From a personal Twitter project to a “crowd sourced brand” – A look at Lawrence, Kansas, based startup @free

Evolving from a personal Twitter project to a “crowd sourced brand,” @free is a Lawrence, KS, based startup focused on connecting consumers with the best free offers from across the web.

With a mass of “free offers” and incentives pushed at consumers in an often overwhelming fashion, @free aims to stand apart by filtering out the spam and the misleading “strings attached” promotions, and highlighting just the offers they believe to be most relevant and of most genuine value to their audience.

Over a period of just nine months, @free has grown to a Twitter account with close to 50,000 followers, a popular website and Facebook Page, and a 1,000+ subscriber SMS text list.

@free recently introduced a new “Sponsor of the Day” feature, their first step towards monetizing the brand.

We spoke to @free founder and community manager Josh Davis to learn more.


What was your goal when you started the @free Twitter account? 

My goal was to take the best of what I had learned about social media, and be able to implement it with a national consumer audience. So I had ambitious goals, but I was also very aware that I might not meet them. This summer after slowly building up an audience, the Twitter account in particular really started to get traction. For me, @free is my investment in what I believe is the future of social media, marketing and communications. A real connection with an audience goes beyond renting their attention for 30 seconds with a TV spot.  It allows brands and businesses of all sizes to form a real connection that can be built over months and years. When you compare that to an individual campaign, you can quickly see how social media and other direct connections with an audience is a literal asset.


You’ve seen impressive growth in your audience. Other than the obvious benefit of free offers, what do you feel has driven that growth? What makes @free stand apart?

As you stated, free is a fairly universal concept.  Pretty much since the Internet started, there have been web sites that featured free items.  My approach was to curate those offers so that only the best offers were shared.  If there are 100 free offers available on any given day, we try to focus on the top five.  We always consider whether the item or service has real value, but we also manage expectations. We test all the offers before we send them.

Follow growth has largely been “word-of-mouth”.  People tell their friends both online and off about us, and that leads to new followers.  I remember telling my wife how excited I was the first time someone tweeted that they were talking to a friend about @free in an in-person conversation. Our growth has been increased by running easily spreadable contests as well as doing sponsorships with large up-and-coming social media accounts that I feel are undervalued in their reach.  Many people understand how important social media is in their own life, but they have yet to fully understand how that value can be scaled for their national business.  The main reason @free is offering sponsorship opportunities is that we actually built and accelerated our reach by being the sponsor in similar situations.


You describe @free as a “crowd sourced brand.”  Could you explain?

Whenever I have a question about the next step the business should take, I always try to ask the readers what they think.  Reader input led to the spinoff accounts we started as well as the decision to focus on SMS text vs email.  Getting feedback is one of the best things that has come with a large audience. We ran a survey last month and the number one complaint from readers was finding offers among all the @messages on Twitter. So we added a web page on our site that lists just the offers so it was easier to find them.  I love to engage with the audience, but I never even considered that all the @messages made it hard to find actual offers when looking at our profile.  We also asked our audience to provide feedback on ways to fund and continue to grow @free.  Including the audience in that decision has result in almost no complaints about sponsored tweets and contests.  I expect as we grow, there will be occasional complaints, but I do feel that if the audience is part of the process and they feel they are getting value, they not only tolerated sponsored promotions but actually embrace them.


What type of audience is @free reaching?

Primarily from the U.S. (87%). While we certainly reach some traditional influencers and even a few youth celebrities our audience tends to follow more accounts then they have followers.  Readers tend to be between 18 and 35 years of age.  We actually have a web page that lists some of the highlights.


Your mission statement describes providing offers that are most relevant to your audience. Was this the focus for launching additional accounts such as @universifree? Were you concerned that additional account might segment your audience? What has been the impact of introducing these accounts?

Segmentation is actually a goal.  In the case of our free phone application accounts, if I am tweeting about a free Android app, 70% or more of the readers aren’t going to find it relevant. By segmenting I hope to better be able to provide relevant offers more of the time. The biggest issue we have had to address is not to expand to new accounts too quickly. I have a half dozen contributors, selected from over a hundred applicants, helping run the spin-off accounts, but like any business, we want to maintain the standards and goals for the brand.  We frequently get complaints about our offers being focused in the US. While I would like to expand to UK and Canadian accounts, I have had to make those long term goals, as we have more work that has to be done first.


How do you decide which offers to feature on @free?

Our account analytics let us look at the popularity of offers by examining over 100,000 clicks and 10,000 retweets. We use that information as the basis for what to promote, and I also rely on my contributors to see what they are interested in. We also continue to try different offers. The best way to learn is to try new things and then see the results.


How do you measure the success of a particular offer you’ve highlighted?

We use clicks, retweets, favorites, likes, shares, comments and @messages.  The first five allow for quickly comparing offers at scale, but we highly value the more nuanced feedback when readers take the time to tell us what they think. For our sponsored contest promotions, we track contest entries, tweets, new followers for sponsors and then follow that up by asking sponsors how their sales went and how they feel about the promotion.


What have been your most popular offers to date?

Of the hundreds of offers we have promoted, the top five are all food related. People love free food. The most popular offer was when Outback offered a free steak dinner.  National and local restaurants are rapidly figuring out that “free” is a powerful force to get new customers in the door and make them change their purchasing routine.  It doesn’t have to be a free meal. You can read about restaurants offering free drinks and seeing significant increases in sales even months later.


You recently introduced the Sponsor of the Day feature. How has your audience reacted to the “pay to play” approach?   

I really value the time our readers give us each day, so I had some reservations going in, but readers have really enjoyed them, and participation levels have been excellent. It just takes a minute to enter one of the contests with the entry being following the sponsor and optionally tweeting about the contest.  Businesses have enjoyed the increase in followers, brand awareness and several sponsors have reported increased sales.  Unlike a traditional ad buy, the benefits continue long after the sponsor’s day. If the business already has a compelling Twitter account, their new audience stays with them. The ability to have multiple touch points is the benefit I hear about most.


For brands, there are obvious benefits in connecting with the @free audience. Other than the Sponsor of the Day feature, are there additional promotional opportunities they can talk to you about?

Once brands get the experience of doing a sponsorship, they often are looking for more.  Social media directors have seen how excited their community managers get when they have an increased audience to engage with.  Our readers are used to sharing and communicating, and even established businesses are surprised how much interaction they see from new followers.  Our sponsored contest are a good universal solution at what I consider an excellent price, but the opportunities with a little bit of customization are even better.


What can we expect to see next?

Continued focus on our readers. Keeping one-to-one communication as the audience size increases.

We will always work with businesses of all sizes, but I am excited that we are starting to get more national brands interested in growing their relevant audience.

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