We had a lively #assnchat on Twitter yesterday about trade show booth giveaways. I volunteered to write a summary, not realizing it would turn into the longest blog post ever. However, there’s lots of good information here from the #assnchat tweets as well as suggestions I received from Facebook and Twitter friends.

If this post isn’t enough and you want help choosing the right promotional product, check out Heidi Thorne’s book, SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business.

Many of us agree on what we like to take home from a trade show. Shelly Alcorn raised an important consideration:  “What about sustainability? Can we give out cool things without just creating more junk?” Jeff Hurt recommended “contacting PPAI, the association for promotional products professionals, for green sustainable and unusual ideas.” Some of the greener ideas mentioned were:

  • Seed packets, but not if you have an international meeting. We like handmade paper seed packets or coasters that bloom into flowers when buried. Joe Flowers once saw seeds that grow into “a plant with a one-word slogan on them. Very cool and geeky!”
  • Bamboo cutting boards with the exhibitor’s logo etched in — very cool.
  • Reusable shopping bags – by far one of the group’s favorites. They give the vendor a branding opportunity and fit the green requirement.

We know the vendor wants to get their brand out there, but we want good design. This is a chance to associate your brand with utility and style. We don’t want an ugly logo coffee mug, but we will take a nicely designed one, perhaps with a discreet logo on the bottom.

Dan Scheeler likes “how #tech10 posted booth giveaways in advance. I admit that will influence which vendors I visit.” Most of us don’t read the exhibitor postcards and direct mail we receive before a trade show; it usually goes straight into the trash unless it catches our eye with a stand-out design.

Here’s what else we like in the food/beverage department:

  • Nalgene-type water bottles
  • Chip bag clips
  • A buddy from my old job at CBIA suggested cork screws or bottle openers, like the kind you can keep on a keychain. Surprisingly no one during the chat made that suggestion. Makes me wonder if those from the housing industry have a stronger need for this type of swag.
  • Neoprene lunch bags
  • Wine cooler bags
  • Insulated travel coffee mugs
  • Nice-looking coffee mugs
  • Drinks, wine or beer get our attention, especially when combined with comfy seating, or bottles of wine with custom labels. Speakers like them too.
  • Mints, power bars, bottled water and good candy help us get through long days at the show.

If swag can double as a gift for kids, it makes it home — rubber duckies, stuffed animals, even caricatures. There is the risk these gifts will be lost in the chaos of kids’ rooms, but parents like the thoughtfulness of handy souvenirs.

Personal items we like:

  • Lip balm
  • Hand sanitizer in little bottles
  • Eyeglass cleaning cloths
  • For a boomer audience, magnifier eyeglasses to read show floor maps with really tiny print
  • Attractive or cool lanyards to reuse at other shows and conferences
  • One of our trade show sponsors provided lanyards with a business card holder attached. We gave them out in our Newcomers Lounge to first-timers. The buzz about them spread on the floor and thousands of folks stopped by to get one. They didn’t have a year on them, just the show name, so we used them for several years.
  • Headshots — useful for social media profiles
  • Magnetic picture frames
  • Digital photos with friends, adding a frame is even better
  • Retractable headphone/earbuds
  • Golf tees and ball
  • Keychain flashlights
  • Brightly colored luggage tags — however, luggage handle wraps got a thumbs-down. Sandra Giarde saw some particularly ugly ones that said, “I’m going to the (name removed to protect the stupid) Show!” Hmm, do you really want to announce you’re here for a convention and a likely mark for price-gouging and god knows what else?
  • Small travel mouse with retractable cord
  • iPod wraps
  • Sturdy messenger or gym bags without any tacky branding
  • Drawstring backpacks

Pens get mixed reviews. Pens with a thumb drive are okay. Dave Coriale said these bobblehead pens are big movers at his booth. A friend gives out the same logoed pens at his booth, and likes them because they double as gifts for kids. Elizabeth Derrico sent me a photo of robot pens she found today at their conference – kids (and some adults) would love those. Shelly summed up the pen issue, “Nobody wants a pen with your company name on it – I mean NOBODY.” Some people can never have enough pens but if you’re doing pens, try to make them cool.

