same with my book in some form. It was a surprise that was also special, and it also was memorable.

      • Brian Crouch

        “What y’all did was the entire BoF crew went through the book and marked it up, wrote notes, signed it, etc.” That’s the most rockstar idea I’ve seen today.