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Freebie lets you turn your social status into stuff

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Updated: October 30, 2013 6:36AM

What is money, anyway? A unit of worth, printed on paper or tallied in electrons, given in return for something: your time working, usually.

You can earn money in other ways. Interest on a loan. Selling something you’ve made. If you’re a celebrity, you can sell your endorsement. Michael Jordan sold his image to Nike for millions, allowing Nike to sell shoes for more than it would otherwise get because their sneakers came coated in the invisible aura of fame and victory linked with Jordan.

Thanks to social media — Facebook, Twitter, et al — we are all stars of our own little or, in some cases, not-so-little universes. As with real celebrities, there will be chances to cash in on our popularity, the latest being a fresh-from-the-box Chicago startup called Freebie.

“Everybody’s social connectivity has value,” said Ben Rosenfield, who founded the company in February. “What we do, is we’ve figured out how to automate word of mouth, the most powerful form of marketing. We’re a lead generator.”

“Allow the product to market itself,” added Hank Ostholthoff, the co-founder, at their Aqua Tower headquarters. “How many times do you hear businesses say, ‘If I could only get somebody to try my product.’ ”

Chicago is home to a miniboomlet of tech startups, the most famous being Groupon, another lead generator; in essence, a new twist on the old ploy of drawing customers in with discounts: Groupon offers a small bribe — $20 worth of pizza, say, for $10 — to get you through the door, in the hopes that you’ll come back.

Freebie thinks it has a better idea, first because you get stuff, not cheap, but free.

“We believe discounts are bad,” said Rosenfield. Those who get discounts expect them in the future — a dynamic that has disillusioned businesses and caused trouble for Groupon — while no one given a free meal expects all their meals to be free. “That’s against the psychology.”

Another advantage of Freebie is that while anyone with the necessary cash can buy a Groupon, even — shudder — old people with scant social media presence, Freebie is based on a person’s social media popularity.

Freebie takes the measure of just how big a ripple you make on online media, gives you a rating based on who your friends are, then uses its mobile app to lure you toward various businesses that want people such as you as paying customers, eventually, so much so that they’re willing to wave you in once so you will rave to your online friends.

Rosenfield, 33 and a Deerfield native, said the challenge for marketers in our media-saturated world is to find new ways of reaching customers. TV isn’t working.

“We know, we’re all fast forwarding through commercials, and no one’s rea ...” Here Rosenfield caught himself, showing surprising tact for one so young, and changed direction mid-sentence, “... and unfortunately less people are reading the newspaper to decide what they’re going to buy. They’re looking at the Internet.”

That they are. What Freebie is doing is taking the old invite-the-press-in-and-feed-’em-in-return-for-hype dynamic and democratizing it to regular folk, who can cash out their connectivity. If it works, maybe you didn’t waste all that time on Facebook after all.

A test seemed in order. I downloaded the Freebie app to my phone, giving it access to my Facebook and Twitter information (something I wouldn’t usually do, but this is work). It told me what my social media footprint is worth. Having posted on Facebook for five years with the plangent urgency of a lost baby opossum crying for its mother and tweeting continuously earned me a 477; enough, I was told, for a “Small Plate” at the Hubbard Inn.

That’s it? But free’s free, right? I toddled off to the Hubbard Inn, which I had never heard of, and why would I? It’s right next door to Slurping Turtle, which has served me many a steaming bowlful of fine chow that I was all too happy to pay for.

At the Hubbard Inn—and this is the weak link in the system—I tapped my app telling Freebie I was here, and showed the message to poor Tammi, the hostess, a week on the job. “I never heard of it,” she said. “I just know how to seat people.” She appealed to Jason Felsenthal, the director of operations, sitting nearby at a booth. He did not leap up, emitting a Zorba-like cry of joy, and embrace me as a new customer. Rather he took a menu with the grimness of man being robbed and ticked off the three small plates I was entitled to. The house-made ravioli. The chickpea crepe. The mussels.

I had the ravioli; it was quite good.

For all the eulogies being said over the pulpy media, Felsenthal certainly perked up when I identified myself and asked him whether Freebie is working for him.

“It’s a pretty interesting app,” he said. Was it driving in business? “Time will tell.”

Yes, it will, though trust me here, buddy, you might not like what time tells you. When I got back to the office and realized that Freebie had sent a faux chatty tweet under my name — “Broke up my day with lunch at @HubbardInn ... anyone else been here recently?”— I gave a shudder of impending Orwellian horror and deleted the app. Too many tweets like that and I wouldn’t have any friends to convert into chow.

A reminder of something I learned a long time ago in this business: There is no free lunch. There is no free anything. You end up paying, one way or another. If you forget that, and sometimes I do, life invariably reminds you.


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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