It’s time to evaluate whether the pens, key chains and other promotional items you hand out convert to new business for your company.


Every now and then when I want to measure a kid’s height or retrieve change that somehow found its way under my clothes dryer, I reach for a yardstick emblazoned with the name of a hardware store that closed more than 20 years ago. The yardstick itself is probably more than 30 years old.

This handy-dandy measuring and reaching tool is a testament to the long shelf life of promotional advertising items, sometimes called premiums, specialty items, or in modern slang, swag. When I look at my Thrifty Mac Hardware yardstick I can’t help but wonder if giving away branded items is still effective advertising in the age of social media.

This is a great question to ponder if you're going to be walking around the WWETT Show this week in Indianapolis. Pay attention to which exhibitors are giving away freebies. Also note what is being given away. Are the booths with the free stuff more crowded? Does item quality matter? Do some items seem highly sought after? And check the trashcans on the way out to see if advertising premiums exhibitors paid dearly for are being tossed before the recipients even leave the floor. Also notice if any tote bags, T-shirts or promotional items from previous years are making a return visit.

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Fun with freebies

At an event like a trade show, promotional items seem to pull people into a booth and can be great conversation starters. Ever hear an attendee with an arm-load of stuff ask another attendee where they got that convenient reusable shopping bag they are sporting? That bag is working overtime to send people to a specific exhibitor’s booth.

If you’re still not sure how effective promotional items can be, look around your home and office when you get back from the show. How many items do you use every day with another company’s logo on them? Which items are the most useful to you and does having the item increase your likelihood of doing business with the company who gave it to you?

Promotional items certainly last longer than radio and TV advertising. And while we warn our kids that anything posted on social media is accessible on the internet forever, you have to look harder for an old Facebook post than a branded pad of sticky notes on your desk.

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Some businesses use promotional items as a thank-you to current or past customers. Others give them out to any potential customers. Some companies give their branded items away like candy, just setting out a bowl of pens and letting anyone grab as many as they want, while others have employees use the items themselves and hand them out judiciously as part of the sales process. Step one is to determine the audience you are buying promotional items for, and why.

Smart choices

The next step is deciding what to give away. If you are considering purchasing branded promotional items, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Choose something useful. While usefulness is in the eye of the receiver, I’m guessing in 2017 few people have use for a paperweight. Fewer smokers and higher fire safety standards have made advertising lighters almost obsolete. Anything related to CDs is outdated since many new cars don’t have CD players and laptops don’t have CD drives these days. And those USB drives that became a hot handout a few years ago may still be useful today, but may be on their way out as more and more people use cloud storage.

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On the useful side, everyone has hands, lips and a nose — and lip balm, tissue packets and small lotions can be purchased with a company logo on the package. These items can be kept in a desk drawer, glove box or purse, reminding the recipient of your company for months.

Choose something interesting. A pen, while useful, might seem ordinary, but once you start shopping you’ll realize that there are pens in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some feature a clip to attach the pen to a purse or backpack. Some pens are bendy or have a unique texture, while others include fun tops users can fidget with. There are even pens that come with a stylus on one end to keep the user’s smartphone or tablet screen smudge-free. Speaking of smartphones, branded phone cases might not be well-received since devices come in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Choose an item that represents your company. For a funeral home to give out something frivolous like a Frisbee or a kazoo would be odd to say the least. A pet store giving out Frisbees or a music store with their logo on plastic kazoos make sense.

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A free promotional item doesn’t have to relate directly to the industry you are in. Just don’t leave recipients scratching their heads and saying, “Well, that’s odd,” when they receive an item with your company name on it. Given the nature of the wastewater business, for example, I wouldn’t advise handing out branded toothbrushes.

Consider delivery. Before you order that really cool ceramic coffee mug or oversized golf umbrella with your company logo on it, consider how you are going to be distributing these gifts. A refrigerator magnet is cheap to mail; a coffee mug is not. Is there room in your van or suitcase to take 1,000 water bottles to a local tradeshow, or would something smaller and lighter work better?

Go for shelf life. Speaking of water bottles, make sure you are getting enough bang for your buck when you decide to give something away. Sure, parade-goers in your town may appreciate a cold bottle of water with your company name on its custom printed label, but it’s a one-time-use item. A refillable water bottle, on the other hand, can be used (and seen) for years.

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Don’t dismiss the classics. A T-shirt is a walking billboard, and pens can change hands many times before they run dry. Just remember, cheapest isn’t always best. Consider what something of poor quality says about your business, and how it’s unlikely someone will use a cheap item even once. A good quality shirt can promote your business for years. One that shrinks the first time it is washed might be used to wash a car one time. Giving away cheap throwaway trinkets adds plastic to the waste stream, whereas an item with a useful life gives your company a more environmentally responsible image.

Super swag?

Share your thoughts on promotional advertising items with us. What’s the coolest piece of swag you’ve ever picked up at a tradeshow or from someone you do business with back home? What items has your company given away? Were they worth the investment? And what’s the oldest advertising premium you still use regularly? Can you top my decades-old yardstick?


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