No one in the conference has swag(ger) like us: 10 tips to design the best swag kit

When Fast Company published a piece by Elizabeth Segran asking if we can ‘finally kill off cheap, disposable conference swag?’, it really struck a nerve.

The promotional products industry body (up in arms) issued a statement challenging the piece’s thesis that people throw away most of the free goodies they receive at events. Twitterati angrily tweeted that the piece was “really out of touch with the industry of giveaways.” And other industry voices chimed in saying that everyone loves promotional products, and that they get the job done.

But Segran’s got a point. 

It’s not that swag should be altogether done away with, only that which is cheap and disposable. Think about it: how many times have you thrown away a free badge or paperweight given to you? The point is that companies need to create merchandise that is so fantastic that they’ll keep your business in the minds of other conference attendees long after the event is over.

However, that’s far easier said than done, especially with challenges around cost and considerations around sustainability in the mix. So we asked Vishal Krishna, Zuddl Designer Extraordinaire, who designed Zuddl’s swag kit for IMEX, for tips on how to create your most memorable swag kit yet.

1. General vs. specific purpose

“The more specific the goals you have in mind when designing your swag kit, the better its effectiveness”, says Vishal. 

In other words, all marketers have the same overarching goals when it comes to swag - namely, increase your brand visibility, awareness + recall, and amplifying lead gen efforts. But when evaluating event swag ideas, you need to unpack your big-picture goals into more specific goals. This will make it that much more actionable.

For instance, ask yourselves:

  • Do you want your brand to drive immediate impact (give attendees something they can use or wear immediately at the conference) or more long-term (something that they can take back and use at the office everyday)?
  • Do you want to be remembered for swag that is completely unique to that of everyone else, or just want to ensure that you’re able to hand something to visitors to your booth?
  • Do you want to give away something to remember you by, or create an experience that keeps them at your booth longer (like a swag spin-the-wheel)?

The answers to these questions will help you shape your swag kit items.


2. Make Mario Kondo’s mantra your own: items must be useful, durable and/or beautiful

You can’t just think of anything, stamp your logo on it and then call it a day. “Ideally, you want the gifts you’re giving attendees to add some value to their lives, or at the least make their day-to-day easier”, points out Vishal.

Examples of useful, branded swag include:

  • Tote bags: Can be extremely effective in driving short and long-term awareness, as attendees can use the bags to carry swag from other businesses at the conference, and use it well after the event ends - maybe for groceries, or for use on your commute. Protip: Don’t put a date on your bag, unless it’s worthy of memorializing.
  • Mobile charges or power banks: There’s nothing worse than your phone suddenly dying on you, and especially on a day that requires you to be using it to take down notes or the numbers of new leads or partners. That’s why a mobile charger or powerbank will be happily received and definitely be used for years.
  • Water bottles: Reusable bottles are a great option as attendees are bound to use it after the event, either taking it to the office or to the gym, promoting your brand to anyone who sees it.
  • Wireless earbuds: Small and high-value — this is something that attendees will want to hold on to.'
Photo credit: Sunjoy
  • Seasonal items: Attendees are bound to pick up and use items that are practical, and relevant to the conference location. For instance, if it’s a winter conference, some warm scarves would be a nice touch, or sunscreen or flip flops at a summer conference.

    As these will all probably make the flight home to attendee’s homes or offices and (hopefully) serve as a reminder of your existence around them for months and years on end, you’ll be getting an incredible amount of mileage from this seemingly benign top-of-the-funnel activity investment.

    In fact, 89% of consumers can recall the brand on a promotional item they received within two years. To quote, Rob Clark, Sr. Director, Insights, Intelligence & Measurement at Proof Strategies Inc, here’s why durable swag matters so much:
We all know which company David will end up recommending

3. Choose items that are highly visible

“There’s no point in making items like stationary (think paper pads, diaries) because they’ll probably just be hoarded and never see the light of day”, says Vishal.

So ideally, your swag items need to be ones that come into contact with/or are seen by a lot of people on a daily basis. Your visibility doesn’t end with the campaign, and keeps going for as long as your products last and are used. It increases your reach and repeats exposure, boosting brand awareness.

Umbrellas, daily-use cosmetics, and stickers are a great example of this type of swag.

Stickers were part of Zuddl's swag kit (Photo credit: Ansh Mehra)

4. Apparel can be a hit or a miss

Tshirt, sweatshirts and sweatpants can seem like a great option to include in your swag kit because they can be worn in many different contexts outside of the event and because by wearing them, attendees act as walking billboards. “However, anything that requires you to customize items based on gender and size can become too complicated very quickly”, says Vishal. Here’s why:

  • Issues with fit - Today, there’s no one-size-fits-all. If your carefully ordered t-shirts arrive and you find that they don’t fit recipients the way you thought it might, it’s a waste of time, money and effort. A promotional t-shirt that doesn’t get worn isn’t really promoting anything.
  • Ordering the right number of sizes is tricky - You might assume that you can just order the same number of small, medium and large sizes but this can cause issues. You might quickly run out of popular sizes, which would mean that some attendees would have to pick from sizes that don’t fit, or don’t receive a t-shirt at all. Or you could be left with a large number of leftover sizes.

