The Gifts that Keep on Giving: It’s All About the Swag

Layout of swag from Apex Global Solutions (


So you’re on board with giving gifts to clients and employees. You realize that it will add value to your business relationships. But there’s one type of gift that companies give away regularly without really considering whether they produce any ROI.

Let’s talk swag!

Walk around any trade show or expo, and you will see piles of water bottles, caps, and other junk being given away for free. Most companies that join the swag bandwagon don’t really think about what they’re trying to achieve. Instead, they just show up with a plate full of Hershey’s kisses, hoping that the chocolaty taste will somehow take their sales through the roof.

What a waste.

If you are heading to a trade show (or convention, conference, symposium, or expo), you should walk in with a solid plan of what you hope to achieve. Just as importantly, you should debrief after the show to see how your actual performance compares to your stated goals. And you should approach swag the same way: thoughtfully and deliberately. What are you trying to accomplish?

Let’s start with determining the overall category of swag that will work for your company’s goals:


Category 1: Public Swag. 

This category of swag is probably the most common. It is usually placed on a table in your booth, and it’s free for anyone to take.


You want to attract people to your booth, and you want people to take something home that will keep your company top-of-mind. 


  1. Many people who take the swag may be uninterested in your company or its products/services.
  2. You will need to have a large supply of swag, which can become expensive or limit your budget per item.

Category 2: Private swag. 

Rather than putting your swag out for anyone to take, you can place higher-value items into a drawer or box to save them for qualified prospects (see sidebar) or current customers.


You want to reward “special” visitors to your booth (e.g., those who are qualified, or those who are already customers) by giving them something to remind them of your company.


This category of swag does not attract potential customers to your booth from the get-go. 

The Lutosa booth at the Agriculture Fair Trade Expo.

Category 3: Giveaways. 

This is when you have a higher-ticket item but you only give away one. Choose a luxurious or exciting item like a wine set or a high-tech toy. The key here is to publicize it furiously, using eye-catching signage and if possible, a display of the item itself. Often, you’ll require attendees to give their contact info to be entered into the drawing or raffle.


1) You want to create buzz about your company and draw a lot of people to your booth. Because you’re only giving away one, you can make it a lot more exciting. 

2) You want to collect information about prospective customers. 


Unless you qualify them on the spot, you’ll have a high volume of low quality leads. In fact, many of the entrants may not be leads at all, or even your competitors.

An out-of-the-box booth idea from my client, Homeshield Solutions: create an Oxygen Bar for attendees to recharge. Note the large WIN! sign for their giveaway, an Oculus VR headset.


Once you’ve identified your goals and decided on the type of swag that will meet those goals, you’ll need to choose the perfect product within that category.


Qualifying Prospects

At any event, only a subset of the attendees will be relevant to your company. It’s a shame to waste time on people who aren’t your prospects at all. But unlike in a typical sales setting, you don’t have the time to spend thirty minutes in conversation with everyone you come across to determine whether they are a good fit.


So how can you quickly determine who your prospects are, all in under 60 seconds? You can create a set of “qualifying questions” to help you out. Here’s how.

  1. Determine what an “A” prospect looks like. This is a visitor to your booth who seems very likely to purchase the goods or services that your company provides. (You can also list the qualifications of a “B” prospect, who may or may not require your company’s goods or services, and a “C” prospect, who is the least likely to require them.)
  2. Work backwards to create several very direct questions that will very quickly determine the status of a given customer.
  3. Use these questions to “qualify” customers as they stop at your booth. Weed out the lower grade prospects that pass by and allocate your time and attention to the Grade A prospects. 

For example, imagine that you own a company that installs windows. You are at an event for commercial buildings with thousands of attendees. Your Grade A prospect would be a building manager, managing a commercial building (or buildings) with at least 100 offices, who is planning on doing renovations soon.

Most people would have their booth staff greet attendees with questions like these:

Hi! Are you enjoying the show?

What are you guys looking for at the show?

Can I tell you a little about Acme Windows?

These questions may put people at ease, but you will know little more about each attendee than you did before they approached your booth. Instead, you can use very tight qualifying questions like these: 

Hi! What do you do at {name of company on their badge}?

How many offices are in the building(s) you’re managing?

Are you guys planning on any exterior renovations in the next 6 months?

The Worst Swag Options

Forget about low-quality, throwaway products like candy, mouse pads, or calendars. True, they may cost only pennies to produce, but they have little to no value to attendees, and they will almost certainly end up in the trash. 

Here’s a case in point: paper literature.


I’ve been asked more than once whether to hand out trade show literature, like brochures, pamphlets, and glossies. After all, sometimes it can feel like you “need” to have materials like this at your booth. As teenagers like to say, “everyone else has them!”

The problem is that most trade show literature ends up in the garbage! In fact, according to the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, 65%+ of all hard-copy materials distributed at trade shows ends up in the trash before attendees even leave the show site! 

So while there are times where it’s unavoidable to have some paper giveaways, you typically want to provide them only to qualified attendees. You can do better, though: once you’ve carefully qualified your your prospects, mail them a glossy brochure after the show. Even with the added postage, you’ll be saving the company money and spending it on people who are most likely to turn into paying clients or customers.

I once had a client who printed 10,000 brochures each year. The company typically walked away from their premier event with 200 leads. When I started working with them, I was appalled at this ROI. That meant the overwhelming majority of people who had grabbed the brochures weren’t prospects at all. I worked with this company to create a beautiful “Idea Book,” which we then mailed to prospects who were tightly qualified. The results? Instead of 200 leads, the event generated 1,200 leads! You can read more about this story here.


The Best Swag Options

Now you know what not to use as swag.

So what should you do instead? Think about what people actually want, while making sure that you’re not going to break the bank providing it for them. (This is especially true if you’re giving away “public swag” – the first category above.)

First, consider the venue. If the event is in a beach location, think about things attendees will want, like sunglasses, beach towels, straw hats, or sunscreen. If it’s winter, think about scarves and gloves. If it’s an expo in Seattle or London, how about umbrellas or rain ponchos


Next, consider the demographics of the attendees. If your attendees are mostly parents, choose swag that they’ll be excited to bring home to their kids, like toys or costume jewelry. If your audience is into fitness, go for workout gear, jump ropes, gym bags, resistance bands, or yoga mats. If your audience is full of artists, opt for sketchpads, painting aprons, or portfolio cases. 

If your attendees will be made up of frequent travelers, consider giving away usable baggage, luggage locks, or luggage scales.


Thirdly, if the venue and attendee base don’t bring any ideas to mind, think about items that most people would use and keep around. Cool bags, office toys, or apparel sporting your brand’s name can be a great choice. If they are high-quality, attendees may use them for years. (That is why you should avoid consumable items like food or hand sanitizer if at all possible.)

Good options for office accessories include a Cable Quack organizer, a selfie light ring for Zoom calls, or a resealable salad bowl for lunches at the office. Personalize them with your company logo and you’ll be essentially reserving a spot at their desk and in their subconscious for the next few years.

In summary, look for specific products that people will want; that won’t break the bank; and that will have staying power. When you’ve hit on the perfect option, you’ll know it.


This is the third and final post in a series about corporate gifting. This post discusses the best usage of swag, or giveaways, in attracting new prospects. Part 1 provided tips towards building a client relationship through gifting, and Part 2 explained how employee gifting can increase both loyalty and productivity. See all the articles in the series here.