Human Capital Management Blog

Strategies for HCM Professionals

Love Your Swagger!

Kristina ClearyBy Kristina Cleary, Chief Marketing Officer, Ceridian

Another tradeshow is coming down the pipe; seeing the event date looming, as a marketer you can’t help but feel the stress rising as you think through how you are going to once again drive traffic to your booth, deliver the promised leads required to fill your pipeline commitments, and generate brand awareness in an expo hall filled with countless vendor booths.  In looking through a marketer’s bag of tricks, the question always becomes: how to balance giveaways (aka SWAG), promotions, and entertainment with the differentiating messages and business benefits you must deliver to the event’s target market.

A recent Facebook post from a close industry colleague of mine prompted me to pause and give thought to the value of SWAG and the show spectacles that run alongside a vendor’s booth during these tradeshows. The post linked to his blog deriding swag and posing the question: “should all swag be banned from events?” The reasoning behind it being that giving away swag cheapens the target audience’s profession, distracts from the learning and information sharing conferences are supposed to be about – and don’t the conference goers look foolish running around scooping it up?

As a professional myself, I attend many functions both as vendor and as an attendee, so I’ve lived both sides of the ‘swag lifecycle’ if you will. I want to express some thoughts in defense of swag and highlight studies and research that point definitively to its value.

So before you make your mind up about swag, consider these pros:

1. An undeniable conversation starter. Look, yes swag is swag. Another blinking pen, a bouncy ball, a tricolored pen. They are all there; as an attendee I will literally start my conversation with: “I need something for my kid. Can I grab this?” And ultimately, a conversation starts no matter what. Even if I am not interested in the vendors’ product, a conversation of interest — even if it is simply around my family — ensues. Call it networking, call it being human. By stopping to pick it up and talk, I have met another interesting person in the world – all because of swag.

2. It’s science! When we give something, even if it’s just something small, people want to return the favor. We’re hardwired to do so. It’s called the reciprocity effect: “the conditioned cultural response to return the kindness of a gift – which can manifest itself in better response rates, repeat business, and referrals” as Jerry Mclaughlin wrote for Fast Company. Okay, you might be thinking, but that only applies to ‘real’ gifts, something substantial or thoughtful, and not that daily planner with your company logo I picked up at the APA’s Annual Congress. Not true! Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote in his book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ that this impulse to reciprocate exists regardless of the value of the gift – so yes, that lowly blinking pen can trigger a person’s impulse to stop and reciprocate, even if it is just by letting you scan their ID badge, that contact info can turn to gold down the line.

3. Not all swag is created equal. I will argue on the vendor side, not all swag is equal. At Ceridian, we try to incorporate an experience into our booth around our giveaway or promotion. At this year’s most recent SHRM conference, we featured a custom t-shirt station, with non-promotional graphics showcasing FUN sayings related to the HR function. Why not incorporate some fun, great messaging about a profession, collect industry information, and have a conversation starter about your solutions all in one booth visit? This latest event experience resulted in hundreds of quality conversations, qualified leads, and requests for product demonstrations. Mission accomplished at the Ceridian booth!

4. Building brand familiarity. The more that people see your brand, the more familiar with it they become; swag helps with this, even if its just wearing your t-shirt at the gym. Why is this important? Well, lots of work has been put into studying why people tend to prefer things – people’s faces, paintings, even sounds – that they have been exposed to often, a phenomenon known as the ‘mere-exposure effect’. Social psychologists call this the familiarity principle and when applied to advertising and marketing, it’s the idea that when someone is familiar with your company or product it can positively influence their buyer’s journey – pretty powerful stuff for the humble swag.

5. Everyone likes free stuff. Whether you are an office clerk, HR administrator, CFO or CEO, everyone likes free stuff! Of course they do! When you get a field trip out of the office, having an opportunity to bring an event souvenir home, to your work or home family, is always part of the fun.

After leading marketing teams in the HCM industry for almost two decades, I can reflect upon years and years of APA Congress shows, SHRM events, and HR Tech conferences, along with vendor booth successes and failures; drawing on that experience I implicitly know the power of creating an in-booth experience combined with meaningful promotional items to engender conversations, draw attention, and create a level of awareness you wouldn’t otherwise achieve – but the question is, is there real proof?

Short answer: yes. For the full story, you could read ‘Advertising Specialties Impressions Study: A cost analysis of promotional products versus other advertising media’ by the Advertising Specialty Institute where you’ll learn that:

  • 84% of respondents remembered the brand of the promotional products they received. So, a definite boost to brand familiarity!
  • A little over 40% of respondents had a more favorable impression of a company after receiving an item from them – that’s the familiarity principle and possibly the reciprocity effect in action.
  • Swag is one of your best bang for the buck around. The average cost per impression (CPI) of a promotional item is $0.004 which is a steal.

And if you think all those giveaways just get junked at the end of the show, not so; again, research provided by the Advertising Specialty Institute shows how:

  • Respondents kept wearable swag for nearly 7 months, on average
  • Just over 30% of glassware or ceramic items were used once a week and 25% were used once per day – that’s a lot of chances to build up brand familiarity and I’d say proof of my point that everyone likes free stuff.

Finally, I’ll close by saying this. Swag is a choice. You don’t have to collect it or like it. As a professional, if you are attending an event and go heads down for education, training and vendor discussions, I support your approach.  If you are a vendor and decide to ban swag from your booth, again, hats off to you (or should I say no hats…). The bottom line? Everyone has the choice to refrain from participating in free swag; but me? I happen to love creating a differentiated experience around our brand for event attendees. I would encourage all tradeshow exhibitors to think outside the swag box, to create a unique experience tied to your brand, and love your swagger!

Kristina Cleary, or KC as she’s known around the hallways of Ceridian’s offices, leads global marketing for Dayforce HCM, the award-winning, single application for human capital management, Global Solutions and Small Business Payroll. An avid runner, when KC isn’t chasing her two children, she’s out running from conference to client site talking about what’s happening in the HCM industry.


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