Swag + Conferences: Exploring Atypical Ideas

May 14, 2019

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?

"Keep food away from bears"

Glow-in-the-dark hang tags

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?

  • Added value. Customers have paid and we want to convince them that it was worth what they spent on the conference to convince them to come back next year. It generates good will.
  • Brand recognition/advertising. As a company we've spent a lot of money on making this event happen, and we'd like people to remember that we, XYZ corp., made this happen, and will probably make it happen again in the future. Google us.
  • Memorabilia: we want our customers to have a keepsake to remember the event by.

With these in mind and without further ado, my wacky ideas for challenging the way we give away swag at conferences!

The Store of Swag

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 each attendee gets.)

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:

Building on the Store of Swag

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:

  • You can still track analytics over time to see what people truly want. For longer-running conferences, this can help inform your decisions on what to purchase for future conferences in the future.
  • This still gives you an opportunity to build messaging around the sustainability of your conference by not forcing widgets on attendees who don't want them, and keeping trash out of landfills.
  • The checkout experience is enough of a deterrent to prevent people from buying things they don't want, allowing you to run more accurate runs over time.
  • Additional stock can be sold online at a later date, at full price, to build hype: limited edition runs, or taking things out of the archives for a limited time, etc. A way to have relevant messaging during the off-season when tickets aren't selling for your conference and information isn't out about it yet.

Traditional Swag

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.

  • Art prints from local artists. Commission local artists to create prints to include with your swag bags that share some of the local flair. These can be branded or themed with the conference. The artist could put up a larger piece for raffle, for example, which attendees could enter by tweeting about the artwork in their swag bag using the conference hashtags and tagging the artist. This feeds money directly into the communities you're looking to engage and support, and creates memorable swag.
  • Software licenses. This one does get included in some lists, and I wanted to include it again here because I think it's a really good idea. A few months of <sponsor's name>'s service for free? Nice, plus it makes me more likely to use them in the future. Better still to print all these offer codes and deals on one piece of paper that gets included in the swag bags instead of each sponsor producing their own piece of paper—it'll match the conference theme better AND it will save on paper.

No Swag

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.

So What Swag *Do* I Give Away?

Here are ideas I like vs. ones I don't as much:

Some ideas I like:

  • Extended free trials: "This one doesn’t work for every business, but if your business is a subscription business, this might be a good option for you. Most subscription-based businesses already offer a free trial, but why not double the length of it for conference attendees?" Kevin Armstrong, ActiveCampaign
  • Books: 99u had a small book store—a large number of their speakers had written and published books, and it allowed them to do book signings for the people who purchased them at the right time. You could also raffle books away as something for the emcee to do in-between talks, signed on the inside with "A gift from ." You can still advertise yourself this way; people will remember where they got it. You could as a conference even subsidize these.
  • Notebooks: Encourage people to put away their laptops and take notes old-school. Offer pens too, but in little buckets near the doors so people only take them if they need/want them.
  • Snacks: Giving away candy or junk food that shows off some of the local flavor is smart. At one conference in Colombia they served buñelos between talks which for me was incredibly memorable—I could only get them in Colombia, and I've gone on to make them since because of how delicious they were.
  • Reusable water bottles: A cliché, but I love the idea of including in your day-of marketing for people to use them over the plastic water bottles typically given out. If there are water refill stations that are cold and filtered, it's even better than the single-use water bottles. I think it would be cool to find a way to incentivize your attendees doing this, such as offering free licensing for people who pack their own.
  • Reusable coffee mugs: Same idea as the water bottles. Build it into your messaging to get people using them. Give away free licensing for people who pack their own. Reward it.
  • Experiences: "Instead, consider offering experiences. Several well-reported studies show that millennials are prioritizing experiences over stuff. For instance, I’d appreciate a back massage at a conference, or perhaps a yoga class, or a free headshot. I’d even enjoy a good meal instead of a swag bag. Give me a cold brew, awesome donuts, or a burger. If you wrap the event in your branding, there’s a good chance your target customer will remember that experience long after the tote bag is stuffed in a landfill somewhere." Elizabeth Segran, FastCompany

Some ideas I just don't like:

  • T-shirts: I started politely declining these when I could pretty early on as tech conference t-shirts didn't fit in with my personal style. Not everyone feels the same way (many love conference t-shirts) but as someone who has done t-shirt ordering in the past it's tough. Prices only become reasonable at scale, they're tough to order if you care about sustainability and ethics, and it's challenging even when asking your attendees their size to order the shirts in all the sizes (and cuts) you need. Can't tell you how many times after conferences I've seen boxes of unwanted t-shirts in because no one was "medium-sized" this year.
  • Dates/years on swag: I personally wouldn't date myself like this. If your conference runs longer than your first year, not dating your swag allows you to give away older swag at future conferences.

These Are All Bad Ideas

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 sayhi@helenvholmes.com.

* 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.