What Journalists Can Learn From the Free T-Shirt Giveaway.

There are few advantages to being 6’6” and unable to dunk. Three come to mind: 1.) It makes it easy for people to find me at crowded social events; 2.) It makes it easy to dust hard-to-reach places; and 3.) It gives me a decided advantage when catching t-shirts at sporting events.

In my lifetime, I’ve caught far more free t-shirts than I deserve, and it’s mostly been because I have the wingspan of someone who’s 6’9”. But when I catch a free t-shirt, I don’t just toss it in a dresser somewhere. No, I wear that Verizon-sponsored Washington Capitals shirt for about three to six months longer than public decency will allow.

And I know I’m not the only one obsessed with the concept of ‘free.’ I’ve seen it at sporting events throughout my life: people will do anything for a free shirt, no matter how obnoxious it looks or how oversized the advertisement on the back is.

That’s why the free t-shirt giveaway is the focus of this installment of “What Journalists Can Learn From….”

1. You’ve Got to Make People Want It. Last year, at a Mizzou basketball game, a fellow student dove face first into the row in front of me to catch a foam finger that had been dropped from the rafters. It was just a yellow “We’re #1” finger with a massive logo for a local business on both sides, but the student nearly came up concussed in his bid for the thing. Now, maybe we’re not looking for the public to risk bodily harm to get their hands on news, but certainly, we need to entice them with strong content that consumers are willing to seek out.

2. Engage Consumers Wherever They Are. Just a decade ago, you had to be within the range of a strong-armed cheerleader to catch a shirt. Then the slingshot came around and expanded the number of fans that could catch a shirt. And then the t-shirt cannon was invented, making it so that fans seated in the upper deck of a pro stadium could catch a shirt. The idea here is simple: engage the widest audience possible while still keeping a focused message. We’ve got our t-shirt cannon: the Internet. Journalists just need to harness that power to better distribute the news.

3. Free Can Be Desirable. Sure, the shirts are ugly, and no, I don’t really want a foot-wide Papa John’s logo on the front of the garment I’m wearing to every game. But if the option is a free shirt or a $25 one available at the team’s store (geez, talk about a pay wall), you can understand why fans are so willing to stand up or even dive for a free one. But think of it this way: on free t-shirt days at the ballpark, teams won’t bring out the t-shirt cannon. Why? It’s because fans won’t care; they’ve already gotten what they wanted. The shirts are only desirable if it’s the only free option.

So maybe media should be creating targeted, premium content — that, just maybe, consumers will be willing to pay for — while still engaging the rest of the crowd with free, non-niche news. (And I can’t imagine that Rupert Murdoch would be pleased to hear that his business model is being replicated by interns in mascot costumes around the country this summer.)