5. Make them ergonomic OR go virtual

“Don't’ go for large items,” Vishal warns. Not only will this be a logistical nightmare for you (as you’ll have to oversee shipping/delivery from place of production to the venue), but also for attendees; no one wants to lug around heavy and cumbersome pieces of merch for hours. 

Ideally you want to choose items that are easy to ship and easy to carry. If items are too heavy, too large, or weirdly shaped, they’ll probably be ditched at the venue, hotel room or airport.

You can also opt to give away a virtual swag kit with goodies such as gift cards/vouchers or masterclasses/ebooks/whitepapers/ and other exclusive content - like for instance, in Zuddl's case it would be our brand new ebook 'The Guide To Before-Event Marketing: Basics, Best Practices, Blunders' which is packed with insights from industry experts, proven strategies, free checklists etc. to help you solve all your challenges, from sourcing event speakers quickly to choosing which format is right foryour next event (#shamelessplug).

While it might not seem as exciting as something tangible, virtual merchandise comes with a lot of advantages:

  1. No logistical nightmares 
  2. It’s a data goldmine as you can easily track when attendees access the bag or used a gift in it such as gift coupons
  3. It’s more sustainable
  4. It lets you deliver a more personalized experience (see point 6 of this piece)
  5. You can be more creative with the types of gifts you can give. For example, you could give experiences around wellness (gift cards to yoga and fitness classes, discounts to gym memberships) or philanthropy (donations to a relevant charity).
Atlassian gave away donations to charity as swag

6.Go green if possible

More than 60% of consumers in the U.S. want businesses to improve societal and environmental issues (“Millennial and Gen-Z consumers are far more socially conscious than generations that came before” writes Segran in her piece). You can set yourself apart and make a powerful impact by prioritizing intentionality and sustainability in your branded merchandise.

To this end, virtual swag options like the ones we listed before are a good option to be more sustainable.  Alternatively, check to see if you can opt for your items to be made from biodegradable, recyclable or renewable materials. Since many companies still rely on cheap, plastic promotional products, it can be quite simple to stand out from your competitors.

You will need to make a decision about how much you want to invest in your products. Eco-friendly swag can also benefit your business, but it is often more expensive than standard items.

7. And personalize if possible

Everyone loves feeling special, so it’s no surprise that anything personalized leads to better outcomes (90% of consumers are more likely to purchase from brands that provide tailored experiences). But often companies decide to avoid this route as they think it involves a lot of extra effort. It doesn’t need to be. Here are two simple ways to personalize your swag:

  • Let attendees build their own kit: Offering attendees the opportunity to personalize their swag kit can result in big dividends. For example, Postal’s Field Marketing team created branded t-shirt shaped cards that had a QR code on them. When scanned, attendees could access a collection of items that could be customized, such as a tote bag or t-shirt, and which would be sent directly to their addresses.

The effort to personalize paid off, with the gambit delivering 7 opportunities and creating $155k in pipeline for Postal’s sales team.

Here’s another example:

  • Personalize it for them:
    Use registration forms creatively, and insert a few leading questions to help you identify what branded products the attendee will most likely use and benefit from. This could be “How stressful is using 5 different tools to market and run your event?”  If they mark this as ‘high’, include some calming tea or a stress ball in their kit. If they mark this as ‘low’, then give them a branded Rubix cube because they’re already a master of solving complex problems.

8. There’s nothing like a little intrigue to get people to come to your booth

Most companies will give away free stuff, so that alone is not enough to stand out (if that’s your aim from your swag). Try and find something that is unique and creates a memorable brand moment.

Here’s a great example of a creative conference giveaway:

When attendees at a Marketingprofs event reached the venue, they received a swag bag filled with promotional information about exhibition booths in the hall.  

Directive Consulting, a B2B search marketing agency, used that opportunity in an extremely creative way. They gave attendees an exclusive key that could open a safe at their booth which had an  Apple Watch to be won. Naturally, this prompted attendees to go to the booth, resulting in way more traffic than if they had simply given away a brochure. 

It was a genius tactic, because it recreates the same thrill of opening a gift on Christmas morning, or opening a parcel from Amazon. Something attendees won’t forget.

9. Be a careful buyer

While it’s important that you don’t skimp on quality, it’s also essential that you shop around for the best deal. The last thing you want to do is settle for a vendor that doesn’t have your brand color, or won’t send you samples before you make a bulk purchase. 

Resources: Use our swag vendor evaluation checklist to make the right choice.

10. And an even more cautious printer

Now that you’ve got a better idea of what types of items you can put together for your swag kit, we’ll leave you with just a word of caution about what to get printed onto them. “Just stamping your logo onto products won’t do”, says Vishal. “People don’t want to be walking billboards, and they won’t wear products with logos unless the brand is aspirational or a luxury brand. So therefore, you need to incorporate a lifestyle element into your design, or make it relatable in some way, like using a pop-culture reference.”

No one in the conference has swagger like us

With hundreds of businesses competing for attention at a conference, a well-designed swag kit can act as a silver bullet. A single piece of merchandise can generate tens of thousands of impressions, drive heavy booth traffic, and can result in booked meetings as well as a huge increase in opportunity value. It just requires more than choosing any item and slapping your logo on it.The more thoughtfulness you show in creating a useful or fun experience, the further it will take you with attendees. 

Resources: Use our swag vendor evaluation checklist to make the right choice.

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