Swag can be object-free

T-shirts that say “Another men's cut t-shirt” and tote bags that say “Another canvas tote bag.”

We’ve previously talked about corporate swag being broken. “Thanks for this bag of trash” is an absolutely fair response at a lot of conferences. You might be familiar with this sight: tables of tote bags filled with brochures and trinkets no one really wants.

A better option is spending a bit more for actually useful objects. The problem here though is even useful objects can create clutter. How many bottle openers, battery packs, and steel water bottles can one person really use? T-shirts can be useful, but not if they don’t fit properly and there definitely is such a thing as too many shirts.

We do understand it though. Conferences are a chance to get your company in front of people. It’s low-risk marketing, can help with brand recognition, and is a major recruiting opportunity. But dollar for dollar, how effective is it really? Do we even know? Unfortunately, swag can sometimes cause a negative effect for your product (especially if it’s just more of the same stuff along with twenty other companies’ swag).

So maybe your money could be spent better. In our experience, people respond to things that feel special, personal. We’ve seen the positive ripple from creating swag that is personalized and meaningful: something attendees can cherish long after the conference ends and they head home.

But this still too can create clutter. And sometimes sentimental objects create even more burden for us to hold on to them.

The inimitable Karolina Szczur recently tweeted, “Conference and company swag is environmental damage.” And she’s not wrong. At the scale many companies give away swag, it seems urgent we change our perspective on what swag can be.

Stuff we all get?

Michael Scott from The Office holds a bunch of bags and a foam finger and saysm “Swag! Stuff we all get.”

Does it need to be stuff? Could swag be object-free? Is that possible?

If it still must be physical objects, could swag be something with a tiny footprint that focuses on experience? Maybe you provide a snack with very light packaging, meant to be eaten that day. Or provide a gift card to a local coffee shop or restaurant nearby. “Take a friend out for lunch on us.”

But if we truly went object-free, what could that look like? It’s not about stuff we collect and bring home, but about experiences and community betterment. Take the money (or more) you would have spent on swag and instead maybe:

  • sponsor a local musician to play at the event
  • sponsor all-day child care for the event
  • sponsor live captioning and interpreters
  • purchase tickets for some attendees from under-represented groups
  • hire a local photographer to take professional headshots for attendees during the event
  • pay a few local designers and developers to provide portfolio or code reviews during the conference
  • buy and plant a tree for each attendee
  • donate the money to a non-profit and match attendee donations.

The way you spend money matters and people want to support and work for companies that share their values. A company that makes child care or attendance for under-represented groups possible is using its money to open opportunities for those often left out. It disrupts the status quo, it makes a difference, and people will remember it.

Spending conference and swag budgets differently would not only greatly benefit the attendees and the community, but the value is many times greater for the companies that take the chance. This generosity is long-lasting and much more impactful in building the relationships you want with your community and customers.

So what do you think? Do you see companies and conferences already heading this direction? We’d love to hear your thoughts. <3

P.S. We have a whole bunch more ideas about unique and object-free swag for your company. Let’s chat.

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