Twitter seems to be one of the first places disgruntled flyers turn when they think an airline has done them wrong. But that doesn’t mean the airlines don’t love Twitter.

When it came time to celebrate its 10th anniversary, U.S.-based airline JetBlue turned to the popular social media hub and its more than 1.6m followers.

The idea: give away 1,000 free tickets in three undisclosed locations in Manhattan. The requirements: you have to watch JetBlue’s Twitter account for the announcement of the location, and you have to bring an item specified in the announcement. The fine print: virtually none. The tickets JetBlue would be giving out were of the round-trip variety, and could be used for any destination the airline files to, including the sunny Caribbean.

As you might expect, the JetBlue Twitter promotion was a success if you believe success is defined by the number of people who turned out. Within minutes of JetBlue’s announcements, the mobs descended and within 20 minutes, there were no more tickets.

Not surprisingly, JetBlue’s social media promotion is largely being portrayed as a success. But I’m not so sure the acclaim is warranted. To a certain extent, I see these ‘free giveaways‘ as a social media crutch. Giving anything of value away will attract a response, and make those who received the benefit happy. But my concern is that social media marketers rely too heavily on the
free giveaway and it’s not at all clear whether these promotions truly move the needle or not. Obviously, flying 1,000 people round-trip comes at a cost, and it’s not clear how much new business this promotion will generate long-term. Certainly there’s media value to be considered as well, but ‘media value‘ is a difficult metric for a number of reasons.

None of this is to say that giveaways can’t be a very effective marketing tool, or that companies should avoid these promotions on principle. That said, nobody should be surprised that social media is a highly effective medium for marketers to give stuff away. Determining what it brings back in return, however, is where the challenge, and reward, lies.

Photo credit: Silenus81 via Flickr.