I volunteered for Adobe's 99u conference this past weekend to "attend" (while working) and hear the talks. I've volunteered at conferences, I've attended conferences, I've spoken at conferences, and I've designed conferences. Of all those things, I've done it more than once. More than twice. More than three times!
Conferences at their best are well-rehearsed people talking about problems you have and how to solve them, or cool stuff you had never heard of before presented in engaging and intriguing ways. At their worst, they're just kind of boring, hosted in some sad hotel with catering that's not so great.
This lil'blob of internet bytes isn't about that though. It's about swag!
One of my favorite projects from my university days was a packaging project I did in one of my print courses. The 'company' I made up for the assignment was a heavily inspired* not-as-good version of Best Made Co. called... Well Made Co. It was meant to be a camping company, which uh, again. Not-so-great-rip-off-of-a-company-with-cool-branding.**
One of the things I think I *did* do right for this project was think about packaging from an ecological standpoint. People were bringing their new, fun gear into the wild, possibly still in its original packaging. How could that packaging have a role beyond its primary use? How could I prevent even the necessary stuff (bar codes, hang tags) for selling products in stores from ending up in the trash?
I ended up with a few good ideas—bags from the store could double as "bear bags" that you store food in and tie up in trees to keep away from wild-life (and away from your tent). I made these out of cloth to be reusable in this way. My secondary hangtag was a glow-in-the-dark representation of the constellation with the north star for 'navigation' purposes. Probably not useful enough to truly merit being kept the way my college-self designed them (man, I'd have a ball with this project now!) and there were lots of other metrics for success I hadn't even considered (what materials would have been ethical for producing these? Could they have been made with 100% biodegradable materials? Could there have been a buy-back or trade-in policy at the store for using reusable bags? For using the company's reusable bags? you see there I go) but out of the projects I completed in college I really like where my head was at with this one. I'm sad these days that I felt chased out of the print department for other factors, but that's a story for around the campfire.
I think we should be thinking about conference swag this way.
Every time I google cool conference swag I'm always surprised at the answers, even by the things people say they genuinely love. Mostly I see articles like "15 Conference Swag Ideas Your Attendees Will Actually Like". People want so many different things, and the reality of shopping around for cool conference swag ideas a lot of copying what other people do and guessing.
These articles sometimes address the nugget of unease around the edges, but not always. Does anybody need 40 pens emblazoned with company logos? Another reusable water bottle? A cloth tote? A lot of people talk about what they keep, but less about what ends up in the trash. The organizers I've worked with in the past were aware of this problem and tried to subvert it by producing really cool, thoughtful items that they figured anyone would want.
But what does that mean, anyone would want?
I always come back to this problem I had shopping for swag ideas, the ways in which we're all different. Reading from one person how much they coveted and still love a t-shirt from a conference they attended, for example, or a great pen that writes in a way that feels good flowing out of their hand. Often, I'm struck by how unlikely it is that my tastes as a designer producing swag actually align with any of these people's. I have t-shirts I love, and pens I love; a conference organizer giving me one that fits me, however, is a crapshoot. My on desires and whims are as fleeting as capitalism has trained me to be, and very different from the person next to me.
As we design swag, I wonder how we can make it meaningful. How can swag represent our missions? If you don't have a mission, how can you offer company sponsorship perks that aren't related to physical things? What do you want the legacy of your conference to be?
But damn, what a downer! Especially talking about swag, that sweet sweet free gunk we all want and love. So let's get started. Why do we give away swag at conferences?
With these in mind and without further ado, my wacky ideas for challenging the way we give away swag at conferences!
I think the first idea I have is to change the paradigm around how we give away swag. Most of the time we give a tote bag of some sort to the conference attendee right as they're handling their registration. It puts additional overhead on the registration line and bogs them down. As an example, at the conference I volunteered at last week, we had to find the attendee's badge, mark it to illustrate that we had given them their swag bag with a sticker, check them in on our iPad, and then give the attendee back their photo ID, swag bag, and badge. Cutting out the swag bag part of this would have cut down on the registration line considerably.
In order to give away swag, then, my recommendation is to create a small store in a different part of the venue. People can take items they want with a check-out experience. (This isn't to say that the swag can't be free—this is more to allow you to build rules around how many units of
Using the analytics from you Point of Sale system, you can begin to run some analytics: what do people actually want to leave with? What do they really want?
I can see how for any conference this could go to hell in a hand basket, so I'd love to hear thoughts on this. However I think some potential solutions might be built-in to the next phase of this idea:
Call me crazy, but: what if we charged for swag?
Blasphemous! But please, hear me out.
Lots of swag is carted off because of its very nature: it is free, so I should grab it while I can. That fear of losing something is greater than the actual desire for the item.
I should clarify that when I say "charge for swag", I'm saying heavily subsidized. Considering as a conference you have a budget for promotional material intended as a form of advertising there's nothing preventing you from selling, say, a branded Yeti cooler to the cool tune of 15¢. The money isn't meant to be a barrier to entry to your conference attendees; it's meant as a waste preventative method. Marketing it with an ecological bent is an opportunity to side-step some of the ire around, "Hey, didn't I pay for this?" The process of bringing the items up to a counter, checking out, and leaving with them is enough to deter people from taking what they don't want.
This maintains the benefits of the free store with a few extra pluses in my opinion:
Of course some form of store might not work for you for a myriad of reasons—off the top of my head I can think of overhead, training, venue constraints, you need business license and insurance you might not need if you're running a not-for-profit conference—so I wanted to chat about some other ideas that I don't typically see on swag lists.
Might not be likely with your conference, but of course: you could always just not give away swag, and find a way to invest it back into the conference. Can swag money get you a better party venue? Can it make the tickets less expensive for attendees? Can you get better catering options with some extra money? Can you hire transcription people for your videos to get those online later? These are all things worth considering.
Here are ideas I like vs. ones I don't as much:
Some ideas I like:
Some ideas I just don't like:
I'd like to wrap this up by saying this isn't a critique on your conference, or anyone's conference in particular. I'm not on a witch hunt because Your Thing™ is bad in some way. These are just ideas. I've never run a conference in its entirety so please take everything said here with a grain of salt.
However, if you do try implementing one of these ideas (or your own homegrown permutation), I'd really love to hear about it. What went wrong? What went wright? Would you do it again? If you would, what would you do differently? How did you market the idea? How did attendees feel about it?
As always, feel free to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Read between the lines here: a complete rip-off. I'm sheepish, believe me, as I beg you to look at it as the highest form of flattery while I melt into a puddle of shame
** I was unhappy if they assigned us companies and I was unhappy if they let us "make up" companies. I was just a pill of a student, really.