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A freeroll is a free tournament to enter. It can be an 'invitational only' or open to everyone interested in participating. Freerolls became an important tool in having a broad population of inexperienced poker players learn the game for free and yet have the possibility of winning real money. 

In 2003 the expression Freeroll hunter emerged in online poker forums. These players would build their bankrolls from freeroll winnings and they usually had as many as 50-100 poker accounts to be able to extract as much value from the online poker rooms as possible.
Paradise Poker made a brilliant marketing stunt by announcing the first Million Dollar Freeroll. Their promotion attracted hundreds of thousands of players and by the time the freeroll was held and thousands of players had qualified to enter, Paradise Poker had profited so immensely that giving away one million dollars was actually profitable. 
When the winner was announced press releases were published worldwide which gave a big buzz in the media and many people started playing poker and dreaming about a life as a poker pro.
Empire Poker was another great example of how a freeroll was used as a marketing tool. In Denmark in 2005 Empire Poker held a series of live freerolls. The winner of the series won a seat in the World Series of Poker worth $10,000 plus the travel expenses of going to Las Vegas.
Qualifications were held in every larger city in Denmark and the only requirement to enter was to open an Empire Poker account. Their campaign  ran online and on the radio and put poker on the map in Denmark.
At the same time WPT TV-shows were broadcastet which definitely helped speeding up the process of making poker one of the most popular card games in Denmark.
Freerolls later faded away as the market became crowded with operators and many players became too experienced for this type of promotion. Freerolls had helped online poker to grow rapidly giving lots of people a taste of what the game of poker had to offer. 
After a while freerolls became exploited and from the operators' perspective they no longer had the desired effect. Many Eastern European countries were banned from these tournaments and in the end freerolls were turned into 'invitational only'. You now had to meet certain criteria to enter. In reality it was no longer free. Freerolls went from being a tool to get new customers to a way of rewarding loyal customers.