We’ve all seen it: ‘Tweet this and win a free iPad!’ or ‘Sign-up for 50%-off!’ or ‘Follow us on Facebook and get a free meal!’

Social media is rife with promotions and giveaways as business after business tries to build a list of followers and beef up their social network presence.

At one level, this makes perfect sense. In order to make a sale you need potential customers who are following your tweets, posts, and calls-to-action. And what better way to get that attention than to give some stuff away…well, at least for the price of a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ or an email address.

And it works. At least it works in getting you lots of new followers.

Whether they really turn into customers is a whole other story.

This pattern of giving things away or steep discounts and coupons to indiscriminately gain followers only teaches these potential customers one thing: you’re all about free and discounts. You are building a brand reputation and a bad one at that.

But I’ve been thinking: is this really what social media is all about? Gaining followers, pushing news, putting out the occasional PR fire, only to have your brand image lessened?

The power of social networks, for businesses, is the die-hard customers you already have. When Susie talks passionately on Facebook about the new shoes she bought from her favorite brand, she’s influencing her friends and followers to a much greater degree than any ad campaign or giveaway promotion ever could. She is your evangelist. And people take much more stock in a friend or respected colleague’s advice than the marketing manager’s or sales rep’s.

And what’s even better is that with the data you have access to, you can find out who these people are. It’s certainly not perfect yet: Twitter is a smorgasbord of real people, marketers, and bots; Facebook has the lock-down on a lot of data; and LinkedIn…well, we’re all still trying to figure out how to use LinkedIn. But there’s still people talking about their favorite experiences and brands.

So what if there was a better way to do giveaways?

I’m still figuring this one out but what if you did something very different. Rather than give away things to attract new followers, what if you rewarded your best customers for their social conversations about your products.

And don’t announce it. Just do it.

Find Joe and Gabby talking about this great experience they had with your product. Give them both a freebie for next time.

No fanfare, no press release, no blog post. Let them talk about it. Do this enough times with enough passion and good faith, with your truly passionate customers, and they will dish out the praise.

I’m already seeing a glimmer of this with the new service at Klout.com. They are attempting to gather data on people’s public social profiles to find out what they’re influential about and then allow brands to give out cool stuff and unique experiences for those people to try and hopefully talk about.

But I don’t see why you have to wait for Klout. The data is there. You just have to have the guts to do things different than the rest of the pack.

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