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It’s an experience which is familiar to all of us in the event’s industry—while attending a trade show or conference, we’re handed a knickknack by a smiling brand ambassador, emblazoned with the logo of the brand responsible for putting on the event or the booth you’re standing in front of. There’s just one problem… the event swag doodad they gave us is totally underwhelming, and more often than not, it’s ugly or cheaply made, and completely useless to us.

Whatever the reason, rather than handing out useful swag to the attendees, the organizer’s done the exact opposite. They’ve given us something that we’re never going to use and is hopelessly bound for the trash. They’ve saddled us with “anti-swag,” and our opinion of the brand and the event will likely never be the same.

SEE ALSO: Perfecting the Art of Gift Giving as an Event Pro

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. In all likelihood, we’ll go home, toss our newfound ‘treasures’ in a drawer, and promptly forget they exist. Even if the event was otherwise totally enjoyable, the swag we took home will not have positively impacted our opinion of the brand in any meaningful way.

Here’s the thing, though, it should. When done right, swag at branded events can serve as a perfect way to foster brand awareness, create new brand advocates, and bring in more customers. Let’s talk about how you can do it right and how you can avoid being another boring pusher of cheap trinkets. 

1. Consider What Kind of Event You’re Running or Exhibiting At…

At a tech conference, people are going to have slightly different expectations than the attendees of a dinner party or music event. You need to adapt your offerings to the situation—a smartphone charger is pretty great at a business conference, but water bottles might be better for an outdoor music festival attended primarily by millennials (apparently we love the things, according to a recent Adweek infographic).  Think about what other similar branded events offered, and use that to adapt your own swag.

2. Figure Out What People Actually Want

Who is the target demographic for your event? Who is your ideal attendee? If you know the answer to that question, you have probably got a decent idea of the sort of stuff that’d be useful to them, right? Find a way to add your brand to those items, and hand them out.

You’ll need to do a bit of research here, of course. Scan social media communities that your audience tends to frequent. Look at other events they’ve attended, and listen in on their feedback. The goal here is to give them something they didn’t even realize they wanted.

The ideal swag is intriguing, either because it’s unique, useful, or just really, really cool. Remember that.

3. You’re Probably Safe Offering…

Now, as a general rule, there are a few things that go pretty well with just about any event:

  • Smartphone/tablet chargers
  • Seasonal items: hats/gloves, beach towels, scarves, etc.
  • Reusable water bottles
  • Notebooks/Moleskines
  • T-Shirts, Coats, or Sweaters
  • Food

4. Stay Away From…

By that same vein, there are a few conference gifts that you probably shouldn’t bother with:

  • Keychains
  • Pens
  • Anything large or heavy
  • Flash drives
  • Backpacks
  • Koozies
  • Selfie Sticks
  • Anything you got at an event you attended more than a year ago…

5. Don’t Cheap Out—And Remember, Not Everything Needs To be Branded

Another important piece of advice I’ll offer is that you need to be willing to spend a bit of money on your conference handouts. Consider, for example, what the hosts of the TED conference hand out to their attendees: a literal smorgasbord of high-end branded swag including custom-made bags, sunglasses, and apparel. The year the Nexus One phone by Google came out, every attendee was given one for free.

If you can afford a grand gesture like that, do it. Even if you’re not handing out branded gear, you can bet the people who attended your event will remember your generosity. And they’ll definitely associate that generosity with your brand—don’t underestimate how far such an association can take you.

Also, remember that not every piece of conference swag is a physical product (or even particularly obvious). You could give out digital rewards, too—access to a custom music playlist from your event, videos from the event, links to a gallery of photos and/or artwork; there’s a ton of stuff that people wouldn’t ordinarily associate with an event grab bag that’d be a perfect fit.

6. Have an Actual Message—and Don’t Go Overboard With The Branding

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever heard in regards to conference swag is that you should never brand something solely for the sake of branding it. Don’t hand out custom-printed gear just because other people are doing it.  You need to know why you’re handing out that swag…

  • Why are you handing out this swag, and what are you hoping to gain by handing the swag out?
  • Why are you hosting or exhibiting at this event?
  • Why did you choose this particular item to hand out?
  • Why did you decide to use the brand imagery you did?
  • Why does the person want it, and would they still want it if you didn’t have your branding on it?

You get the idea. Oh, and one last thing… don’t go overboard. A simple logo or slogan that takes up only a small percentage of the branded product is more than enough—anything larger, and things start to look ugly or tacky.

Closing Thoughts

Getting free stuff is one of the best things about conferences—provided, of course, the swag one receives is in some way useful. In that regard, there are really two camps of event exhibitors: the one that hands out memorable, cool, and unique memorabilia, and the one that hands out more junk for the junk drawer. Follow the advice laid out in this piece, and you’ll ensure that you’re the former rather than the latter.