A recent Harvard Business Review article by Alexandra Samuel titled “The Science of Swag” started me thinking about promotional items and what our clients should really consider before producing tradeshow giveaways.

Equating swag to science is understandable, but the whole idea of how to influence people with varied incarnations of promotional merchandise when troops of other exhibitors are doing the same all around you, has become more than science. This is war.

To me, being stationed in a tradeshow booth or behind a be-draped table, is like hunkering down in the trenches, lobbing your ammo of logo’d keychains, pens and t-shirts out into the crowds, hoping to make a hit.

Yeah, yeah it shouldn’t be all about the promo. You’re a great company and people just need your URL to remind them of that when they get home. But that’s not how it works. Because everyone has swag these days and attendees’ show bags are overloaded, your carefully thought-out giveaway is going to be kept or tossed based on quick judgments just before check-out time. And sadly, most will end up in hotel room trash cans.

So what will be useful or cool enough to be kept? As Ms. Samuel says in her article, the win is when your giveaway ends up on the attendee’s desk, a daily reminder of your product or service.

Even more successful, is when your swag causes “buzz”. We were fortunate enough to have a buzz giveaway recently when we designed a Threat Modeling card game for one of our Microsoft clients, who personally handed out the decks to software developers at the show. He was repeatedly asked to autograph the boxes, and Twitter was abuzz with chat about them.

But if you don’t have the time or budget to create something on that order, you can still be remembered.  Some solid swag tips:

1. A great business card is a must. Of all things you can hand out, the business card is the direct connection back to you—and if it’s memorable, it will be kept and maybe even shown around. If you’re not a designer, hire the best to create your card.

2. Give them something that keeps on giving. If you have an offer or reward that the attendee can redeem, your promo will probably go home with them even if they don’t have time to take advantage right away.

3. Dress it up. If your wearable is cool enough, your audience will not only keep it, but wear it,  effortlessly spreading your name and at the same time, giving your brand a little endorsement. At every tradeshow I’ve attended, tshirts, caps, and buttons have been snapped up fast—even clamored for if they were well designed. Just remember to keep it tasty.

4. Give ‘em what they want. This seems to be a no-brainer, but if it really was, there would be far fewer keychains with logos in this world. According to Jenna Rensch of Sunrise Identity, some of the top promo products for 2010 are:

Memory Sticks (flash drives)

Private label hand sanitizer

USB Tech gadgets

Eco-friendly products

Organic T-shirts

Journal books

So arm yourself with all the knowledge you can about your audience, plan your campaign strategy carefully with a good offer and thoughtful promo, and you’re sure to come home victorious. And think outside the keychain, okay? All’s fair in swag and war.

-Barbara Combs

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