Looking for free stuff? Start your search on Facebook and Twitter.
Both sites feature a never-ending stream of giveaways, and not just bumper stickers and buy-one-get-one sandwiches. We're talking iPads, cameras, football tickets, indoor skydiving and fully loaded laptops.
Local and national businesses are eager to cement brand loyalty, promote new products and woo additional customers. As a result, social-media sites have become "a real mecca for free stuff," says Shama Kabani, the author of "The Zen of Social Media Marketing."
In eight months of casual Twitter monitoring, Scott Cowley has gleaned $325 worth of gift cards (Subway, eBay, Amazon), half a dozen restaurant meals, several books, a laptop bag, T-shirts, chocolates, a water bottle, a weight-loss drink mix and event tickets.
Make a few strategic clicks and you, too, can eat, drink and be merry for free. Here's how.
'The medium they prefer'Businesses use social media because, quite simply, that's where the customers are. Today's consumers don't read as many newspapers and magazines or watch as many TV commercials as they used to.
"You need to get them in the medium they prefer," says Sally Falkow, a social-media strategist with Meritus Media.
It's an increasingly crowded medium, with more and more companies shouting for consumers' dollars. How to stand out? Offer something for free.
Sometimes it's a simple exchange of fandom for freebies. For example, I got a full breakfast by clicking "like" on IHOP's "Pancake Revolution" offer on Facebook.
Other promotions are actually contests. Some are simple to enter: Click "like" or re-tweet an offer. Some require a little work: Answer a trivia question, write a short essay, post a picture of yourself with a product, or maybe even make a short video.
The prizes can be worth it. Toshiba recently gave away 21 laptops in a two-month promotion. T.J. Maxx and Marshalls are each giving away a $1,000 back-to-school shopping trip. Warren Miller Entertainment and Polo are teaming up to hand out new skis and a $2,000 Ralph Lauren gift card.
Then again, plenty of people think that even a free ice cream treat or video rental is worth it: Dairy Queen has more than 1.1 million Facebook fans, and Redbox has 1.3 million.
A new way to sellThese days, even food trucks tweet. Mobile restaurateurs in cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle let fans know where they'll be throughout the day. They also drive business (so to speak) with tweets like "Free drink to first 20 taco buyers."
Many consumers don't trust ads, the marketers say, yet they don't consider social-media marketing to be the same as traditional advertising. Clearly these sites are ads, since they exist to promote brands. But author Kabani likens social-media marketing sites to booths in a trade show.
"You don't think about it as marketing," she says. "You just want your free sample."
Free samples make a big difference for Dallas resident Lea Ann Stundins. Her grocery bill for four people, including a teenage son, is about $200 a month. In part that's because the family often eats in restaurants where "a good chunk of the meal" is paid for with online deals.
"Facebook follows are grand. They're always putting out a free something," says Stundins, who blogs at Mommy's Wish List.
Your mileage may vary, of course. Because Stundins is a full-time freebie blogger, she's always on and always hyper-aware of the best giveaways.
Civilian deal seekers who can check in several times a day will probably have the most success. Some giveaways are short-lived, especially those listed as "while supplies last."
"Don't think it's going to be there eight hours later. If you see a good deal, don't wait," cautions Jeanette Pavini, a consumer savings specialist for Coupons.com.
Yet some "bargainistas" do just fine with a single daily check-in. Jami Hagen, an Arizona teacher and mother of three, scans Facebook only in the evenings. She regularly scores freebies to family-friendly food joints such as Famous Dave's, Baja Fresh, Red Robin and Chick fil-A.
"Our rule is, if we don't have a (deal), we don't go," she says.
Linsey Knerl spends maybe 10 minutes a day harvesting Facebook freebies. She's lucky to have that much time to herself: Knerl recently gave birth to her fifth child, home-schools her older kids on their small Nebraska farm and writes for the Wise Bread personal-finance blog.
She focuses on "offers that will save my family money," including brands she's curious about, because freebies mean trying without buying. Her daily dash results in up to a dozen "high-quality items" per week. Last month, Knerl scored diapers, training pants, nasal strips, energy bars, body wash, magazine subscriptions, candy bars, hot dogs, barbecue sauce, salad dressing and pasta.