There's a lot of chatter about FREE these days.  Chris Anderson declared "free the future of business," and Malcolm Gladwell is already claiming that it will never work.  Regardless of where you stand on that debate, I think everyone will agree that 'free' has an at least some important implications in today's society. 

Think about it for a moment.  Have you ever worked for a company giving away free samples?  Have you experienced the mobs of people waiting in line when Ben & Jerry's has "free cone day" or just witnessed the stampede toward free coffee or breakfast bars outside the train station?  If so, you are familiar with how the prospect of 'something for nothing' alters consumer behavior.

The notion of free and blog payola surfaced again this week at BlogHer, an annual gathering of mostly-female bloggers in Chicago.  This story from AdAge detailed the chaos surrounding swag bags.  To summarize, bloggers were upset when they didn't receive the promised swag from event sponsors.  One even threatened the Crocs representative with bad publicity if he didn't track down a pair of shoes in her size – for free.  "Free" makes otherwise sane people act in completely irrational ways.

We've been thinking a lot about how this type of giveaway influences the influencers.  What type of benefit do P&G and J&J see from giving away free diapers and shampoo?  Are they really reaching the bloggers' audiences?  While BlogHer attendees were generally lumped into the "mommy blogger" category, that's not really the case for everyone who traveled to Chicago – there were male bloggers in the group and others that write about sex or money, never once authoring a product review.  I'd argue that for all their effort, these brands are creating just one more customer (the blogger her/himself), and likely not even a loyal one at that. 

As a blogger, I've been on the receiving end of free swag – a product I'll never write about. Ironic as it may be, I already had an opinion of the product from articles I'd read in lifestyle publications and commercials I'd seen on TV.  Thus, the real influence on my perception wasn't the company hosting me and giving me a gift – it was traditional media and advertising that impacted my decision most.  I still have a hard time believing any blogger can write a fair and honest review of a product that was given to them – part of the experience is parting with your hard-earned money to make the purchase.  Then again, maybe fair and honest aren't the reviews the sponsors are hoping for…

What do you think?  How can brands better reach the right bloggers with the right products?

– Contributed by Gretchen Bender.  Follow her @gbender26