Anyone who attends conferences regularly knows that swag is a big part of the experience, along with trading business cards and hopefully learning a thing or two. Over the last few years our team has attended numerous tech events and received countless branded items from companies, both global brands and startups.
After you’ve received your umpteenth startup T-shirt and your 18th fancy pen from a big company, you start to realise that free swag doesn’t always equal desirable or useful stuff. And from a marketing perspective, swag doesn’t always set you apart from the crowd and help you get attention – it often just shows how well you blend in with other companies who are handing out similar items.
If you’re trying to develop unique promotional items for your startup, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Make it something people actually want. Think about if you were the one stopping by your trade show booth or receiving an item at a conference. Would you use the item? Or would you say “no thanks, I already have 20 other xx’s.” You don’t want people to grab the item and immediately throw it out, or let it sit in a drawer somewhere.
Be strategic with your timing. An entrepreneur told me about their favourite piece of swag from a conference – swag that helps you carry more swag. The item (given out by the Canadian government) was as rubber handgrip with a slot to hold swag bags, allowing you to grab as much swag as you wanted without it digging into your fingers. While that item on its own is useless, when given out at a swag-heavy conference it was a hit. Another strategic use of swag was a company that gave out socks after a marathon, when runners really needed a new pair. If they had given them out before chances are they would have been forgotten.
Make it relevant to your audience. If you’re going to a conference full of dentists and handing out laptop stickers you might not get the best reception. Make sure the items you’re handing out will actually resonate with the audience.
Take advantage of current events. Some of my favourite SXSW swag has capitalised on the news of the day. Stickers from ShareThis at the 2010 conference had a picture of Kanye West with the text “Imma let you finish, but ShareThis has the best sharing tool…” Several companies had Charlie Sheen-themed swag this year, with slogans like “winning” plastered on their items. While these items might not have staying power, they get attention and at the very least get a laugh.
Work with your budget. Startups have small budgets for marketing, and swag is only a small piece of it. Decide whether you want to get a high volume of items for a lower price, or a smaller quantity of a standout more expensive item. An example I heard was a flash drive years ago when they were still quite expensive – it was an item people actually wanted and used, so even though the company could only produce a limited amount, every one of them went to good use. Or consider devoting your swag budget to one big item like an iPad and hold a giveaway – that way you end up with a list of people you can reach out to after the event.
Stay away from the trendy items. Handing out an eco-friendly stainless steel water bottle, or a reusable tote bag? So is everyone else. While you want to give out something people want, you don’t want to have the same item as 10 other companies at the same event.
Consider donating your swag budget to charity. Andrea Toole shared a story about how one company at a conference she attended decided to forego the swag and instead donated their swag budget to charity. They short-listed three charities that the money could go to, and allowed booth visitors to vote on the final choice. This keeps people interactive while cutting down on waste, and contributes to a great cause.
One of the places where swag is abundant is at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin. The bag is hefty and contains everything from magazines and food to discounts on web apps and the SXSW directory. This year the swag bag was absent though, replaced by an online “SXSWag bag” featuring free or discounted offers for products and services.
While the online bag is great way to reduce waste, it likely cut down on the number of people seeing messages from companies. They haven’t reported how many people accessed the online bag, but it’s likely much lower than the number of people who picked one up in person. So how about it – what items have you created for your company? What items have you received that you’ve actually used? And will you be migrating to online swag like SXSW?