At any trade show, you'll find plenty of promotional giveaways (or “swag” in the popular vernacular). Pens, bags, mugs, posters, mints, balls, and nearly everything else you can imagine have been used to try and get people to remember a company that they visited during a show. These items range from the immediately practical (e.g., pens, and sticky notepads) to playful (e.g., stress balls and yo-yos) to ridiculous (e.g., Weepuls and temporary tattoos). A promotional item can be a powerful tool for attracting customers to your business or web site, but it can also be a waste of money, and, in some cases, it can even work against you. Here are my rules for trade show promotional items.
Rule 1: What is its primary function?
You need to answer this question before you even begin thinking about what to give away. Is the item designed to attract people to your booth at that show, or is it to get people to remember you later? For most companies, the latter is the goal, but there are occasions when what you may want is to get as many visitors to the booth as possible. For this, you want something that will be readily visible when carried by people at the show. The most common example of this is the shopping bag. In the past, these were usually plastic bags, designed to help people carry their swag, but lately, as people become more aware of ecological issues, companies are switching to reusable shopping bags, like the ones sold at most major retail stores. The advantage of the plastic bag is that it is usually printed with brighter colors than the reusable grocery bags and therefore more likely to attract attention. The downside is that most of these are good for only one thing: carry around promotional literature at a trade show. They are rarely kept more than a few weeks after a trade show, and some people may feel that they send the wrong message ecologically.
The reusable grocery bags are usually made of either a non-woven material or cloth. The cloth ones will set you back more, but they are more durable, and people keep them much longer.
As a rule, the bigger bag will always end of on top. As people wander around a show, they will stuff the smaller bags into the biggest bag. The ultimate example of this practice was seen a few years ago at Comic Con, when Warner Brothers films handed out faux burlap bags large enough to carry three weeks worth of laundry. The end effect,however, was exactly what they wanted. You could not help but notice the WB bag wherever you were on the trade show floor, and all the other bags ended up inside of the WB bag.
One of the most clever alternatives to the shopping bag I ever saw was at the IPEX show in England. Fuji was giving away small, bright orange, roller board suitcases with the company logo and their IPEX booth number silk-screened on them large enough to bee seen a few feet away. This must have cost them a pretty penny, but they were all over the show floors, and certainly caught the eye of anyone who saw them. I even found myself visiting their booth, and I had no personal need for their products! I doubt that many people kept these for very long after the show, but I don't think this mattered to Fuji. With the booth number printed so large on these roller boards, the purpose was to drive visitors to the Fuji booth. Judging by the crowds there, this item did the trick.
If the primary function of the giveaway is to get keep your company information in front of the attendee for several months, then you probably want something that will end up on their desk. While pens are popular, I think you'll find that pens often migrate to other places. Nonetheless, pens do get used and—on occasion—are looked at by customers.
If you are trying to promote a web site, one of the best giveaways you can choose is the sticky note pad. Look in any office and you will see that most monitors are covered with sticky notes. Could anyone ask for better advertising? It's like branding their monitor with your product. Every time they log on, they are looking at your web address. It is usually only a matter of time before they check it out.
I am always amazed at the number of serious businesses that give away kids toys. Here's what happens with those: the booth attendee gives it to his kid when he or she gets home and never looks at it again. In truth, they probably didn't look at it that closely at the show either. They will attract people to your booth, but for all the wrong reasons. If you just want people to visit your booth, toys may have a place in your marketing, but most of the time, they are a waste of money.
Rule #2: Does it Make Sense?
Ideally, your choice of promotional item should relate in some way to your business. This isn't always possible, but when it happens it's a good thing. A coffee company can always take advantage of a coffee mug as a giveaway, but this will also work for meeting software. The idea is to find a mnemonic relationship that makes sense. Be careful though, a manufacturer of toilets, for instance, probably shouldn't give out water bottles, unless they are intentionally going for cognitive dissonance.
Rule #3: Make it a Good One
It is possible to buy pens for as little as 10¢, but resist the temptation. Usually these cheap pens barely work and will end up aggravating the person trying to use it. Is this the message you want to send to potential clients? A good, well made pen that lasts may cost a little more, but people will keep it longer. It may even become their favorite pen. A couple years ago I received a very nice pen from Go Events Management. Every time I use it, I find myself admiring the heft and writing quality of the pen. This inevitably leads me to look at it and Go Events is reinforced in my mind in a positive way.
Rule #4: Giveaway Does Not Mean Give Away
The number one mistake that most booth personnel make is to treat giveaways with the same indifference as they treat the sales literature and mints. Too often I see booths with stacks of pens lying on the counter for anyone to take. Think of a giveaway item as a form of business card. You wouldn't walk around a trade show handing out your business card to everyone you see, so why do it with your promotional items? They are not called promotional items for nothing. I recommend handing them out only to people who might have some reason to purchase your product or services. That doesn't mean you have to be penurious: If someone asks you for one of your items, by all means let them have it. There will always be a few swag collectors that want everything (in Germany, they refer to them as “Beutelratten”: bag rats. But by not simply giving them to every student, swag collector, and passer-by, you increase the odds that those items you spent money on will end up in the hands of people who can use them to profit your business.
Giveaway items are a great way to promote your business, but they are not a panacea. They are advertising, and like all advertising, their proper application requires thought, study, and imagination.
