Conference Swag: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Well, it’s June again. The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, the flowers are blooming, and from across the world, professionals are gathering for annual conventions, conferences and seminars. They’re attending wonderful breakout sessions, meeting their peers at exposition halls and yadda yadda yadda… let’s talk about something really important: oodles and oodles of conference swag!

Need some branded pencils? What about a hangover recovery kit? Eyeglasses cleaner? A Newton’s Cradle for the kids? Yet another USB flash drive? Just attend a conference, folks!

#FalseFact: Did you know that 60% of the planet Earth’s mass is now made up of conference swag?

The powers that be have learned their lesson and refuse to uncuff us poor, lowly social media strategists from our desks to actually attend most of these conferences, so I can only dream about what fabulous toys you might be playing with right now. Why not send some pictures of your wonderful goodies to @thedmsgrp on Twitter?And, in the meantime, I’ll bide myself with a list of the good things I hope Santa is dropping into your attendee bags (and the branded lumps of coal I hope he’s giving to the naughty children).

The Good Swag

Mobile Device Chargers

I will be the first to say that passing out things like car chargers is kind of tired, but you can never have too many mobile chargers on hand. On a recent trip with only a single wall plug to go around, a high-capacity mobile device charger was the only thing that allowed us to keep multiple cell phones and cameras charged.

On a similar note, given their penchant for breaking within an inch of the plug, I generally think USB cables are a poor gift. But consider retractable USB cables or some quality lightning cables instead.

Plush Toys

Who doesn't love a good plush toy? Provided, of course, that it's slightly clever. To the right, you can see one of the gifts handed out at an American Academy of Clinical Chemistry conference. Is there a better prize for laboratory professionals to bring home to their loved ones than a huggle Herbie, the Herpes Virus?

Local and Seasonal Items

In Seattle? How about giving out an umbrella. In Maine? Consider branded lobster bibs. The idea is to distribute something that reminds people about your brand, but also proves useful and commemorates the specific event they’re attending.


Personalized magnetic screw drivers, flash lights, tape measures, carabineers and multi-tools (provided they don’t have anything on them that will be confiscated by the TSA… see section below) are all great ideas.


The Bad Swag

Flash Drives

So, look, yeah, cloud services have kind of obviated the need to have tons of USB drives floating around. It’s still good to have one or two, but not the crappy USB drives passed out at trade shows. Usually, in order to save money, a company opts to give USB drives in the smallest size that still allows them to fit their latest whitepaper on it. Lame.

If you want to make your branded flash drive sticky, try these two tactics:

  • Make the available space at least 8gb, so it’s still useful after the recipients delete your whitepaper (probably without ever reading it).

  • Make the design of the flash drive unique enough that people view it as a keepsake. The picture in this section is a flash drive produced by the public radio program Radiolab as a pledge drive gift. The design commemorates the “Goat on a Cow” story, the exemplar for what they like to accomplish with their stories, and the flash drive was large enough to hold every episode from the first five seasons of Radiolab.


I don’t want your crappy pens. I don’t know how else to say it. I am a finicky pen guy. (The feel of writing with a ballpoint is like nails on a chalkboard for me. Rollerball 4 lyfe!) But even if I wasn’t a pen snob, your cheap pens suck. The clips tend to break off too quickly. Sometimes they leak. And who uses pens anymore anyway?

Still set on giving out a writing utensil? Try these ideas:

  • Give out branded sharpies. As little as I use pens, I tend to use sharpies for everything from quick post-it notes to elaborate “Gone Fishing” posters indicating when I’m out of the office. If moms are in your target market, think about how often they have to write their kids’ names on stuff heading to school. Sharpies get some serious use.

  • Distribute quality pens people want to keep around. Fisher Space Pens and Rite in the Rain waterproof pens are on this list.

  • Create memorable experiences. A few years back, Capcom commissioned creative group iam8bit to produce Zombrex, a stealth experience that climaxed at the Game Developer’s Conference in what appeared to be a pharmaceutical company’s booth. They were issuing vaccinations against a supposed zombie plague. The vaccination itself was a syringe-shaped pen that left an ink dot on the recipients’ skin (which led to hordes  of shambling conference participants sporting immunization ink spots), and visitors also received vaccination kits with additional syringe-shaped pens so they could immunize and protect friends, family and coworkers. Now that’s a sticky idea.

Anything that Will Get Stopped by the TSA

Branded knives, stun gunspepper spray, throwing axes… unless you’re also offering a special service to have these items shipped home, giving these out is a great way to ensure  your promotional items end up in the airport trash or  your booth visitors have uncomfortable interviews with TSA officials.

What the best and worst swag you’ve ever seen at conferences? Drop us a line on Twitter @dmsgrp and let us know.

About the Author

Digital Media Solutions

Digital Media Solutions, Inc. (NYSE: DMS) is a leading provider of technology and digital performance marketing solutions leveraging innovative, performance-driven brand and marketplace solutions to connect consumers and advertisers. DMS proprietary technology solutions, significant proprietary media distribution and data-driven processes help large brands steadily acquire more customers. For more information visit https://digitalmediasolutions.com.

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