Thumbdrives are popular with some, but others say they already have too many. There are some charities like the Kramden Institute here in Raleigh that refurbish donated computers and also collect thumbdrives. Ones that stand out are those shaped like the association logo, or “with fun, informative content on it – not just a white paper or sales docs.”

Other popular office items are:

  • USB hubs
  • Post-its
  • Tape measure or ruler
  • Notepads
  • Highlighters

“The dreaded stress balls” – some like them, many don’t. I think they’re wasteful and will still be around in 2199 when we’re all in the matrix.

T-shirts get mixed reviews. Ray van Hilst said, “Lame t-shirts are bad. Funny or cool ones generate word of mouth.” Other t-shirt advice:

  • Have a mix of sizes so they actually fit attendees and don’t get relegated to the rag pile
  • Keep logos to a minimum. We don’t want to be your walking advertisements
  • If you make it funny, we might wear it.
  • Matt Baehr suggested “using the threadless.com model on a booth giveaway t-shirt. Have members/clients submit designs. Generate word of mouth that way.”

A few ideas really got my attention as winners. Sandra suggested logoed Snuggies for VIP clients. Oh yeah! I once received a fleece top from a conference host and it’s probably my favorite swag ever.

And here’s a challenge from Maggie McGary: she’s looking for an ASAE exhibitor to create an #assnchat shirt, button or magnet for the Annual Meeting. That would be a hit.

Matt Baehr’s old association gave out “posters of art masterpieces that were redone to incorporate modern AV (think Whistler’s mother with an iPad). Those posters are still talked about and are in many members’ lobbies.” They used to sell them but after a few years started giving the remaining inventory away. How cool is that?

Ray reminded us that sometimes “an experience counts as a giveaway too. Chair massages get people to stop and relax,” or hand “facials.” At the ASAE Annual Meeting, the St. Louis Build a Bear booth was a huge hit, combining an experience with a giveaway. An experience/giveaway also happens at CalSAE’s Seasonal Spectacular every December. Marriott takes orders on site for personalized clay Christmas tree ornaments. It’s wildly popular and their booth is always crowded with attendees watching their ornament being made.

Peter Romeo told me about a conference that gave attendees Express Mail postage to ship their conference binders home. It was a sponsored perk.

Experiences, rather than giveaways, might be a more sustainable option too. Toni Rae Brotons told us about vendors at their show who did a ring toss game. The association donated money to a charity based on where the ring landed.

What about having a raffle for a big prize rather than giving away swag? Most of us like that option. We’ve seen raffles for an iPod, Wii and GPS, and would like to see Kindles and iPads as prizes.

Helen Mosher gave us the heads-up that her colleague Maryann Lawlor was tweeting about swag from their conference. At one booth if you guessed the correct number of M&Ms in a jar, you could win a Snoopy lunchbox. In another you won prizes playing Wheel of Fortune. I’ve seen this at a restaurant in Sacramento – you spin the wheel on your birthday and have a chance at gift cards (best prize) or a bag of rice (worsy).

But wait, there’s more. Jessica Sidman of Association & Nonprofit Bisnow is talking about a “Best, Worst & Ugliest Swag” feature for their coverage of #tech10. Exhibitors beware!

Joe Flowers is keeping the industry on its toes. He created a Flickr group to collect examples of bad swag.

Join us for the next #assnchat. We convene every Tuesday at 2pm Eastern on Twitter. Until then, what kind of swag do you like taking home from trade shows? What do you actually use? On the contrary, what do you think is a big waste of money and resources?

If you plan to send pre-show and post-show emails to attendees, don’t make the mistakes that most exhibitors do. Read these two posts to learn how to send emails that association executives will value:


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