It was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows. I thought it might be fun to compare two trade shows: one in Shanghai, and one in Tokyo. Although relatively close to each other geographically, the tenor and techniques at these trade shows could not be more different than chairs and chopsticks. Each has advantages and disadvantages. I'll let you decide which you prefer.
The Japanese have a hard-earned reputation for exactitude. This trait is in full evidence at their trade shows. You'd better have all your i's dotted and t's crossed or your booth shipments will come to a standstill until everything is in order (you'll find this is also true at German trade shows, but more on that some other time). The Japanese run things efficiently, but the price of that efficiency is an attention to detail that many Americans will find intimidating. You forgot to sign one of the sheets? No shipment. You turned the paper in at office A instead of office B? No booth. They are also sticklers about deadlines, so don't try to slip things in at the last minute. That might work in the land of McDonald's, but not in the land of the rising sun.
In Shanghai, on the other hand, an attitude of “whatever works” is the order of the day. You want to bring in more equipment after the show starts? No problem. You are missing some important papers that are required before your set-up can be completed. Okay, we'll just set things up anyway.
The biggest difference between the two cities is the difference between the behavior of the trade attendees. Suppose you have small sample on display at your booth. In America it is common to attach these with chains or string to the booth counters to make sure that they don't disappear during the show. At my first Japanese trade show, I naively asked one of the Japanese booth workers if they had some way to tie my sample books to the counters. He looked at me like I was a child. “You don't need that in Japan,” he said. In Tokyo, the samples can safely sit on the counters unattached to anything. Even if every single sample is being circulated through a large crowd at your booth, by the end of the show you'll find that all of the samples have been returned to their appropriate spots. In Shanghai, you better make sure that not only are your samples attached to the booth, but anything else that can be easily carried off is also tied down. At regular intervals, security guards come through the show with free tie strings to help with this. It is also not uncommon for fake Rolex sellers to approach you while you are working the booth. These guys are extremely pesky, but if you bother to learn a little Mandarin, you may find that this helps shoo them away.
Both the Japanese and Chinese trade shows end promptly as scheduled, but at the Shanghai show, my pallets were in the aisle a half-an-hour before the show ended. In America, a stunt like that could get you banned a show, but even with a half-an-hour left, we were one of the last booths to start packing. The Japanese show was more like the American show, except that the pallets arrived much sooner after the show (although I have, on occasion, gotten lucky and received my pallets at American shows remarkably soon after closing).
The Japanese have an interesting technique for ending trade shows. Seeing that westerners always end their New Year's celebrations by singing Auld Lang Syne, the Japanese decided that the song had something to do with ending things and going home. As a consequence, many places in Japan use this song to indicate that they are closing. There is even a station on the satellite radio there that does nothing but play Auld Lang Syne, over and over, 24 hours a day! The song starts softly at the end of the day in the Tokyo Big Site (the most popular sites in Japan for international trade shows), and slowly increases in volume until it is impossible to ignore. By then, most attendees are gone. Even so, it is far less offensive to me than those terrible theme songs used for Drupa (see previous post).
The MacWorld Expo has come to San Francisco once again, but this time, things are different—really different.
When the MacWorld show started in the eighties, it was a medium-sized show. It shared the south hall of the Moscone Center (the bigger of the two halls) with a boat show. As interest in the Mac grew, the show got larger and larger, until the boat show found itself out at the Cow Palace and MacWorld had taken over the entire south hall.
Then it really began to grow. Things peaked out in 2008, when the show filled both the north and south halls at the Moscone Center, and the newer west hall as well. The MacWorld Expo was the place to be if you were at all interested in Apple products.
But some time between 2008 and 2009 things changed. The fact that the MacWorld Expo occurred within weeks of the Comdex Show had never been much of an issue before, but with the crossover between computer technology and every other piece of technology in the house, suddenly the Comdex show had an appeal to many software and hardware manufacturers (Apple and Adobe included) that it never had before. Adobe underwent a major rethinking of there trade show strategies for 2009 and decided to skip the MacWorld Expo (they also skipped the Print show in Chicago, choosing instead to concentrate on the photo market instead of the printing market).
Then this year, Apple announced that they weren't going to bother coming to MacWorld, opting instead to release the new iPad a week earlier at a special event in essentially the same location as the MacWorld Expo. Ouch!
The end result: dozens of vendor pulled out, and the once grand MacWorld Expo shrank down to the size of the average baseball card convention. The management put up screens to close off portions of the south hall, and created large special interest pavilions to help fill things out. In the picture above, the show looks crowded, and it was. But keep in mind that what you are looking at is roughly half the show floor on the first day of the expo.
On the plus side, the keynote speaker was David Pogue, a man whom I greatly admire. I did not go to the keynote speech, but I suspect that I would have enjoyed it more than Steve Jobs. By restricting the floor space, the MacWorld people ensured that all the vendors kept busy, which probably made the vendors happy.
As a side note I also noticed a strong demographic shift in the crowd away from the twenty-somethings and yuppies of the past to people in their forties and fifties. I don't know what that means exactly, but I do suspect that this is a crowd that is more likely to have some actual purchasing power, which can only be good for the vendors.
It will be interesting to see what next year will bring for the MacWorld Expo. Perhaps we will see it at the Hyatt Regency instead of the Moscone Center. After years and years of attending this show, that would make me a little sad.