Harvard Business Online

The Science of Swag


Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 18, 2010 2:50 PM

Another tech conference, SXSW, comes to an end. It's time to make a tough decision. What leads to pursue? Which new tools to adopt? No. I'm talking about the really tough decision: what swag will I bring home, and what will I leave in my hotel room?

I know what you're thinking, but this is not trivial, at least not to the marketers that spend millions of dollars producing swag that they hope will end up in my "take it with me" pile. They want their logo and URL to return home with me so that my friends will see I took the time to investigate their wares. They'd love it if their swag was popping out of my backpack right when I need software or hardware like theirs. The Internet isn't the only way to make media social, you know.

So here's a little free market research for swag producers. Getting your goodie into my homeward-bound pile isn't rocket science, but it will take more than handing me a 2-cent postcard. Here are my two piles, complete with a summary of what did or didn't make the cut:

Take It With Me Pile
• useful reference info (conference directory; wufu html 5 guide— by far the best use of a postcard!)
• content (a social media white paper; an ACLU paper on online privacy)
• card from guy who actually talked to me instead of just shoving stuff in my hand as I walked by
• stuff my kids will like (stickers from iStockPhoto and twooshes, cut-out origami thingy from Microsoft)
• discounts for products I want (Lacie, iStockphoto)
• flash drive (source unknown!)
• stuff that I want to play with (stickybits, twooshes)
• stuff from companies that I want to check out (videogamevoters.org sticker; Accelerator program listing startup software companies and web apps I'd like to try)
• tech hipster gear (support web standards button; Google Chrome stickers)
• pens, especially the BEWAREOFMILK.com pen (I'm lactose intolerant)

Leave It Behind Pile
• postcards promoting products, services, events but with no enduring value
• stickers & buttons, unless they speak to me personally
• magazines about SXSW or other events
• CD (even though it contains information I want about Microsoft Silverlight, I know it's easier to download)
• badgeholder with incomprehensible explanation of product
• redundant versions of stuff I already own (bag tag, lint-free glasses wiper)

After looking at the lists, I say that if you're giving out swag, make it so that I have use for it after the conference is over. If it's a post-card, put reference information on it. If it's a product promo, give me a discount offer. And don't waste resources. If you can put it on the Internet, I'll get it there. Finally, to the company that provided the fortune cookie: It was delicious. I'd thank you personally, but I don't know who you are.

I accidentally ate the fortune.

Alexandra Samuel is CEO of Social Signal, a social media agency. She helps companies and organizations increase revenue, build brand and strengthen team relationships by creating compelling online communities and social web presences. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/awsamuel.

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